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Japan, Abe, And "Comfort Women"

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The issue of вЂ?comfort womenвЂ™Ð²Ð‚"a term used to describe women who provided sexual services to the Japanese military in World War IIвЂ"drew international attention last spring and continued into the fall after then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly questioned whether the women were coerced into prostitution. His denial angered many within the international community; South Koreans and Americans were particularly incensed. Many groups of former “comfort women” in South Korea, whose early 20th century colonization at the hands of Japan remains a major source of resentment, called for Abe to admit to Japan’s direct culpability, while in America, the House of Representatives approved a resolution in August, calling on Japan to acknowledge and apologize for forcing women into sexual slavery. While Abe faced pressure internationally to apologize, he faced domestic pressure to do the opposite, with a group of conservative members of the Liberal Democratic Party seeking to revise the statement issued by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993, apologizing for the government’s role in coercing вЂ?comfort women’ into prostitution. These conflicting forces behind the controversy are reflected in the media coverage of the вЂ?comfort women’ issue. The articles written on the subject by newspapers in the United States, South Korea, and Japan reveals three different images of the country’s wartime behavior and present political climate, all shaped by their own specific biases.

The American perspective of the “comfort women” controversy is represented here by the New York Times. Investigation of the Times’ coverage of the issue reveals a notable bias against Japan and Abe’s refusal to apologize, as well as displaying a slight misinterpretation of Japanese politics. The story broke in the Times with the March 2nd article “Abe Rejects Japan’s Files on War Sex”, by Norimitsu Onishi. In the article, more weight is given to the view that the “comfort women” were, in fact, coerced by the Japanese government into sexual slavery: “Historians believe some 200,000 womenвЂ"Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipinos, as well as Japanese, Dutch and other European womenвЂ"severed in Japanese military brothels.” That the issue remains a topic of scholarly debate in some circles is not mentioned. Opposition to this view is mentioned not as a historical concern, but a national one: “Japan denied that its military had been involved, calling the brothels private enterprises and the women prostitutes.” The article covering Abe’s reaction to the House passing a resolution calling for a formal apology furthers the anti-Japanese slant, including three quotes of former “comfort women” and none to the Japanese groups that their claims. Further establishing the Times’ somewhat negative portrayal of Japan was the establishing the term “comfort women” as a вЂ?Japanese euphemismвЂ™Ð²Ð‚"a description that makes Japan seem callousвЂ"in lieu of a more neutral description of the term’s origin.

The way the controversy is described in the New York Times also reflects a misunderstanding of Japanese politics. It portrays the issue as important particularly to the political right: “Mr. Abe softened his tone [on вЂ?comfort women’] after becoming prime minister… angering his conservative base.” While this would make sense in the context the liberal-conservative dynamic of American politics, it is less appropriate in the Japanese context, where the LDP enjoys political dominance that spans over most of the left and the right; a more apt context than a left-right divide would be the growing sense of Japanese nationalism that has caused some to seek to reinterpret Japan’s wartime behavior. Also missing from the Times’ coverage is reference to past controversies over Japan’s interpretation of its own history, which is mentioned extensively by both Japanese and Korean newspapers. Mention of the subject would have provided rich context valuable in explaining why the issue is so important to Japan and why it’s so angering for South Korea and other countries of which the “comfort women” originated.

In contrast with the New York Times is the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Shimbun, whose coverage has a noticeable pro-Japanese and anti-U.S. bias. Alongside articles on the controversy, the Yomiuri Shimbun published several editorials that downplayed the controversy and citing claims that the Japanese military played a role in coercing “comfort women” into forced sexual slavery as inaccurate. In an editorial outlining what issues should be covered in an upcoming Japan-U.S. summit, the “comfort women” issue is dismissed as a вЂ?misunderstanding’: “The resolution [demanding an apology for “comfort women” written by U.S. House Representative Mike Honda] is based on a misinterpretation of the matter and Japan has to clear up such misunderstandings regarding the issue.” A more overt example of the Yomiuri Shimbun’s pro-Japan slant and anti-U.S. bias is an editorial by Satoshi Ikeuchi, an associate professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, which sought to refute the claim that “comfort women” were coerced at all: “Claiming that several hundred thousand people were forcibly taken and coerced to prostitute themselves against their will is a far cry from reality. As for the unfamiliar concept of the “sex slave” system, this probably is a sensational analogy… U.S. lawmakers and media treat the fallacious argument as if were based on unshakable facts.” The historical consensus that the New York Times referenced is absent here; instead, the editorialist claims that a “wide range of sources and materials found and debates made by historians from various points along the political spectrum” supports his historical view. This not only denies the claim that the military coerced “comfort women” into prostitution; it instead labels them as voluntary prostitutes who were victimizedвЂ"but not forcedвЂ"by “private operators” instead of members of the Japanese military command or government. Opposite to the New York Times articles, the Yomiuri Shimbun’s



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