Recent denials by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that women in Asia were coerced into sexual slavery by Imperial Japan during the war years perpetuate pain and sorrow among victims and their loved ones. As Mr. Abe represents the Japanese people to the world, his views also damage foreign perceptions of the great strides many Japanese have made as peaceful, responsible world citizens since 1946. As friends of Japan, we urge the Japanese people to courageously acknowledge and redress the wrongs perpetrated by Imperial Japan.
The government of Japan, during its colonial occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands from the 1930s through the duration of World War II, organized the subjugation and kidnapping, for the sole purpose of sexual servitude, of young women, who became known to the world as “comfort women.” This tragedy was one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century, and was officially commissioned and orchestrated by the government of Japan to include gang rape, forced abortions, sexual violence, human trafficking and numerous other crimes against humanity.
Some of the victims were girls as young as 13 years of age and women separated from their own children; others were abducted from their homes or lured into sexual servitude under false pretenses. Many comfort women were eventually killed or driven to commit suicide when the hostilities ceased, because they were ashamed of what they had been forced to do.
Historians conclude that as many as 200,000 women were enslaved, but very few of them survive today. And not only did the government of Japan fail to fully disclose these war crimes during negotiations for reparations with its former enemies and occupied countries, but some textbooks used in Japanese schools minimize the “comfort women” tragedy and other atrocities, and distort the Japanese role in war crimes during World War II. In fact, Japanese government officials, both elected and career, as recently as June 2005, praised the removal of the term “comfort women” from Japanese textbooks. This kind of treatment of the issue only exacerbates the pain of the survivors.
Victims of Imperial Japanese brutality throughout East Asia and the Pacific and their families want Japan to frankly acknowledge what it has done. A responsible demonstration of humanity from Japan’s social and political leaders will promote general healing and trust in the region, while as Mr. Abe surely knows, official denials from Japan’s leaders keep these issues alive and alarm its neighbors.
Facing history squarely is the first duty of leaders anywhere. In the United States today, for instance, political and social leaders courageously acknowledge a shameful history of slavery and racial discrimination. What makes their efforts courageous is that they challenge long-held myths that were used to justify outrageous behavior that weakened our society. Correcting long-standing myths is hard. Efforts to redress them may not initially succeed, but ultimately they strengthen society and make the country more admirable.
We encourage the Japanese people as freedom-loving people to come to grips with the history of Imperial Japan. Doing so will yield untold benefits. Japan will earn not only the respect of neighboring countries and friends, but also their trust, which is essential for Japan to become the leader it yearns to be. Preventing such worthy results are modern denials of Imperial Japan’s past. It would bring great honor to the Japanese people if the U.S. Congress hears a frank and courageous leader admit the truth and accept responsibility for the past, when Mr. Abe visits Washington later this month.
Former Rep. Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican, was a member of Congress and served as Chairman of the House International Relations Committee until January 2007. Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, is the ranking member of the Africa and Global Health subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.