Scholars welcome global challenge to revisionism

Japanese academics worried about the country’s growing revisionist mood have welcomed an open letter by an international group of scholars to conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling for an end to nationalistic interpretation of the sexual slavery practised by the Imperial Army in World War II.

The letter has had an impact in Japan where it is becoming increasingly difficult for academics to speak out against the official view of history, they said.

The Open Letter in Support of Historians in Japan was issued on 5 May towards the end of a week-long official visit by the Japanese prime minister to the US, where he became the first Japanese prime minister to make a speech to a joint session of Congress.

Signed by 187 prominent historians around the world, it criticised the Abe government for persisting in whitewashing past war crimes and called for the “freedom of historical inquiry” to be defended against “nationalist distortions” in Japan and elsewhere.

Signatories included internationally renowned East Asian history experts such as Harvard University’s Professor Ezra Vogel and Pulitzer Prize winner John Dower, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The letter expressed “unity with the many courageous historians in Japan seeking an accurate and just history of World War II in Asia”.


The international scholars’ letter has “strongly raised the dark side of revisionism in Japan”, said Professor Emeritus Haruki Wada, a respected historian who taught at the University of Tokyo. “The letter has strong influence in Japan, more than domestic protests.”

Wada is a long-time advocate for a state apology and compensation for thousands of former ‘comfort women’, as the sex slaves forced to service the Japanese military are known, and is a former director of the now defunct Asian Women’s Fund.

The Fund was set up in 1995 by the then left-leaning government as a private entity to provide redress to former comfort women from South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and other countries. It was closed down in 2007.

Wada notes it is increasingly difficult as an academic to speak out in Japan. “In the past, when Japanese scholars spoke out we were respected for taking a strong stance on national affairs. But now there is the spin that we are working against Japan’s interests and must be ignored,” he told University World News.

Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus in Tokyo and one of the signatories, said the international letter is important because it serves as an “open rebuke” to revisionists.

Academics in Japan battle relentlessly against efforts to whitewash history, Kingston said via email. “Unfortunately there are also the other professors who cosy up to the government for power, prestige and funding. These craven opportunists have helped undermine democracy in Japan.”

‘Dangerous time’

“It’s a dangerous time for Japan,” said the president of Shiga University, Takamitsu Sawa. “There is a strong trend in Japan today by Abe sympathisers to stamp [out] opposition. Universities are becoming silent under this lopsided surge in nationalism. Professors are worried about harassment if they speak out.”

Sawa referred to the recent bullying of former Asahi Shimbun journalist Takashi Uemura, working as an assistant professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Hokkaido. Uemura wrote articles in 1991 quoting a former comfort woman which conservative media has claimed is fabricated.

Hokusei Gakuen University and Tezukayama Gakuin University in Osaka prefecture, where another former Asahi reporter worked, last year received bomb threats.

Uemura in January filed a defamation suit against a publisher and against Tsutomu Nishioka, a right-wing professor at Tokyo Christian University, a denier of crimes against comfort women.

Uemura stated in January: “There is a movement in Japan to stop people who want to shine a light on the dark side of history, on the parts of the war that people don’t want to mention.”

Abe’s vision, popular in the country, is to make his country a “proud” nation again by focusing on economic dynamism and history revision of the dark side of Japan’s repressive colonialism in Asia.

Particularly thorny in Japan is acknowledging its responsibility for the comfort women taken from Japan’s colonies, the Korean peninsula and China and many countries in Southeast Asia.

Abe’s revisionist stance is supported by some Japanese scholars who insist there is no evidence the women were enslaved by the Japanese military. Instead, Abe says they were “trafficked” by brokers who must shoulder the blame, a view rejected by academics in China and South Korea.

The open letter calls for further research that is “free from government manipulation, censorship and private intimidation.”


In the Open Letter in Support of Historians in Japan scholars note that most of the documents were destroyed during World War II. However, testimony from victims and other documentation on the horrific abuse of women in comfort stations does exist.

“There is no easy path to ‘correct history’,” the scholars wrote, urging Japan to acknowledge past wrongs, which strengthens a democratic society and fosters cooperation among nations.

Abe has also been advocating changing Japan’s post-war Peace Constitution to allow a stronger military, a step the pacifist public is watching warily, launching street protests. Opposition parliamentarians accused Abe of not encouraging a public debate on the landmark changes.