Calling for more people to speak up and band together
Strong opposition against Japanese Government’s attempts to distort history is arising inside and outside of Japan. On May 25th, 16 Japanese historical and educational organizations issued a statement to express concerns about distortion of ‘comfort women’ issue referring to the coercive sex slavery during the World War II by Japanese Imperial Army. It was triggered by the open letter and joint statement issued by 187 historians worldwide to call for Japanese government’s reflection and rightful action early last month. Those who have joined the statement are increasing now over 500 scholars. Department of History Professor at the University of Conneticut, Alexis Dudden who initiated the joint statement was invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and visited Korea on 28th last month.
Dudden emphasized that “majority of Japanese people and international society are expecting the Japanese Government to show responsible manners regarding the so-called ‘comfort women’ issue. Japan should acknowledge and reflect on the issue before it is too late.”
According to Dudden, “the comfort women’s pain is an ongoing matter. This matter should be approached with the broader perspective of gender suppression and violence, and more of these ‘comfort women’s yet unrevealed testimonies should be spoken and banded together.” The historian stressed that even though the changes in reality might be slow, we must not let go of the hope for the sexually equal and peaceful future.
Picture. Alexis Dudden, the University of Conneticut History Professor, during an interview with Women News.
The followings are questions and answers with Professor Dudden.
As a woman historian, your righteous actions inspire Korean women and global citizens who believe justice prevails.
-I could not have done it without my academic colleagues. I am proud to be a part of this joint statement. I am thrilled to see that this movement is getting broader and more powerful. I am applauding the joint statement by Japanese historians issued on the 25th. In particular, I think highly of their using the term ‘sexual slave.’ They have shown that there are scholars inside Japan who discuss and realize the Japanese Government’s responsibility for this issue.
Will it affect Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s upcoming statement in August for the 70th anniversary for the end of World War II that numerous historians announced the joint statements during the recent period?
-Hopefully, but the possibility seems low. Abe is trying to turn back the clock of history. Japan needs to understand and reflect their past with sincerity in order to recover international community’s confidence. Most of Japanese and global citizens are hoping that Japan acknowledges the truth and take responsibilities. It is important for us to not give up on the hope that Abe will understand this, too.
What if Abe will not change his stance?
-It will be a dangerous decision. If Abe does not inherit the message of Murayama statement in 1995 (in which then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama admitted and apologized for Japan's colonization during the Pacific War), he will face a strong opposition from international communities.
The issue of Japan’s attempts to rewrite history has been an obstacle to building Japan-Korea relationship as well as overall Northeast diplomatic cooperation such as Japan-Korea-U.S. and 6 parties conference.
-Abnormal situations continue to maintain. Prime Minister Abe and his supporters are trying to write history which glorifies Imperial Japan and its war. Last year, Abe Government went about reviewing the 1993 Kono statement (in which Japan acknowledged that women were coerced into sexual slavery and the Japanese military were involved in this process). This action was to place the blame upon the victims, which actually hurt Japan’s pride and ruined the relationship between Korea and Japan. Also, it is an attempt to neutralize San Francisco System following the Treaty of San Francisco (which came into force in 1952 to end the Allies’ military occupation and return sovereignty to Japan), denying international communities’ effort to maintain post-war peace for the past 70 years. It was during this period that Japan established itself as a strong ‘human rights’ nation.
In order to resolve conflicts and move forward peacefully, what political and diplomatic efforts does each country have to make?
-The development of Northeast Asia depends on concord within the neighboring states. Abe talks about ‘strong Japan’ without Asia, but it is contrary to the economic insecurity Japan is facing. Abe must acknowledge Japan’s role and position as part of Asian and global community. For the past few decades, Japanese leaders pursued global peace. Former Prime Minister Koizumi made such efforts by visiting Seoul Seodaemun Prison and co-hosting 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan despite the dispute over paying respect at Yasukuni Shrine.
