U.S. scholars express strong protest against Japan’s attempt to ‘censor history’

February 5, 2015

The statement is scheduled to appear in the March edition of the “Perspectives of History,” the official publication of the American Historical Association. (Yonhap)

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) — A group of American history scholars expressed strong protest against Japan’s attempts to pressure a textbook publisher to change the description of the country’s sexual enslavement of women during World War II, saying no government should have the right to “censor history.”

The 19 scholars also said in a joint statement sent to Yonhap News Agency that academic research and testimonies of survivors of the atrocity “have rendered beyond dispute the essential features of a system that amounted to state-sponsored sexual slavery.”

It is highly unusual for U.S. history scholars to collectively issue a statement on a specific historical issue. The professors are members of the American Historical Association and the statement was titled “Standing with Historians of Japan.”

Japan has raised the eyebrows of historians following revelations that it asked U.S. publisher McGraw-Hill to alter the description of the sexual slavery issue in one of its textbooks, “Tradition & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past,” claiming there are grave errors in the book.

The request was seen as an attempt to water down the atrocity.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also told a parliamentary meeting earlier this month that he was surprised to learn how the McGraw-Hill book describes the sexual slavery issue, and pledged government efforts to continue to push for changes.

“As historians, we express our dismay at recent attempts by the Japanese government to suppress statements in history textbooks both in Japan and elsewhere about the euphemistically named ‘comfort women,’ who suffered under a brutal system of sexual exploitation in the service of the Japanese imperial army during World War II,” the American historians said in the joint statement.

The scholars also accused the Abe administration of “vocally questioning the established history of the comfort women and seeking to eliminate references to them in school textbooks” as part of its effort to promote patriotic education.

They said they support the publisher and agree with author Herbert Ziegler that “no government should have the right to censor history.” They also said they stand with many historians in Japan and elsewhere who have worked to bring to light the facts about this and other atrocities of World War II.

“We practice and produce history to learn from the past. We therefore oppose the efforts of states or special interests to pressure publishers or historians to alter the results of their research for political purposes,” the statement said.

Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, mainly from Korea, which was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945, were forced to work in front-line brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II. But Japan has long attempted to whitewash the atrocity.

The sexual slavery issue has been the biggest thorn in frayed relations between Japan and South Korea, with Seoul demanding Japan take steps to address the grievances of elderly Korean victims of the atrocity and Japan refusing to do so.

The American historians said in the joint statement that there have been debates about whether the number of victims is in the tens of thousands or the hundreds of thousands and what precise role the military played in their procurement.

However, careful research by Tokyo’s Chuo University professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki in Japanese government archives and accounts from survivors throughout Asia made it beyond doubt that there existed state-sponsored sexual slavery, they said.

“Many of the women were conscripted against their will and taken to stations at the front where they had no freedom of movement. Survivors have described being raped by officers and beaten for attempting to escape,” the statement said.

Still, conservative Japanese politicians have deployed legalistic arguments in order to deny state responsibility, while others have slandered the survivors. Right-wing extremists have threatened and tried to intimidate journalists and scholars involved in documenting the system and the stories of its victims, the scholars said.

The statement is scheduled to appear in the March edition of the “Perspectives of History,” the official publication of the American Historical Association.

Following is the list of the 19 scholars who co-signed the joint statement.

- Jeremy Adelman, Princeton University

- W. Jelani Cobb, University of Connecticut

- Alexis Dudden, University of Connecticut

- Sabine Fruhstuck, University of California Santa Barbara

- Sheldon Garon, Princeton University

- Carol Gluck, Columbia University

- Mark Healey, University of Connecticut

- Miriam Kingsberg, University of Colorado

- Nikolay Koposov, Georgia Institute of Technology

- Peter Kuznick, American University

- Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburgh

- Devin Pendas, Boston College

- Mark Selden, Cornell University

- Franziska Seraphim, Boston College

- Stefan Tanaka, University of California San Diego

- Julia Adeney Thomas, Notre Dame University

- Jeffrey Wasserstrom, University of California Irvine

- Theodore Jun Yoo, University of Hawaii