In February 1942, after sinking the SS Vyner Brooke off the coast of Bangka Island near the Java Sea, the occupying Imperial Japanese gave the Australian and European women who survived a choice: they could starve in a prison camp on Sumatra or sign a document to provide sexual services on demand for Japanese troops.
This episode and many others like it during the war in the Pacific have reverberated over the generations. On Friday, nearly eighty years later, this history will underlie President Joe Biden’s summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
The White House apparently invited Suga to be the first foreign leader to visit the White House in order to mirror Suga’s predecessor Shinzo Abe’s pre-inauguration meeting with Donald Trump in 2017—and to cover for the impending conflict over values. Although the U.S.-Japan Alliance is heralded as rock solid, opinion writers have been quick to point out the mercurial state of American foreign policy. They try to brush aside what the President might ask of Suga by saying that Americans change course very quickly and unexpectedly. In other words, Japan does not need to take the meeting over values too seriously.
All of this is a deflection from Japan’s responsibility for the rift in the Alliance. The Suga Administration has accelerated a project started under the Abe Administration to manipulate and rewrite the history of the Pacific War, and particularly of women and girls trafficked and coerced into military brothels throughout the areas occupied by Japan during World War II—known as Comfort Women.
Despite well-established history of the many ways in which women and girls of multiple nationalities were forced into sexual slavery to Imperial Japan’s military, the Japanese government tries to present the issue simply as one between Japan and an overwrought, never satisfied South Korea. The result has eroded trust between these two major American allies, and frustrated Washington.
At the heart of the problem lies the question of whether or not the Japanese government admits that Japan’s military was responsible for the Comfort Women system, and accepts that the women and girls involved were recruited by deception or coercion. A 1993 statement issued by Japan’s then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged the role of the military in the comfort women system, including the fact that “at the time administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments,” and admitted that some women had been recruited through coercion.
The Japanese government states that they have “inherited” the Kono Statement, carefully avoiding any promise to “uphold,” “commit to” or “fulfill” the promises of the Statement. Instead, conservative governments have steadily promoted the view that there are no documents that show forcible removal of any women by military or government officials. A review of the history of the Statement, supervised by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga in 2014, implied that Japan had caved in to pressure from the Korean government, undermining public confidence in the Statement’s content.
The Statement, in fact, has been so diminished that the government has recently announced it will no longer use the term “military comfort women” or “so-called military comfort women” (the expressions used in the Kono Statement): the word “military” has been removed from this phrase because it highlights the role of Japan’s armed forces in the comfort women system.
A recent academic article by Harvard Law Professor Mark Ramseyer has helped to fuel Japan’s development of a revisionist narrative that depicts the Comfort Women as willing prostitutes. Astonishingly, this article presents all Japanese and Korean Comfort Women as contractual workers under Japan’s prostitution system, in which (Ramseyer suggests) children as young as ten-years-old knowingly and voluntarily negotiated prostitution contracts. Some Japanese ruling party politicians have enthusiastically promoted this version of history, while the Japanese Education Minister has publicly suggested that Ramseyer’s article is part of the process by which we “approach the truth” of history.
Tokyo’s position is so antithetical to any contemporary understanding of trafficking and sexual violence in warfare that American policymakers must be stunned. The Japanese government’s blanket denial of forced recruitment of comfort women not only contradicts irrefutable evidence of force in multiple cases; it also shows a fundamental lack of understanding of sex trafficking and sexual slavery. This is because the Japanese authorities do not see the skewed power relationship nor comprehend the psychology of coercion.
The dispute itself is the tip of much larger and troubling “history wars”: part of a push to revise memories of the Asia Pacific War as a whole. Last month, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced that one of its main strategic objectives for 2021 was a further expansion of the government budget for telling its version of history internationally. With Tokyo demanding the removal of Comfort Women memorials from sites in America and Germany, and using pressure to have one ripped out of its foundation in sight of the Bayview Hotel in Manila where hundreds of Filipino women were gang-raped by retreating Japanese troops, this “war” is not confined to South Korea.
In releasing the 2020 Human Rights Report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken lamented that “the trend lines on human rights continue to move in the wrong direction.” A concerning part of this trend are denials in Japan and the United States of the terror that compelled women like some Vyner Brooke survivors to “choose” to join a Comfort Station. Blinken said in his remarks: “standing for people’s freedom and dignity honors America’s most sacred values.” The U.S.-Japan Alliance is said to be based on those shared values. Now Washington and Tokyo need to discuss what this means in practice. The Biden-Suga Summit will test the U.S. Administration’s ability to be fair, but firm with allies as well as with those it sees as rivals and security threats.
Tessa Morris Suzuki, Professor Emerita of Japanese History, School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University and Mindy L. Kotler, Director of Asia Policy Point in Washington, DC.