Japan Seeks to Promote ‘Correct’ View of Wartime Past

Japan is stepping up a campaign to promote a “correct understanding” of its wartime past, in a move that may anger China and South Korea ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in August.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament on Thursday he was “stunned” at the content of a U.S. history textbook. The book states Japan forcibly recruited as many as 200,000 women and girls to serve in military brothels across Asia before and during the war and massacred many of them to hide the truth.

“The fact that this kind of textbook is being used in the U.S. is a result of our not asserting our view properly or not showing international society what needs to be corrected,” Abe said. “In the international community, one does not gain a good reputation by holding back. We must make assertions when necessary.”

Japan is expanding a Justice Ministry bureau to handle lawsuits that Abe said “seriously affect the nation’s honor,” even as clashing interpretations of its wartime actions and territorial disputes have hurt ties with neighboring countries. Since coming to office two years ago, Abe has yet to hold a summit with South Korean President Park Geun Hye, and his first formal talks last year with Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared awkward.

Abe’s 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen by many in both countries as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, has also hampered attempts at rapprochement.

Textbook Request

The government recently petitioned textbook publisher McGraw-Hill Education Inc. and author Herbert F Ziegler, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii, to revise the textbook “Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past.”

The publisher defended its book in an e-mailed statement, saying “scholars are aligned behind the historical fact of ‘comfort women’ and we unequivocally stand behind the writing, research and presentation of our authors.”

Discrepancies exist over the number of so-called comfort women. A 1998 United Nations study claims more than 200,000 women were forced into sexual servitude -- matching the figure in the textbook -- while Ikuhiko Hata, a Nihon University professor who claims no forcible recruitment occurred, puts the number at 20,000.

Many nationalists in Japan say that the government wasn’t involved in the recruitment of comfort women, and many went of their own free will as prostitutes.

Honor Hurt

Abe’s comments in parliament came after Tomomi Inada, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, asked whether the government could become involved in lawsuits to protect the country’s reputation, saying preserving national honor was a duty of the government.

The number of lawsuits that hurt Japan’s honor is increasing, Abe said. “We will set up a new bureau in the Justice Ministry to deal with them and tackle them strategically.” He added that the Foreign Ministry would also be involved in gaining a “correct understanding” in the international community.

Nancy Snow, the author of several books on public diplomacy, said the government’s campaign is bad public relations.

“It’s a negative spotlight that puts Japan on the defensive, when it should be looking toward the future,” Snow said. “Japan should be projecting a ‘welcome to the neighborhood’ tone to the world, promoting both more cooperation with its regional neighbors and a peaceful leader profile, not one mired down in contested histories.”

Compensation Claims

Japan says all postwar claims for compensation have been settled under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and various bilateral treaties. Yet in 1993, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized to the comfort women, and two years later Japan established a compensation fund, which attracted public donations.

The government should change a policy that is “seriously undermining Japan’s stature in the international community,” said Annelise Riles, professor of Far East legal studies at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, New York.

“Japan’s best strategy here would be to follow the German model and negotiate a settlement package for victims that would bar future private claims in all jurisdictions,” Riles said. “Otherwise this issue will haunt the country politically and financially for a generation to come.”

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