Saving the Soul of a Nation
 “If we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.”
         -- George Santayana

EVERY WEDNESDAY AT NOON, a group of elderly women march on the Japanese
embassy in Seoul, South Korea. They march in the pouring rain, bitter cold and stifling
humidity that only Seoul can dish out. They have not missed a single Wednesday in over
twenty-one years. They are the last of an army of comfort women—women the Japanese
military raped and tortured as sex slaves during World War II. They are all more than 80
years old now and many are in their 90s. The Koreans call them “grandmothers,” a term
of honor and respect.

Their ranks are dwindling fast.

The estimated number of women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese varies
depending on who is doing the counting. Some Japanese nationalists say there were
fewer than 20,000 and that they were former prostitutes or willing volunteers. But the
evidence supports a much higher number. Today most historians agree there were more
than 200,000 . 200,000 women serving an army of over seven million. That’s one woman
for every thirty-five soldiers. They were Filipino, Chinese, even Dutch, but the vast
majority were Korean. Some were as young as 13.
As the women march, you can still see the pain and humiliation in their faces seventy
years later. The Japanese raped these women, these grandmothers, up to 40 times per
day. They were repeatedly beaten and tortured. They suffered horribly from venereal
disease and the Japanese forced them to have crude abortions when they got pregnant.
Many were executed. And many committed suicide. The Japanese government has never
formally apologized to them. And as the grandmothers march, the blinds on the Japanese
embassy remain closed.

The Empire of Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945. Since then, it has
issued a number of mostly informal apologies for its actions during the war. Many
apologies were insincere at best. For example, on September 6, 1984, thirty-nine years
after the war ended, a famously disingenuous ‘apology’ delivered to Korean President
Chun Doo Hwan by Emperor Hirohito was stated as follows:

“It is indeed regrettable that there was an unfortunate past between us for a period in this
century, and I believe that it should not be repeated again.”

In the early 1990’s, after a few comfort women finally found the courage to come forward,
the Japanese issued a series of informal apologies. But just like the Hirohito apology,
many were disingenuous. They often used the word
owabi for “apology”—a word in
Japanese only slightly weightier than “excuse me.” But the outrage grew around the
globe and finally bowing to the pressure, the Japanese government set up the Asian
Women’s Fund in 1995. The fund was a quasi-public organization to collect donations
from Japanese citizens (there were no government contributions) to distribute
compensation to comfort women. Run by volunteers (not the government) the fund
collected less than $5 million and distributed it to only 285 of the 200,000 comfort
women. The Japanese government closed it in March of 2007.

In 2006 in a special election, the Japanese Diet elected Shinzo Abe as Japan’s prime
minister. Abe, the first prime minister born after World War II and a right-wing nationalist,
is a historical revisionist. On the homepage of his website before he was prime minister,
he questioned the extent to which the Japanese used coercion toward comfort women.
Then, in March of 2007, Abe publicly stated that there was no evidence that the
Japanese government had kept sex slaves. Abe also led the Japanese Society for History
Textbook Reform that published the New History Textbook that whitewashes the criminal
actions of Japan during World War II. Schools throughout Japan use the textbook today.
Abe served as prime minister for two years, and was forced to resign after several
scandals in his administration. But in the 2012 general election, he was reelected prime
minister. And it appears that Japan is finally digging out from a two decade-long
economic slump. Under Abe, Japan might again become the leading economic and
political global force it once was. But, given that Abe is a historical revisionist, it seems
they will not take with them lessons from the past.

So outside the Japanese embassy the grandmothers March. They have simple demands.
1.    Admit the drafting of the Japanese military's "comfort women"
2.    Apologize officially
3.    Reveal truths about the war crimes
4.    Erect memorial tablets for the victims
5.    Pay restitution to the victims or their families directly from the government
6.    Teach the truth in public schools, so the events are never again repeated
7.    Punish the war criminals
These seem reasonable. However, it’s unlikely Japan will ever meet them, especially with
Shinzo Abe sitting in the Prime Minister’s office. It’s a shame—a tragedy really. Meeting
these simple demands before all the grandmothers die could help restore a modicum of
the dignity stolen from them seventy years ago.
But just as importantly, it would restore Japan’s own honor and save its very soul.

William Andrews

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