By Mike Mochizuki, professor, George Washington University
The comfort women issue is not just an issue between Japan and South Korea but has become a global issue. Whenever there are moves in Japan to review the Kono statement, Japanese apologies regarding the so-called "comfort women" appear insincere, and this provokes Korean-Americans to be more active in criticizing the way Japan is handling this issue.
This issue has now become a feature in American local politics. Local communities in states like New Jersey and California have erected "comfort women" memorials. Just like the way it reacted to the statue built in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, the Japanese government's response in the United States has been counterproductive. There have been reports that officials affiliated with the Japanese consulates have tried to persuade various local communities either to remove these memorials or not to build them. These reports reinforce the negative image that Japan has in the United States and South Korea regarding the "comfort women" issue.
There may be disagreements about the number of "comfort women" and the circumstances of their recruitment, but the Japanese conservatives unfortunately concentrate on such details. My own view is that Japan needs to focus on the big picture. Rather than trying to remove the "comfort woman" statue in front of the Japanese embassy, it would be better if the Japanese ambassador were to go to the memorial and give a speech saying "this was a terrible thing and Japan has apologized and we are going to be an advocate of women's rights and human rights" and repeat the Kono statement.
America also has had a hard time dealing with historical issues such as the atrocities against Native Americans and slaves. But what makes me feel proud of being an American is the way the United States dealt with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. My father, grandfather and uncle were interned in concentration camps in Minadoka, Idaho. During the Reagan administration, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that mandated an apology and restitution to Japanese-Americans, which was signed by President Reagan. My father received an apology letter and a compensation check for $20,000. I went to a Japanese-American Citizens League meeting to celebrate this legislation. Tom Foley was there, Norman Mineta was there, Bob Matsui was there. A lot of Japanese leaders were there. I remember that U.S. Representatives Mineta and Matsui were in tears. They said they thought they would never see this day. They felt very proud of being an American and living in a country that can mend those mistakes in history.
The story, however, does not end there. Japanese often like to say "an apology should bring to an end historical issues, and it is time to think in a future-oriented way." But this is not the way the United States handled the Japanese-American internment issue. What happened is that the National Park Service took control of all the concentration camps so all of these camps are part of the national park system and managed by the National Park Service. These camps are being gradually restored as much as possible through private donations so that Americans will not forget the past and that future generations will learn about the past in order to make sure that these things will never happen again in the United States. I visited the Minadoka camp site with my family and learned what happened in our history. There was a visitors' shop nearby that contained many books and other publications about the concentration camps.
What I do not like about the Japanese discourse regarding historical issues is that Japanese often ask, "What can we do to resolve the historical issues once and for all in order to be future oriented?" If Japan is the perpetrator, then Japan should say, "We will never forget, we will always remember." It is up to the victims to say, "That is enough. Let's look toward the future."
What I want the younger generation in Japan to do is not to focus so much on apologies, but rather to concentrate on learning, remembering and thinking about the past. By doing so, Japanese can become strong advocates for the protection of women and girls during war to make sure that these terrible things do not happen elsewhere.
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Born in 1950, Mike Mochizuki is a professor of international politics at George Washington University. Known as a Japan expert, his many works include "Crisis on the Korean Peninsula."
(A Japanese version of this article appeared in August in the print edition of The Asahi Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun Digital. The English version is not identical to the Japanese version, which was edited due to space limitations.)