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Johnson: Shinzo Abe’s attempt to improve Japan’s image misdirected

Naomi Johnson, Columnist

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At approximately 8:00 a.m. on Jan. 26, Seon-Soon Hwang, a former sex slave of Japan during World War II, died in a South Korean hospital. Hwang was 89 years old at the time of her passing.

Three days later, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticized McGraw-Hill Education, an American publishing company, for publishing a high school history textbook that contained the following sentence regarding the Japanese military’s actions during World War II: “The Japanese army forcibly recruited, conscripted and dragooned as many as 200,000 women ages 14 to 20 to serve in military brothels.” Abe added that he would attempt to spread the “correct” historical view to educate students abroad.

Tomomi Inada, a “policy chief” and Abe’s ally, then expressed her anger that the history textbook inaccurately taught American students about Japan’s military practices.

“This is not an issue of the past. I believe this is an ongoing issue that, for example, violates the human rights of Japanese children living in the U.S.,” Inada said.

Indeed, this is an ongoing issue even though Japanese military war crimes during World War II happened decades ago, because Hwang was 17 years old when she was lured and captured in Korea as a sex slave for the Japanese military and lived to tell her story — one of many in an ongoing collection of testimonies. Yes, this is an example of human rights violations because the Japanese government’s continuous denial of the military’s use of sexual violence against women violates the rights of the late Hwang. She spent three years of her young life trapped in a Japanese military base in Nauru Island — three years of violations against her body and mind that the current Japanese leadership has further compounded with its denial of her indescribable suffering.

Abe’s criticisms and Inada’s angry statements illustrate an important point: Time cannot heal or reconcile unless the perpetrators acknowledge their crimes. And the rhetoric of the current Japanese leadership appears to make reconciliation an unlikely outcome.

Let us consider some historical figures that scholarly consensus supports. By the end of World War II, the Japanese military had enslaved roughly 200,000 Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Indonesian and Dutch women as sexual servants to Japanese soldiers. Most of the victims were Korean or Chinese. A heartbreaking 75 percent of these women died while enslaved because of physical brutality and venereal diseases, and many of the survivors were left infertile.

Japan’s government has never issued an official apology to the victims or the victims’ families and only started to financially compensate the victims in 1995 when it set up the privately funded Asian Women’s Fund. A majority of the Korean victims refused to accept AWF funds because they wanted a “sincere” official apology from the Japanese government, not private “charity” funds.

It is appalling that Abe and Inada have taken to criticizing McGraw-Hill Education for publishing a historically accurate textbook. Abe’s rhetoric suggests a plan to revise history to suit the conservative Japanese government’s public relations agenda. Equally troubling is Inada’s rhetoric, which implies that the leadership of the Japanese government sees the sexual slavery victims’ stories as a liability that harms the current generation.

Abe and Inada are looking without seeing. Sexual violence against teenage girls and young women is a human rights violation. Exposing the truth of Japan’s military crimes is not a human rights violation. When members of the Japanese leadership see this distinction, perhaps they will engage in some introspection and examine the aftermath of their denials and the damage they themselves have perpetuated against Japan, rather than blaming accurate textbooks or invalidating victims of sexual slavery.

Time is running out for the remaining survivors who seek an official apology.

Rest in peace, Seon-Soon Hwang.

Naomi Johnson is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at naomijohnson2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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