The History the Japanese Government Is Trying to Erase

The History the Japanese Government Is Trying to Erase

The History the Japanese Government Is Trying to Erase

Failing to teach what the wartime state did only emboldens the forces of misogyny and racism.


It was predictable that most of the early online harassment would target the one Japanese member of our group. As we prepared what would become an open letter demanding retraction of Harvard Law School professor J. Mark Ramseyer’s article claiming that Korean “comfort women” were contractually bound prostitutes, we had braced ourselves for abuse. Ramseyer’s piece bolstered the ultranationalist Japanese worldview that rehabilitates Japan’s history of militarism and colonialism and denies the coercive and brutal nature of much of that era’s violence. Although it appeared in an obscure law and economics journal, the far right in Japan embraced it as “cutting edge” research. The Japanese far-right newspaper Sankei Shimbun introduced the article’s claims as definitive scholarly confirmation that “comfort women” were not sexual slaves. It made front-page news in Korea, and was discussed and debated on television and in print for weeks.

The five of us—Amy Stanley, Hannah Shepherd, David Ambaras, Sayaka Chatani, and myself—had worked around the clock, producing a constant stream of texts and Google doc updates, in an intense two weeks of checking and rechecking each other’s work. We found it difficult to believe the extent to which the short article distorted and misused evidence. After we published our letter, the journal, the International Review of Law and Economics, issued an “expression of concern” and said that it is reviewing the article. That, of course, didn’t stop Japanese cybernationalists from dismissing the non-Japanese among us as ignorant and “anti-Japanese” and labeling Sayaka a race traitor.

The “comfort women” first became figures of international controversy in 1991, when Kim Hak-sun came forward under her real name as a survivor of the Japanese military’s “comfort station” system. Although the sufferings of “comfort women” had been an open secret, feminism as a transnational social movement in East Asia made it possible for people to care about how war created gendered forms of violence, particularly sexual violence.

Democratization in South Korea also created space for previously unheard voices to ask about the terms under which all Japan’s wartime atrocities had been settled by the 1965 agreement that normalized relations between Japan and South Korea. So when Kim and other survivors spoke out, South Korean society as well as feminist activists and academics in Japan were ready to listen. And what did they hear? That an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 “comfort women” were conscripted, often with force, from across Japanese-occupied territory; they were Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipina, Indonesian, and Dutch. But the majority of non-Japanese “comfort women” came from the Korean Peninsula. Kim testified that she had been taken to a Japanese military comfort station in China at the age of 17, where she was raped daily by multiple soldiers. When she tried to run away, she was recaptured and raped again. She was eventually able to escape with the help of a Korean merchant who became her husband. But many women did not survive this ordeal, and many others remained silent. The cases of a few remaining survivors continue to be heard in South Korean courts and remain a sticking point in Korea–Japan diplomacy.

We had discussed possible scenarios with scholars and activists who have published on topics sensitive to the right wing in Japan before—not only “comfort women” but also territorial disputes and the emperor system in Japan. I was told that Japan’s infamous Internet right wing, or neto uyo, often limited its activism to social media. As the only scholar in our small group physically based at a university in Japan, though, I remained nervous. I had seen Uemura Takashi, a former journalist for the progressive Asahi Shimbun, at an event at Sophia University in Tokyo in 2015. He was just beginning to discuss the campaign of harassment he had experienced since reporting on the “comfort women” in the early 1990s: death threats and a bomb threat to the university at which he now works. An anti-Korean blog posted a photograph of Uemura’s teenage daughter inviting viewers to convince her to kill herself. At the event I attended, an older Japanese man stood up in the audience to berate Uemura for fabricating the “comfort women” history. Uemura’s face turned red, his voice pinched and tense. The far right in Japan had latched onto him as a target, and they would never let go; the far right still hounds Uemura.

It didn’t take long for cybernationalists to invoke Uemura’s name. On February 27, journalist Ishii Takaaki, after calling Sayaka “contemptible,” tweeted: “I think a future like that of Uemura’s waits for you though.” When I called it out as a threat, I was rewarded with several tweets from Ishii calling me “rude” and a “typical feminist” unable to speak Japanese. (I’ve lived in Japan off and on since I was 15, and have worked and taught at Japanese universities in Japanese for the past seven years. I may be a “rude” feminist, but my Japanese is fine.)

At Ishii’s request, many of his 106,000 followers wrote in to “clarify” the issue with me. His tweets prompted an overwhelming barrage of threats, misogyny, and xenophobic disdain. I had stumbled into a confrontation with an infamous online agitator; he ultimately reached out to me to de-escalate, likely anxious to avoid another libel suit. I discovered that he had already paid out at least 5.5 million yen (more than $50,000) to settle a libel suit from 2018, in which he attacked the ethnically Korean writer and activist Shin Su-gok as a North Korean spy and “sleeper cell” on Twitter. And this wasn’t his only online libel case, just his most costly.

After consulting with journalists who had been attacked by the neto uyo before, I deleted tweets about Ishii and locked my account for a bit; the neto uyo crowed over their success, and eventually moved on. We each in our turn had this kind of experience. In the meantime, Ramseyer has become something of a cybernationalist hero. Far-right accounts now feature his photograph as their profile picture. Some lawmakers in Japan have embraced support for Ramseyer as a cause. Arimura Haruko, a conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) legislator and member of the openly revisionist organization Nippon Kaigi, posted a video of her bringing up Ramseyer’s peer-reviewed piece at a March 22 session of the House of Councilors, Japan’s upper house of parliament. The Education and Science Committee diplomatically noted that they are aware of criticism of Ramseyer’s piece in South Korea, the United States, and Japan, but expressed concern that demands for retraction threatened “freedom of speech.”

