Is Japan rewriting the history of World War II?

Is Japan rewriting the history of World War II?

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Will changing the narrative, deleting historical fact, become Prime Minister Abe's next crusade?

WASHINGTON, February 20, 2015 — As we approach the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific, there is troubling evidence that today’s Japanese government is in the process of re-writing history. Among other things, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to play down the Japanese Army’s use of “comfort women” during the war.

These women, many of whom were Korean, have become a major source of contention between the Japanese and South Korean governments.

Most recently, the Japanese attempted to get McGraw Hill, an American publishing house, to remove two paragraphs about comfort women from a college textbook.

The book, “Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past,” says the Japanese army “forcibly recruited, conscripted, and dragooned as many as 200,000 women aged 14 to 20 to serve in military brothels, called ‘comfort houses.'”

It also says that the Japanese imperial army “massacred large numbers of comfort women to cover up the operation.”

McGraw Hill refused to change the textbook, saying that “scholars are aligned behind the historical fact of ‘comfort women'” and that it “unequivocally” stands behind the book. A letter signed by 19 American historians called upon their Japanese counterparts to remain steadfast in the face of pressure from their government to play down atrocities.

“We stand with the many historians in Japan and elsewhere who have worked to bring to light the facts about this and other atrocities of World War II.”

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Prof. Alexis Dudden of the University of Connecticut, one of the organizers of the letter, said, “When you start targeting history, then go across borders, then we as historians have to stand up in solidarity for what we do. We do not want to be seen as Japan-bashing. It’s the opposite of Japan-bashing. It’s a statement in support of our Japanese colleagues.”

Herbert Ziegler, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii and co-author of the textbook, said the Japanese request to remove the paragraphs was “an infringement of my freedom of speech and my academic freedom.”

He reports that he received an e-mail from an official in the Japanese consulate in Hawaii late last year requesting a meeting to discuss the passages. He declined. Later, Ziegler said, two officials showed up in his university office and “just came in and sat down and started telling me how wrong I was. It’s a very strange game that they’re playing here.”

Prime Minister Abe denounced the textbook in a speech in Parliament in January. He vowed to step up efforts to fight what he called mistaken views concerning Japan’s wartime actions, when the Japanese military conquered much of Asia.

Denying that Japan was an aggressor in World War II, Abe claims that its goal was to liberate Asia from Western domination. Both China and South Korea, two victims of Japan’s militarism, have called Mr. Abe a “revisionist” out to whitewash Japanese wartime atrocities.

In November, Japan’s biggest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, apologized to its readers for using the term “sex slaves” and “other inappropriate expressions” to describe the women forced to work in Japanese brothels during World War II.

This came amid a concerted campaign by Prime Minister Abe to rewrite Japan’s wartime history and cast it in a better light. This will be difficult to do because the record of Japanese brutality is clear.

This brutality was depicted in the recent movie “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Joli. The movie, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, is the story of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic track star whose plane crashed in the Pacific during World War II and who spent two and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

He was brutalized by his captors, starved, tortured physically and psychologically, and worked nearly to death. Many men died from such abuse. Zamperini endured and lived long enough to cooperate with both the book and the movie, dying just last year at the age of 97.

Reviewers in Japan were not pleased with the movie.

Japan’s brutality during World War II is so extensive, and so well-documented, that Abe would do well to abandon his efforts and, instead, follow in the path of his predecessors who apologized for Japan’s war crimes.

In 193l, Japan invaded Nanking, China, which had a population of just over a million. On Dec. 13, the city fell to the invading troops. For the next six weeks, the soldiers indulged in an orgy of indiscriminate killing, rape and looting. Red Cross units alone buried 43,000 bodies.

About 20,000 women and girls had been raped, most of whom were then murdered. It is estimated that over 150,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were killed. This event is known historically as “The Rape of Nanking.”

Will changing this story become Abe’s next crusade?

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Japan treated its prisoners of war in a barbaric manner, consistent with the depictions in the movie “Unbroken.”

In April 1942, American prisoners were forced to embark upon the Bataan Death March during which hundreds died. Japan established a medical research team, Unit 731, that conducted experiments on captured enemy soldiers.

The unit engaged in many atrocities, including vivisections without anesthetic on living men, removing organs or limbs for some alleged medical purpose.

Before becoming prime minister, and at least once since assuming office, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where many World War II figures, including war criminals, are memorialized. To all those who endured Japanese brutality during the war, this honor for those buried at Yasukuni is considered highly offensive. It is as if the German Chancellor were to suddenly decide to embrace the Nazi dead and try to revise our historical understanding of the Holocaust.

Totalitarian regimes have a long record of re-writing history to serve their contemporary needs. For today’s democratic Japan to engage in such an enterprise, which its prime minister appears to be doing, can only damage the good name which post-war Japan has earned.

History, however unpleasant, must be confronted, just as we are confronting events in our own past such as slavery. As Cicero (106-43 B.C.) wrote, “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.  What is a human life worth unless it is incorporated into the lives of one’s ancestors and set in a historical context?”


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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.