The great American writer William Faulkner once observed that “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” This certainly seems to hold true of events which took place in Asia during the War in the Pacific. While Europe has dealt with an equally painful history from those war years and has largely moved on, in Asia the ghosts of World War II continue to cast a long shadow over the region as it attempts to come to deal with an array of complex modern problems. In Asia, the past is always getting in the way.
In 2007 as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment, I held the first historic hearing on the Comfort Women issue. Although legislation had been introduced for more than a decade in the U.S. Congress, including by my good friend Lane Evans, Congress had never held a hearing on the matter. But, in 2007, I determined that my first act as Chairman would be to hold a hearing and at that hearing our Committee Members heard the excruciating testimony of three of the victims, two Korean ladies and one Dutch lady. The Committee was extraordinarily honored to have President Park Geun-hye, then a Member of South Korea’s National Assembly, attend the hearing as an observer.
Later that same year I worked with my good friend Mike Honda to see the adoption of House Resolution 121 which he introduced. The Korean-American community was instrumental in winning House support for passage of the Resolution. Mr. Dong Suk Kim and his organization, Korean American Civic Empowerment (KACE), took the lead in spearheading these community efforts. H. Res. 121 stated that” the Government of Japan should formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces' coercion of young women into sexual slavery, known to the world as ‘comfort women’, during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands from the 1930s through the duration of World War II.” We in the Congress hoped that once the U.S. House of Representatives had spoken on the issue, it could be put behind us so that we could work with our Pacific allies to face the challenges of a rising China and a nuclear North Korea.
In the years since, however, this has proven sadly not to be the case. Instead of moving forward as Germany did with her European partners to put a tragic history behind, recurring voices in Japan have resisted the calls for reconciliation and expression of remorse. With the return to power of the more nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the December elections in Japan, there have even been suggestions of revising or even rebuffing the 1993 statement of Chief Cabinet Secretary Kohei Kono apologizing to the “comfort women.” Others wish to take back the 1995 statement of then Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama “on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end.” The Prime Minister expressed regret for the fact that Japan “caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations” in pursuit of Tokyo’s militaristic strategy.
The renewed calls for historic revisionism undermine the attempts at reconciliation symbolized by the Kono and Murayama statements. The movement to deny the painful realities of World War II history in the Pacific represent not only a lack of progress but are, in fact, moves toward regression away from that limited level of reconciliation that has already been achieved.
In a recent letter to Japanese Ambassador Sasae, my House colleagues Mike Honda and Steve Israel noted, in regards to the Kono statement, that “if revised, this action would have grave implications for the U.S.-Japanese relationship and could ignite unnecessary tension and provocation with neighboring countries.”
Those who engage in a numbers game demonstrate a particular insensitivity to the suffering of the victims. Revisionists in Japan have challenged the figure of two hundred thousand for “comfort women’ claiming that there were, in fact, no more than fifty thousand victims. The same is done with regards to the Nanking massacre, where figures of “only one hundred thousand” dead Chinese civilians are floated while historic revisionists dismiss the “three hundred thousand” figure as inflated. These arguments over numbers in certain Japanese historic circles miss a fundamental point: numbers, after a certain point, do not matter. Whether fifty thousand young women were subjected to sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese army or a higher figure is not the point – the subjugation of even one person to such unspeakable horror is, of itself, a crime against humanity. The debate over numbers is little more than a smokescreen which attempts to confuse the real issue – the issue of a forthright and complete apology.
I have visited the House of Sharing outside of Seoul many times and met the elderly ladies who still bear the psychological scars of the horrendous treatment they suffered at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army almost seven decades ago. It is time, despite what Mr. Faulkner said, to bury the past once and for all. But that requires a genuine recognition of past wrong-doing by the perpetrator and a sincere apology to the victims. That is the decent, humane thing to do.