Japan Faces Its Past

August 08, 1993

A major obstacle impeding Japan from taking its place as the leading power in Asian affairs is the heritage of Japanese racism toward neighboring nationalities. This is an especially matter in South Korea and China. That explains Japan's extraordinary admission and 48-years-late apology for forcing thousands of Asian women into prostitution to serve imperial troops in World War II.

A government inquiry, prompted by a Korean woman's lawsuit, detailed a massive system of coercing "comfort women" to serve troops between 1932 and 1945. It was published on the last full day in office of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, on his insistence that it be done on his watch.

This report does not give numbers, which historians of other countries have estimated between 70,000 and 200,000 women. Investigators interviewed a handful of Korean women who came forward, but not any who committed suicide from shame or were murdered or tortured into not talking as Japanese forces collapsed in 1945.

The official brothel network was meant to deter Japan's troops from alienating conquered populations by raping women, or contracting venereal disease from unsupervised prostitution.

Japan's "remorse" for the women's suffering come in a context of Japanese admissions of dark secrets, including atrocities a half-century ago and corruption recently. But while it is a step toward assuaging anger among Japan's neighbors, it only whets demands for recognition of coerced prostitution as a war crime and for compensation.

Japan has always maintained that nations forfeited claims after relations were normalized following the war. Now the report says Japan will continue to "consider seriously" how best to demonstrate remorse. That gives the new Hosokawa government a chance to institute compensation. South Korea has instituted pensions for Korean victims. Japan may yet wish to take over the payments. Women's groups in other countries are demanding compensation at rates no less than Korea's.

West Germany set a better example in acknowledging the Holocaust and in paying compensation. Japan has been too slow to do so, but has not felt the need with its self-effacing lack of a real foreign policy until recently. If it wishes to influence its neighbors, as it now does, Japan must acknowledge past sins. This report is an important step, pointing clearly to the necessary next step.

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