By Eiji Oguma, professor, Keio University
The issue of comfort women started drawing much international attention in the 1990s because of a confluence of trends, including the end of the Cold War, democratization in Asia, heightened consciousness about human rights, the spread of information technology and globalization.
During the Cold War era, most East Asian nations were under the rule of military dictatorship. In these countries, the voices of war victims were suppressed. Former comfort women were treated as shameful people in the male-oriented societies. The issue came to the fore because of the end of the Cold War, the democratization of South Korea and the increased awareness of human rights among women in the late 1980s. Symbolic of this is the fact that public attention to the issue was first aroused in South Korea by a series of articles published in the Hankyoreh newspaper, which was born out of the pro-democracy movement in the country.
In the early 1990s, when the Japanese government issued the Kono and Murayama statements, the nation saw the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party's fall from power, which meant the end of the so-called 1955 regime, and the rise of feminism. A chorus of calls emerged for Japan's internationalization commensurate with its economic power.
The spread of information technology and globalization laid a foundation for democratization and heightened awareness of human rights. But these two trends also led to the rise of nationalism and populism, causing political instability and throwing the issue of comfort women into confusion.
One common ideal for diplomacy is the kind of secret diplomacy in which wise and cool-headed diplomats engage in international negotiations behind the scenes. In this age of well-established democracy and widespread use of information technology, however, negotiating a diplomatic compromise in secrecy angers the people at home.
Secret diplomacy works only in an era when the government can keep control over the public by using the power of the state.
The Japanese and South Korean governments have failed to come up with a solution to the issue of comfort women acceptable to the people of both countries through their negotiations partly because the traditional diplomatic approach is not suitable for today's world.
When we take a fresh look at this problem with these major changes in mind, we can see that whether news coverage on the issue published 20 years ago included false information is just a small, trivial matter.
Even so, it is still significant that the newspaper re-examined its own reporting on the issue, which has become a symbol of diplomatic friction between Japan and South Korea. Its special coverage also helps readers grasp the entire picture of the process of negotiations over the issue between Japan and South Korea since the 1990s onward.
But the way the special coverage is structured doesn't feel quite right. The first-day portion re-examines the newspaper's own reporting on the issue, while the second-day part is devoted to analyzing the Japan-South Korea relationship, which has been rocked by the controversy. But the central question should be how this issue is affecting the two countries and their relationship. Details of reporting are only of secondary importance for many readers.
This structure appears to reflect the fact that The Asahi Shimbun has been criticized in recent years on the Internet or in other media for its past reporting on the issue of comfort women. But the coverage shows that other newspapers reported on the issue in more or less the same way in those days.
Debate on the issue in Japan has shown many signs of the Galapagos syndrome. Some conservatives in Japan argue that the debate should focus on whether Japanese military personnel and government officials directly took women away, saying Japan doesn't have to take any responsibility if that is not the case. But such a way of thinking is regarded as irrelevant outside Japan.
That this kind of argument only sounds like an unseemly attempt to avoid taking responsibility for the matter becomes clear when you imagine the government declaring it is not responsible for the nuclear accident because it was the electric utility's fault or a politician embroiled in a scandal putting all the blame on his secretary.
In order to solve the issue of comfort women, Japan needs to give up all attempts to defend itself with Galapagos-type arguments and take steps based on recognition of the aforementioned changes. The secret diplomacy approach, which doesn't pay enough attention to public acceptance, doesn't work, at least for this issue, in which the public has gotten emotionally involved to such an extent.
Specifically, information disclosure, clear explanations to the public and international joint actions should be the guiding principles. One worthwhile idea would be joint visits by the leaders of Japan, South Korea, China and the United States to Nanjing, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and the House of Sharing (Nanum) (a facility in the suburbs of Seoul where former comfort women live together). Then, the leaders would declare in front of survivors at each place that the tragedy they suffered will not be repeated. It will be relatively easy for the governments concerned to sell the proposal of such a joint action to their publics. Another idea worth consideration is the disclosure of details about the process of negotiations between Japan and South Korea over the issue since the 1950s onward. This is a tough challenge, but adjustment to the new age is necessary.
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Born in Tokyo in 1962, Eiji Oguma is an expert in historical sociology who has been studying mainly political thought and its history with the focus on nationalism and democracy. Oguma is the author of many books on related topics, such as democracy, patriotism, Japanese people's ideas about their race, history and social changes.