Japan War Crimes: Not Simply A Matter of Apologizing

shinzo abeThis upcoming weekend will be a day of remembrance, with August 15, 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, also known as V-J Day, or Victory over Japan Day. The war ended with Japan’s surrender, ending the destructive war that began on 1939. Without a doubt, this weekend will conjure up emotions for many as it still does today, especially for the war’s survivors. In fact, recently during an Anti-Japan protest in Seoul in front of the Japanese Embassy, an 80-year-old South Korean man lit himself on fire. South Korea, which was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945, holds animosity toward Japan, not just over the issue of colonization but particularly over the issue regarding comfort women, feeling that the Japanese government has not made a sufficient apology. Similarly, China also holds such feelings toward Japan, with many of their women and girls having been forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese military. As a result, Japan’s relationship with its neighboring countries is shaky, to say the least, and it is because of this animosity that prevents Japan from moving on from the past. In order to heal the relationship with its neighboring countries, Japan’s only option is to apologize, a chance which was offered very recently.

To observe the anniversary of the war’s conclusion, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was expected to give statements of grief and remorse.  Prime Minister Abe expressed such grief in his speech, repeating the apologies made by his predecessors; however, it is noted that he did not include new apologies of his own. Instead, his language was observed to be “broad and less personal,” including statements that appeared to cast Japan in a less grave light, which casts doubt as to whether Japan is truly sorry for its transgressions. This is nothing new, as doubt has been raised throughout the years about Japan’s so-called remorse over its actions. While a sincere apology is in order, it appears that more than an apology will be needed if Japan hopes to move forward and resolve the issues surrounding the comfort women.

The comfort women were those forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII. Many women and girls were coerced into sexual servitude during this time and were used to provide “comfort” to the soldiers. Though this figure is widely contested, scholars estimate that up to 200,000 women and girls were made into comfort women, with many being abducted from their homes. Very few of these comfort women survive today. In fact, according to the South Korean government registry, there are 47 South Korean former comfort women alive today. Though these figures are dwindling, the number of those demanding an apology from the Japanese government is not. Since 1992, rallies have been held in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul every Wednesday in support of the former comfort women who seek an apology for the crimes committed against them during the war.

Through the course of decades, Japan has provided apologies, the most well-known apology having been given in 1993 by Yohei Kono who was then the chief cabinet secretary. His statements acted as a formal apology from the Japanese government, acknowledging that the Japanese military forced women into sexual slavery. As such, this apology was very well-received in South Korea. Similarly, another statement was given in 1995 by former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, which at the time was the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, and it is noted that he used the words “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology,” another statement that was accepted as it conveyed personal grief. Despite these efforts to make amends, however, the sincerity of their apology has often been questioned, and this is mostly due to the fact that Japan’s actions seem to show otherwise. For instance, after taking office in 2012, Prime Minister Abe has been challenging the Japanese military’s involvement with coerced prostitution, arguing that the comfort women were prostitutes to begin with. In an attempt to deny and erase past historical acts, Prime Minister Abe and his government have been revising textbooks regarding the issue of comfort women. Furthermore, they have also been working to mitigate the 1993 statements made by Yohei Kono by declaring that there is no documentary evidence of women being forced into the comfort stations. Their most recent effort involved asking Radhika Coomaraswamy, a former United Nations special rapporteur, to change her 1996 report, which contains accounts of how women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. Coomaraswamy refused, however, believing that her findings are still, without a doubt, accurate.

With Prime Minister Abe’s actions, it seems to become obvious that what must occur first is not an apology but acceptance that the acts occurred during WWII actually happened. When making an apology, one normally acknowledges his or her wrongdoings. Acknowledgement of mistakes is really one of the key reasons why people apologize in the first place. However, Prime Minister Abe’s actions show not acceptance but a denial that the acts against the comfort women were committed. Without such acceptance, making sincere apologies becomes an impossible task.  Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a professor at Chuo University, states, “If you want to build mutual trust with people in those countries, you can’t without coming to terms with what Japan actually did, without examining Japan’s actions.” In other words, such acceptance is necessary to make sincere apologies possible.

Even if Japan accepts what has happened, however, Prime Minister Abe made a valid point during his speech when he stated, “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even future generations … be predestined to apologize.”  Simply put, while an apology is in order, Japan cannot be forced to apologize forever. At the end of the day, Japan cannot do anything if its neighboring countries decide not to forgive. Japan’s future should not be chained to apologies, and if the day comes that a sincere apology is made then it is up to the other countries to choose forgiveness.

In order for Japan to move on, a sincere apology, along with acceptance and forgiveness are necessary, and it is only when all three are present that Japan can move forward from the acts that occurred 70 years ago. Women and girls were taken against their will to be used as comfort women, and if Japan hopes to give a sincere apology and have a shot at healing the relationship with its neighboring countries, this fact must first be accepted. On the other hand, Japan cannot be forced to apologize infinitely. Its neighboring countries must choose whether to forgive or remain in the past. As such, with regards to the issue of Japanese war crimes, it is not simply a matter apologizing, it is also a matter of accepting past wrongdoings and forgiving these transgressions.

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