The Right to Write History

Japanese and American professors clash over a textbook's depiction of the Japanese government's involvement in a system of sexual slavery during World War II.

December 7, 2015
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Memorial to "comfort women" in Nanjing, China

The history and memory wars over the extent of the imperial Japanese government’s role in the suffering of “comfort women” -- women from Korea and other parts of Asia who worked in Japanese military brothels during World War II in a system many scholars describe as a form of sexual slavery -- continue to unfold. The newest developments come as the Japanese and South Korean governments have started talks on a political resolution to the issue.

A series of letters to the editor in the December edition of the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History journal are the latest salvos in a yearlong struggle over the depiction of the comfort women included in a high school history textbook published by McGraw-Hill Education. In a December 2014 meeting with McGraw-Hill reported on by The New York Times and other publications, Japanese diplomats requested revisions to the textbook, Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past -- a request the publisher rebuffed.

In March, Perspectives on History published a letter from 20 American scholars, including Herbert Ziegler, the only living author of the Traditions & Encounters text, opposing the Japanese government’s efforts “to suppress statements in history textbooks both in Japan and elsewhere about the euphemistically named ‘comfort women’ who suffered under a brutal system of sexual exploitation in the service of the Japanese imperial army during World War II.

“As part of its effort to promote patriotic education, the present administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is vocally questioning the established history of the comfort women and seeking to eliminate references to them in school textbooks,” they wrote. “Some conservative Japanese politicians have deployed legalistic arguments in order to deny state responsibility, while others have slandered the survivors. Right-wing extremists threaten and intimidate journalists and scholars involved in documenting the system and the stories of its victims.”

In May, more than 180 Japanese studies scholars, primarily from U.S. universities, signed a separate letter expressing “our unity with the many courageous historians in Japan seeking an accurate and just history of World War II in Asia.”

The letter notes that much of the archive of the Japanese imperial army was destroyed and that some historians disagree on precisely how many comfort women there were, how directly the Japanese military was involved and whether the women were “coerced” into the brothels. “Yet,” the authors write, “the evidence makes clear that large numbers of women were held against their will and subjected to horrific brutality. Employing legalistic arguments focused on particular terms or isolated documents to challenge the victims’ testimony both misses the fundamental issue of their brutalization and ignores the larger context of the inhumane system that exploited them.”

“Like our colleagues in Japan, we believe that only careful weighing and contextual evaluation of every trace of the past can produce a just history,” they wrote. “Such work must resist national and gender bias, and be free from government manipulation, censorship and private intimidation.”

Meanwhile, in Japan, a group of 19 professors prepared a March 17 document requesting eight corrections to the McGraw-Hill textbook. Among the areas of dispute, the 19 scholars objected to the textbook’s statement that the Japanese army “forcibly recruited, conscripted and dragooned as many as 200,000 women age 14 to 20 to serve in military brothels,” and argued that there is a lack of evidence to assert the text's assertion that soldiers “massacred large numbers of comfort women to cover up the operation” at the end of the war. Some of the Japanese scholars' objections rest on questions of facts -- they argue, for example, that the 200,000 estimate is too high, and that some of the women were over age 20 -- while at least one objection seems to reflect matters of tone or interpretation. They object to the textbook’s statement that “the army presented the women to the troops as a gift from the emperor” as being “too impolite [an] expression for a school textbook, which defames the national head.”

Some of those same 19 scholars are among the approximately 50 Japanese professors who submitted a new letter to Perspectives on History that defends the government’s actions in the McGraw-Hill case.

“Generally speaking, it is better that governments do not intervene in the writing of history textbooks,” they wrote. “However, if clear factual mistakes are found in textbooks, and if those mistakes have extremely negative effects on the dignity of a given country and its nationals, then it is natural that such a country’s government request revisions of the errors. We think McGraw-Hill’s textbook is just such a case. In their March 17, 2015, booklet 'Requesting Corrections of Factual Errors in McGraw-Hill Textbook,' 19 Japanese historians identified eight apparent factual errors within 26 lines in merely two paragraphs concerning the issue of comfort women, and then requested that the textbook’s publisher, McGraw-Hill, correct these errors. If the U.S. government was in the same situation, it presumably would have taken issue with the publisher and author of such an error-laden textbook, in an incomparably fiercer manner.”

Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut who organized the original Perspectives on History letter criticizing the Japanese government’s interventions, said that “couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

“It’s not natural that a government intervenes in academic publication,” said Dudden, who distinguished between governmental intervention and academic peer review. “Imagine,” she said, “if Ambassador Caroline Kennedy sent three people from the American embassy in Tokyo to various publishers of school textbooks to examine how Japanese textbooks portray the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

Reuters reported in February that the Japanese government had embarked on a public relations campaign to correct perceived errors in characterization of the country's wartime actions. “There certainly is a known effort afoot to rewrite, whitewash and re-portray Japan in the 20th century in a way that there really is no comparison for,” said Dudden, who noted how unusual it is that “a leading open society, the state of Japan, is backing this effort.”

The new letter from the approximately 50 Japanese scholars calls into question the credibility of the entire McGraw-Hill textbook, and accuses its author, and the American historians who stood in support of him, of either ignoring or being unaware of a 2007 study by American government agencies that, the Japanese professors write, “could not find any documentation to show that the Japanese government committed war crimes with respect to the comfort women during the Second World War.”

A statement issued in 1993 by the (more left-leaning) Japanese government in regard to its own study on the issue, however, acknowledged the Japanese military’s involvement, “directly or indirectly … in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.”

An organizer of the letter from the approximately 50 Japanese scholars, Eiji Yamashita, of Osaka City University, originally agreed to answer Inside Higher Ed's questions and requested they be sent via email. Inside Higher Ed posed a series of questions inquiring about the motivations and goals of the letter writers and the substance of their argument, and also asking whether the scholars involved in disputing the McGraw-Hill text had received any financial support from the Japanese government. After receiving these questions, Yamashita declined to answer them, writing that “after consulting with my colleagues and scrutinizing your questions, we have to come to a conclusion that we should not accept your request of interview, because we could not expect fair reporting of yours. It seems to us you are interested in denying our arguments rather than reporting our arguments as they are to the public.”

In addition to the letter from the approximately 50 Japanese professors, the new edition of Perspectives on History also includes a rebuttal from 14 academics, most of them American, to a September letter from Naoko Kumagai, a professor at the International University of Japan. In that letter Kumagai defended the Japanese government's actions in the McGraw-Hill case -- to a degree.

“The Japanese government was responding to information in the textbook that was questionable, including the assertion that there was forced recruitment, conscription or dragooning of 200,000 young girls between the age of 14 and 20 to serve as comfort women during World War II,” Kumagai wrote. “Pointing out incorrect information does not constitute censorship. From what I understand of how the Japanese government approached and talked to the writer of the textbook and the editors at McGraw-Hill, I cannot agree with the way the Japanese government proceeded. However, the inappropriate manner in which the government acted does not negate the fact that it was pointing out some genuine errors of fact that appeared in that textbook. I would like to suggest that the flat condemnation of the Japanese government's response as censorship constitutes in itself the spirit of censorship. Such a dogmatic stance threatens academic freedom.”

Ziegler, the author of the textbook at the center of the controversy and a retired professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, declined to be interviewed for this article, citing other commitments and saying he was “a bit exhausted by the continued assault on the textbook and matters of academic interpretation.”


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