Therefore, Prime Minister Abe has a duty to resolve anti-Korea sentiment in Japan and to recover Japan’s trust from international society. Although hatred and conflicts exist everywhere, it is leader’s responsibility in a democratic state to guide national consciousness and public opinions in a more productive and open way.
The U.S. ought to take a clear stance. The U.S. government welcomed the new Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation agreed in April, 2015 during Prime Minister Abe’s official visit to the U.S., without mentioning their official position about the historical issue. It is a great pity as a U.S. citizen. In 2012, then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton remarked that “the official name for comfort women should be changed into ‘enforced sex slave.’” In 2014, President Obama commented the issue of ‘comfort women’ is a terrible human-rights violation. Viewing these statements as the official stance of the U.S. Government, I believe that this horrible history should be spoken out even more clearly.
The brutality of using sexual violation as war weapon and exploiting the weak through forced labor was shown throughout the human history. Recently, sexual violation such as organized abduction and raping in conflict areas by Islamic State and Boko Haram is becoming serious. What efforts can be made about these problems? What can Asian women, and more specifically, Korean women do for regional peace?
-The victims’ courage of confessing their pain and others’ commitment to connecting with these victims played a critical part in addressing this issue. This interview could not have happened without their efforts. I remember the day when the survivors of ‘comfort women’ spoke out about the issue for the first time in 1991. Similar testimonies from victims of war-time sexual violation all over the world including those in Yugoslavia and Australia came about around that time, providing support for other unknown such victims. NGOs like the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and Women’s Active Museum(WAM) in Japan were established.
We are humbled in solemnity by those who testify horrible memories they have experienced to correct the distorted history and to make a better world out of it. These people have conviction: the conviction that sexual violence must never happen again and sexuality must not be exploited as war-time weapon. They exclaim “this is not just our issue but an issue for all women.” More issues on sex violation were exposed on the media thanks to these courageous victims. Yet, we have a long way to go because there are still some people who deny even the basic truth about the ‘comfort women’ issue.
Gender suppression and exploitation is an ongoing matter. In particular, young girls and women are targeted during the war time. It is not an issue limited to women, either. There are cases of young boys and men being exploited and violated sexually as in Philippines and Indonesia. ‘Comfort Women’ is only a euphemism that cannot contain these boys’ stories.
The gender equality education is necessary to stop these problems worldwide. People should realize the values of gender equality. It cannot be changed overnight, but think about 30 years ago when this kind of talk could not even be shared in public. It depends on all of us making passionate efforts for the better and gender-equal future.
Only 52 ‘Comfort Women’ victims are still alive. What if this matter is not settled while they are still alive? What actions should be taken after their deaths?
-I heard one more ‘comfort women’ victim passed away recently. I express my deep condolences on her death. The Japanese Government should give their official apology to these survivors before it is too late. It must be an apology that is acceptable by these survivors. That is the only way that they can expect international support.
A few politicians may earn their popularity and personal gain by neglecting or refusing to take action for this issue. But it is an empty gain for all mankind. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel opined on this that “straightening the past is a prerequisite for reconciliation. Japan should settle the issue of ‘comfort women’ clearly.”
If Japanese Congress pass the legislation of Kono Statement and if this history is taught officially at school in Japan, it will be a step forward towards resolving conflict.
What is next for you?
-I will strive to set present and future free from violence by learning from the past. Naïve it may sound, but I am a historian. Therefore, I try not to lose faith.
*About Professor Alexis Dudden…
As one of the most significant experts on Northeast Asia in the U.S., she has focused her studies mainly on the history of Japan’s colonization of Korea and is well-versed in Korea-Japan relationship. She had begun her study with interest in Japan, then following her mentor’s advice that ‘without knowing Korea, you cannot know Japan’ she studied both Korean language and history. She did her bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies at Columbia University and her Ph.D in History at University of Chicago. She studied both in Korea and Japan.