TOKYO — A group of Japanese historians and academics is urging McGraw-Hill, the American publisher, to “correct” a college textbook that they say contains “many erroneous expressions” about sex slaves used by Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Saying that the women were simply prostitutes, the group is taking up an official Japanese effort to win support for its perspective on the euphemistically known “comfort women,” a particularly sensitive part of its wartime legacy.
“There are women in Amsterdam who sit in windows displaying their services and in Japan we have Soapland, which is part of the sex trade,” said Ikuhiko Hata, a Harvard- and Columbia-educated emeritus professor at Nippon University, likening the comfort women to those working in the red light districts in the Dutch and Japanese capitals.
Prostitutes have existed at every time in human history, so I do not believe that comfort women are a special category,” Hata told foreign journalists in Tokyo on Tuesday.
The issue of the comfort women is at the core of the political friction between Japan and the victims of its wartime actions in Korea and China. Seoul and Beijing contend that Japan is trying to whitewash its history of coercing as many as 200,000 women and girls — from occupied countries such as Korea, China, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations — to work as sex slaves, while Tokyo says that it has dealt with the issue already.
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is weighing how to address the issue in several high-profile speeches marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war this year. Some conservatives are pushing Abe to overturn a two-decade-old apology for Japan’s wartime “aggression” toward its neighbors.
As soon as Wednesday, 19 Japanese university professors will send a letter to McGraw-Hill taking issue with eight phrases in the two paragraphs about the “comfort women” in “Traditions and Encounters,” a 900-page history textbook used in U.S. colleges.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry has already attempted to persuade both McGraw-Hill and Herbert Ziegler, the University of Hawaii professor who wrote the paragraphs, to change the wording, and was rebuffed by both. Ziegler last month told The Washington Post that he viewed the request as “an infringement of my freedom of speech and my academic freedom.”
Twenty American professors published a letter in this month’s edition of the American Historical Association’s journal to express their “dismay at recent attempts by the Japanese government to suppress statements in history textbooks both in Japan and elsewhere.”
Now Japanese professors, led by Hata, are taking action, writing to McGraw-Hill to contest the textbook’s statement that as many as 200,000 women were forcibly recruited to be comfort women for Japan’s imperial army. Hata says the real number is about 20,000.
They also take issue with the claim that the women were “a gift from the emperor.” “This is too impolite expression for a school textbook, which defames the national head,” the Japanese letter says.
The Japanese historians also criticize the estimate that the women serviced 20 to 30 soldiers a day. If that were true, Hata said, “the soldiers would have had no time to fight the war; they would have been too busy going to the brothel all the time.”
“I have never seen so many mistakes in such a textbook,” he said at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, a heavily annotated copy of the book on the table in front of him.
“Historians, including myself, have decided to lodge a complaint and point out to McGraw-Hill the errors that they have made in their textbook, asking them to correct their errors,” he said, noting that he always thanks readers who write to him to correct errors in his books. “I’m full of great hopes that McGraw-Hill will be grateful to us, too.”
In a statement quoted by the Wall Street Journal in January, after the Foreign Ministry’s request to change the textbook, McGraw-Hill said: “Scholars are aligned behind the historical fact of ‘comfort women,’ and we unequivocally stand behind the writing, research and presentation of our authors.”
Japan’s Foreign Ministry has been promoting Hata to international media organizations, including to The Post, as an expert on the comfort women issue.
But the government has not been involved in the academics’ initiative, said Takako Ito, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. “In any case, the government of Japan respects and values the freedom of thought and freedom of expression in the United States and elsewhere to the fullest,” she said.
By Anna Fifield, who is The Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington DC, Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East.