Art by Helen Cui
In Nanjing, China stands a memorial many Americans might be unfamiliar with. A bleak black building surrounded by humongous statues of writhing bodies. I had the opportunity to visit this memorial when I was in 6th grade. While my mother had spoken about the events that are commemorated in that hall, I was much too young to fully grasp the history.
It is dedicated to the Rape of Nanking, a six week massacre by Japanese soldiers in the midst of WWII. I toured there with a summer camp at the time. My friends who had been, as many middle schoolers are, loud and rowdy the entire trip fell silent. We walked through the walls plastered with artifacts and testimony from survivors and excerpts from newspapers. I read stories from doctors who had to treat women with internal bleeding, family members who watched their relatives executed in ditches. But above all, the message “forgive do not forget.”
In the West, Japan is not known for committing an innumerable amount of war crimes. Specifically for many Americans the understanding is generally of the mistreatment of Japanese people in internment camps and the horrific bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But the story is incredibly different in countries like China and Korea, where it is jarringly, that the soldiers of Imperial Japan repeatedly raped and killed many innocent civilians. This of course, does not negate or lessen to any affect the unjustifiable acts the US has committed against Japan.
One point of contention remains the existence of these “comfort” stations, which were basically forced military brothels. Young women were kidnapped and forced to work in these establishment and descend into prostitution at an early age. For example, Lee Ok Seon, a survivor, listed 14 as the age she was kidnapped at. Under these brutal circumstances, 90% of these “comfort” women did not even survive the war. The majority of them came from Japanese occupied China and Korea, the rest from other various Southeast Asian countries. To give a perspective on the volume of these stations, it is estimated that 20,000-410,000 women had been enslaved in at least 125 brothels (Blakemore). The US was not completely innocent in these activities either, after the end of WWII many of these stations did not close in Allied occupied Japan. Not until General MacArthur gave the order in 1946. It is a difficult and alarming legacy that many East Asian women to this day have to grapple with.
Naturally it would be expected that Japan would have apologized in some shape or form. Despite this, Japan has not done anything on their own volition. While they did create a fund of $8.3 million for survivors, this was only after the said survivors had sued them. In addition, many have pointed out that the money was from already existing donations for the women and no government money has been spent. Japanese premiers have also traditionally sent letters of apology, but as many will point out none of that has been official. There has yet to have been anything ratified by the Japanese legislature or approved by the executive branch. This has led to the general feeling of ingenuity in any statements that has been issued. It should also be acknowledged that this is in spite of being called out in resolutions passed by the EU, US, Netherlands, Canada, and the Philippines in 2015. Furthermore, Shinzo Abe, then prime minister, even called these passings “regrettable.” (Constante).
A general lack of remorse seems to be present in many more aspects. As time has gone by Japan has failed to include many of these atrocities in their history textbooks. In a BBC article, the writer, Mariko Oi who grew up in Japan, describes learning from text in which “it turned out only 19 of the book’s 357 pages dealt with events between 1931-1945” (Oi). Detailing that there was only one sentence devoted to the comfort women and Nanjing massacre each. In effect, most Japanese citizens are unlikely to know anything about these atrocities. Consider what this means for future generations, when those school children grow up they become the next ones to write history. It is as if the government is erasing that it had ever happened at all. In fact, one could argue the lack of education around these topics is why, Nobukatsu Fujioka, an author of such educational materials can widely pronounce such things as “the Chinese government hired actors and actresses, pretending to be the victim when they invited some Japanese journalists to write about them.” It is truly a self perpetuating cycle.
Although acting as if China or South Korea, or any country for that matter, does not exclude specific events from their classroom education would be purposefully ignorant. Especially considering China’s continued use of propaganda and censorship. But, it should be considered that at the very least most of the populace outside of China are aware that China has committed these crimes, Japan is not the same case. The soft power Japan holds is immense, whether it is the cuisine or media, the country’s culture has taken the world by storm. Without the acknowledgement of the crimes committed by Imperial Japan, it is as if one is asking the survivors and inheritors of generational trauma to watch as the world glorifies the nation that sowed murder and rape through their homeland.
We are running out of time, as of 2018, only 25 survivors of the “comfort” stations are still alive (Smith). Current efforts are striving to bring them justice in their lifetime. Nobody is asking for Japan to change everyday life to reflect what the government has done in the past. After all, it is the authorities that are guilty not citizens. But the continued denial and erasure of these events of WWII in Japanese society are horrific. If history is not acknowledged, we are fated to repeat it. So, in the words of that memorial I visited in 6th grade, forgive but never forget.
Blakemore, Erin. “The Brutal History of Japan’s ‘Comfort Women.'” History.com. Last modified July 21, 2019. Accessed September 23, 2020. https://www.history.com/news/comfort-women-japan-military-brothels-korea.
Constante, Agnes. “Who are the ‘comfort women,’ and why are U.S.-based memorials for them controversial?” NBC News. Last modified May 7, 2019. Accessed September 23, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/who-are-comfort-women-why-are-u-s-based-memorials-n997656.
Oi, Mariko. “What Japanese history lessons leave out.” BBC News. Last modified March 14, 2013. Accessed September 23, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21226068.
Smith, Josh, and Haejin Choi. “South Korea’s surviving ‘comfort women’ spend final years seeking atonement from Japan.” Reuters. Last modified November 22, 2018. Accessed September 23, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-japan-comfortwomen/south-koreas-surviving-comfort-women-spend-final-years-seeking-atonement-from-japan-idUSKCN1NS024?feedType=RSS&.