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Wrestling with ghosts of war
San Francisco Chronicle


August 04, 2005

The slender, bruised arm of Japanese dancer Nao Ohta - injured in her nation's revived civil war over World War II history - could be a symbol for modern Japan.

"We all have them," Ohta, 31, said of her fresh scab and bruises as she gestured toward three fellow dancers last week. They had just taken a battering in their intense Tokyo performance of "Silent Trace," an allegory about the brutal treatment suffered by "comfort women," the women forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army.

East Asia, unlike Europe and the United States, is still wrestling with the ghosts of World War II. The 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing on Saturday, of the Nagasaki bombing on Tuesday and of the war's end in Asia next weekend find Japan under renewed attack from activists who say the country never faced up to the atrocities its army committed before and during the war.

Japan's ruling conservatives in the Liberal Democratic Party are fighting back on multiple battlefronts: a war shrine that extols the World War II heroism of Japan's soldiers, including 14 found to be war criminals; a new middle school history textbook that critics accuse of whitewashing wartime atrocities; and proposed revision of Japan's "Peace Constitution." Imposed by the United States in 1947, the Constitution's Article 9 renounces war and prohibits Japan from maintaining forces for waging war.

Complaining that liberal war-guilt since 1945 has given the nation a masochistic self-image, conservatives are pushing to revise the nation's basic education law to instill more patriotism in the nation's youth. Education Minister Nariaki Nakayama said in a June speech that the curriculum under the nation's left-leaning teachers "has overemphasized that Japan is a bad country."

Last year, scores of teachers were reprimanded for disobeying a 1999 law mandating respect for the flag and singing of the national anthem in schools. Many teachers objected to what they viewed as symbols of Japanese imperialism.

Intensifying the conflict, the Chinese government frequently criticizes Japan, focusing especially on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Among the 2.5 million Japanese soldiers whose souls are believed enshrined there are Gen. Hideki Tojo and 13 others classified by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal as Class A war criminals.

Chinese anger flared into widely publicized street demonstrations this spring in response to Japan's bid for a U.N. Security Council seat, to a joint U.S.-Japan endorsement of peace over Taiwan as a "common strategic objective" and to government approval of the middle school textbook, though the book has been adopted by only a tiny fraction of schools.

Koizumi and his supporters say China shouldn't interfere in Japan's domestic issues. A poll last month by the liberal Mainichi newspaper found 51 percent of Japanese citizens opposed Koizumi's continued visits to Yasukuni and that 39 percent favored them.

Unlike the 50th anniversary of the war's end, when Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a full apology, and a sharply divided Parliament passed an equivocal apology after prolonged debate, this anniversary has a low profile among national government ranks.

Most of the planned commemorations have been organized by nongovernmental organizations and activists, while local governments in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are participating in events there.

Last Saturday, an estimated 9,500 people gathered in Tokyo to oppose revising the Constitution, as the Liberal Democratic Party has been working to do. And on Sunday, the new Women's Active Museum on War and Peace opened in Tokyo to tell the comfort women's story.

Conservatives have stepped up their defense of the nation's record, saying Japan has settled the disputed issues in various treaties and has apologized enough. A few justify Japan's invasion of China or even deny that atrocities like the Nanjing massacre occurred, though most say Japan's brutal aggression was wrong even if other nations acted similarly.

Particularly infuriating to Japan's critics are comments like Nakayama's last month when he approvingly cited an e-mail he received saying that comfort women could take pride that "their existence soothed distraught feelings of men in the battlefield," Japan's Asahi newspaper reported. In the past when Cabinet ministers made such remarks, they usually did so at the cost of their jobs.

"In the old days," said Xiaohua Ma, a Chinese expert in international studies teaching at Osaka University of Education, "they had to resign, but not now. It's a big change."

Supporters of the former comfort women say the Japanese military and private procurers coerced 200,000 women into sexual slavery. Most were from Korea, but many were from China, the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere.

One of the comfort women, a Korean named Song Shin-do who is now 84 and living in Japan, said at a press gathering last week that she just wanted a sincere apology. In an unsuccessful lawsuit against the government, she said she had been tricked at age 16 into going to a "comfort station" where she was threatened with death if she didn't submit, was routinely slapped around, lost her hearing in one ear when her eardrum was ruptured and saw the suicides of some of the women and the murder of one who refused to have sex because she was sick.

Prime Minister Koizumi most recently expressed a "heartfelt apology" before Asian and African leaders in Jakarta. In 1995 the government authorized a privately funded Asian Women's Fund to offer compensation and a written apology from the prime minister to each former comfort woman.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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