Letters to the Editor

On "Standing with Historians of Japan"

Naoko Kumagai | Sep 1, 2015

To the Editor:

In the March 2015 issue of Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association published a letter from 20 American historians. The letter, titled "Standing with Historians of Japan," criticizes the Japanese government's recent request for the removal of two paragraphs from a history textbook published by McGraw-Hill as an act of censorship. I would like to address that letter, emphasizing the importance of square-truth investigation with true academic respect for historical facts.

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. 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. 

There exist some disputes as to the issue of comfort women, as American historians have recognized, though the harm done by the Japanese army to former comfort women is an established historical fact, as the Japanese government acknowledged with remorse in the Kono Statement. With regard to the statement that as many as 200,000 women age 14 to 20 were forcibly recruited, conscripted, or dragooned by the Japanese army, that number is unrealistic in view of the Japanese military's quite limited material capabilities and strategic purposes. Actual empirical estimates by historians range widely, from 20,000 to 200,000. With such a wide range, it is fair to show both ends, rather than to take the number at the high end as proven fact. Also, such estimates also include women over the age of 20. With regard to the means of recruitment, no official documents have been found on the forced recruitment of women by the Japanese authority. In August 2014, the newspaper Asahi acknowledged having published false testimony of a Japanese man about the hunting of comfort women that had affected the public impression of what had taken place.

Objective examination of disputed facts about the actual system and management of comfort stations is necessary to understand the root cause of the problem in a wider context of Japanese colonial rule and military invasion in Asia. It would be best done through cooperation and dialogue among scholars of diverse nationalities with academic rigor and the spirit of mutual enlightenment.  My argument is not rooted in any desire to absolve Japan of the responsibility for the issue of comfort women. While I emphasize the importance of truth investigation, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of discursive sensitivity at both the academic and political levels, for the sake of discerning the actual nature of the wrongdoing of the offending side. 

Naoko Kumagai, International University of Japan

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