By Yoshiaki Yoshimi, professor, Chuo University
The Asahi Shimbun's special coverage about the issue of "comfort women" makes it clear that the essence of the problem lies in the fact that the women were compelled against their will to serve as "comfort women."
The project is meaningful in that it shows anew what the central issue is, given that there are still people who say that the Japanese government is not responsible for the matter if the women were not forcibly and violently taken away by military or government officials, an argument that doesn't hold water internationally at all.
The Asahi Shimbun also corrected errors in its past reporting on the issue and examined how such errors were made. These efforts are also important for understanding the issue of "comfort women."
Several news media including The Asahi Shimbun reported on testimony by Seiji Yoshida. But the credibility of his account was later called into question, emboldening the people who claim that there was no forcible taking away of "comfort women," and the issue itself is a fabrication.
Even if Yoshida's testimony is false, that doesn't impact this issue in any way. I support the Asahi's decision to correct errors in past related articles, but I wish the paper had done so in the early 1990s, when research in the matter made progress.
Similarly, it would have been better if the mistake of confusing "comfort women" with "joshi teishintai" (women volunteer corps) had been handled earlier.
What is troubling to me is that the articles in the special coverage don't clarify The Asahi Shimbun's ideas about what the key policy challenges concerning the issue of "comfort women" are or what should be done to solve them. They don't indicate any editorial commitment to standing by victims.
The articles on the relationship between Japan and South Korea published on the second day seem to suggest that the issue of "comfort women" grew complicated as a result of exchanges of critical words between the two governments. But the primary responsibility falls on the Japanese government, which has failed to make sincere responses to the voices of victims.
The Kono statement admitted that Japan "severely injured the honor and dignity of many women." But it didn't clearly say who was responsible for the act. Because the issue of the responsibility of the military and the Japanese government for violating the human rights of the women was obscured, atonement money for former "comfort women" was paid by the private sector under the Asian Women's Fund project. (The government paid money in token sympathy.) But the atonement money should have been paid by the government. Due to this fundamental "reversal of the role" between the government and the private sector, there is no way the victims can be satisfied.
The special coverage does not touch on the problem of the Japanese government effectively ignoring victims. The articles on the second day appear to do nothing but follow the government-initiated review of the Kono statement and support its results, which were published in June.
The Japanese government has maintained that the issue of "comfort women" was legally settled by the Japan-South Korea agreement on property and claim rights in 1965. The government has also been pointing out that the Asian Women's Fund was set up to deal with the issue, stressing that the bilateral relationship should be "future-oriented." Does The Asahi Shimbun take the same stance?
Mike Mochizuki says that only victims can talk about a future-oriented relationship, and that countries that inflicted injury on victims should keep saying they won't forget what they did. His argument should not be overlooked.
In order to solve this problem, the Japanese government needs to clearly acknowledge that Japan's wartime military was responsible for violating the human rights of the women. After doing so, the government should offer an apology, agree to pay compensation to victims and take steps to make its position on the issue reflected in education.
Outside Japan, after the issue of "comfort women" came to light, the perception has spread that this issue and the incidents of mass rape that took place in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have common elements as sexual violence against women during wartime. In Japan, however, there has yet to be a widely shared understanding that we should overcome this problem for our own future.
Moreover, arguments that refuse to admit Japan's responsibility for the issue of "comfort women" are still receiving a certain degree of public support. As seen in every country, at the root of this (denial of past acts) is probably a desire to protect national pride and honor.
Both individuals and nations make mistakes. When a mistake has been made, admitting it and taking steps to prevent a recurrence is the way to restore pride.
I hope The Asahi Shimbun will continue reporting on the issue of "comfort women" without forgetting the viewpoint of victims. Japan will not be able to win international support if it tries to tackle the challenges facing it without making serious efforts to come to terms with its past.
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Born in 1946 in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Yoshiaki Yoshimi is an expert in the modern and contemporary history of Japan. He has been studying mainly issues related to responsibility for the war and people's experiences during and after the war. Since the 1990s, Yoshimi has been tackling the issue of "comfort women" and has written books on the issue and other related topics. See "Comfort Women" (Columbia University Press, 2000).