If this were only a matter of a far-right fringe, it might be safe to ignore it. But the Japanese government is engaged in its own historical revisionism. Currently, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs webpage on “Japan’s Efforts on the Issue of Comfort Women” (most recently edited on April 13, 2021) rejects the description of “forceful taking away” and “sex slaves” regarding “comfort women.”

While the Japanese government has not formally retracted the 1993 Kōno Statement, which announced the findings of a government study confirming Japanese military involvement and coercion in the creation of the “comfort women” system, it has been inserting doubt into the historical narrative since the late 1990s, when Abe Shinzō, then a rising star in the ruling LDP, campaigned against what he and other nationalists dubbed “masochistic history.” Abe and others on the right are invested in recuperating Japan’s violent past as part of their project to dismantle Japan’s postwar “peace constitution” and project Japanese military power in the world today. They successfully lobbied against inclusion of the history of “comfort women” textbooks, and by 2014 no government-authorized textbook in Japan included any mention of “comfort women.”

The effects of this right-wing campaign against teaching the history of the “comfort women” is something I witness each semester, when I teach a unit about “the history wars about historical wars” in East Asia to a class of undergraduates mostly educated in Japan. Before we begin the unit, I ask them if they have ever heard the term ianfu, “comfort woman,” and if they have, where they heard it and what they understand the phrase to mean.

My students are often unsure about how to define a “comfort woman.” Most of them understand that “comfort woman” is a euphemism for women forced to provide sex to soldiers in the imperial Japanese military. Many of my students report they learned about “comfort women” primarily through the news, if at all, often in the context of contemporary Japan–South Korea relations, and often report that they can’t understand why South Korea keeps making demands when Japan “already apologized” and “gave a lot of money.” There also remains a great deal of confusion about coercion. Were “comfort women” “just” prostitutes? Didn’t the 1965 Japan–South Korea Treaty settle everything? Didn’t Japan apologize?

My students’ puzzled questions reflect the failure of the promise of the Kōno Statement to “never to repeat the same mistake by forever engraving such issues in our memories through the study and teaching of history.” The misogyny and racism embedded not only within the Japanese Empire but also within the victorious Allied Forces delayed a full accounting of the abuses of the “comfort women” system. The Allies only convicted Japanese officers involved in the forcible recruitment of white Dutch women in Batavia, in what is now Indonesia, but largely ignored the suffering of Asian “comfort girls,” as they were referred to in US wartime reports. Today, after decades of scholarship has established the brutal nature of the “comfort women” system, forces of misogyny and racism in the Japanese state align to deny the abuses.

In 2015, under Prime Minister Abe, the Japanese government doubled its “strategic overseas dissemination” annual budget to 41.2 billion yen (about $375 million), in part to counter South Korean activism on behalf of “comfort women” recognition. In 2018, the budget rose further to 59 billion yen (about $538 million) a year. Along with more general cultural diplomacy—cultural and academic exchange—this enormous sum is deployed to communicate “Japan’s correct stance” on territorial issues and historical issues, particularly that of the “comfort women.” The aim is the “cultivation of cohorts who are pro-Japanese and knowledgeable about Japan,” in the words of Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio, in 2016.

The Japanese far right has to date been largely unsuccessful in finding Anglophone “knowledgeable” “pro-Japanese” cohorts that will deny the coercion of wartime “comfort women,” except for a few oddballs. Cybernationalists on Twitter often recommend that I learn about the “comfort women” from the YouTube videos from “Texas Daddy,” a retired electrician living in Texas who does not speak Japanese and whose “Propaganda Buster” videos are often subtitled by supporters into Japanese. (A recent video address by Ramseyer to supporters in Japan can also be found on Texas Daddy’s YouTube channel.) The website for the APA (Always Pleasant Amenities) Group—a company that runs hotels—often features interviews with former lawyer and Japanese TV personality Kent Gilbert, who won their eighth annual True Interpretations of Modern History essay contest, which bestows a large monetary prize. This year’s contest is advertising a top award of 5 million yen (about $45,000) and a year-long pass to APA hotels nationwide. The APA Group is headed by Motoya Toshio, a Japanese billionaire. Along with denying the coercion of “comfort women” and the Nanjing Massacre, Motoya has also espoused conspiracies about Jewish control of information, finance, and laws. While such right-wing revisionist accounts of wartime can exploit general ignorance about the historical details and evidence and dominate many online spaces, including Japanese Wikipedia, such work has made no headway in academic spaces in English.

This is the significance of Ramseyer’s recent work. Ramseyer, in contrast with Texas Daddy and Kent Gilbert, holds a Mitsubishi-endowed position at Harvard Law School. His recent article provided far-right ultranationalists in Japan with a long-coveted victory. The road to that article’s publication was paved with a rational-choice theory contemptuous of history and by beliefs that make it possible to argue that a 10-year-old girl was a “rational actor” who could sell herself into indentured sexual servitude. It was further facilitated by an English-language social scientific subculture’s ignorance about East Asian history and of the political stakes surrounding that history. Happily, the transnational response by scholars and activists denying the denialism has been robust, and has stimulated a new set of networks to share sources and information. Important debates remain—but this bad history has been rejected outright.

I have thought a lot about the meaning of history when I teach the “comfort women” issue in my classroom. We work through how to understand how we know what we know about the past, so we can better evaluate sources and truth claims, paying close attention to context and complexity. I don’t teach about this uncomfortable history to cultivate “masochists,” and have not found that those who become interested in further researching the “comfort women” come to hate Japan or themselves. I find, instead, that their historical curiosity and empathy create a stronger basis for international cooperation. It takes education like this to counter the countless abuses of history. In failing to teach what the wartime state did, the Japanese government only emboldens the forces of misogyny and racism and cultivates new generations of violence. And that should frighten us all.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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