The Ever-Changing Significance of World War II Memory

Written by Mallory Strider, May 2016.

Carol Gluck eloquently states in her essay “Operations of Memory: ‘Comfort Women’ and the World” that World War II was “a total war that demanded total mobilization and a kind of total memory, from which no one was meant to be exempt.”  At its core, this “totality” was plural in nature with its divisions falling along national lines, and in its great scope and intensity, the aftermath of World War II saw the rise of distinct national discourses of memory, hitherto unprecedented in the increasingly globalized community.  The emergence of these discourses arose partly as an extension of wartime exigencies; in the series of conflicts that spanned the globe, the viciousness of war placed extreme demands on countries’ entire populations, whereby the need to rally support and “[project an image of] national unity” resulted in the appropriation and transformation of individual experiences into national symbols.

Stories of personal sacrifice, heroism and bravery, and the suffering of soldiers and civilians alike were used to exemplify and inculcate nationalistic values.  As countries and communities turned to face the momentous task of rebuilding after the war, instances of atrocities and travesties came to be emblematic of the victimization countries suffered at the hands of other belligerents.  As scholar C. Sarah Soh points out in her book The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, discourse in Korea on the euphemistically named “comfort women” saw the rise of a “paradigmatic story” which describes a system of sexual slavery wherein young virgin women were recruited into military sexual servitude through deception, coercion, or kidnapping.  Soh argues that this dominant narrative obscures not only the diversity of experiences of comfort women, but also the systemic structural violence that contributed both to the formation of the system as well as ongoing oppression throughout these women’s lives.   This transformational process of memory has served to further complicate an already convoluted issue, adding e issues such as reparations and diplomatic relations, and imbuing the discourse with an emotional tenor that hinders mutual understanding in favor of often nationalistic self-interests.  Addressing memory of World War II has proven especially challenging as the complexities are magnified by the intensity of the violence perpetrated during the war, as well as the dynamic nature of memory itself.  Amidst the clamor of contested histories, scholarship on memory has exploded and called attention to discourses that have historically been overshadowed by official state-sanctioned narratives.  

Among the scholarship pertaining to the Asia-Pacific War, Takashi Yoshida’s The Making of the Rape of Nanking stands out as a stunning historiographical reading of one of the most contentious events of World War II in East Asia.  Drawing from a wide variety of scholarly and non-scholarly texts, Yoshida highlights the fact that the highly contested debates over the meaning and memory of the massacre has led to “a seemingly endless generation of written narratives and visual material.”  In tracing the evolution of discourse on the Nanjing Massacre, Yoshida calls attention to the influence that conservative commentators and the media have had on the discourse and understandings of the event.  “Had there not been intense challenges from the revisionists,” he argues, “the history and memory of the Nanjing Massacre might have remained a domestic issue rather than becoming an international symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression.”  Yoshida’s observations–about the proliferation of documents and the role of conservative “revisionists”–easily translate to the comfort women issue and bear significantly on contemporary issues of memory and redress.

It is within this context that the Japanese conservative newspaper Sankei Shimbun published the book History Wars: Japan–False Indictment of the Century, under the pretense of “help[ing to] deepen understanding of the comfort women issue.”  Railing against “comfort women” discourses that purportedly demean Japan, History Wars presents itself as a compilation of Sankei’s efforts to answer how the current discourse arose, origins of false claims, and how they came to be so pervasive.  As a recent addition to the “text wars,” History Wars stands out among conservative “vernacular memory” in the way that it undertakes a pseudo-historiographical approach, not unlike that of Yoshida (but to be sure, Yoshida’s work is not pseudo-historiographical).   The short volume undertakes a broad reading of documents and events pertaining to and impacting the “comfort women” discourses.  The authors of History Wars demonstrate an acute awareness not only of how these texts were received and how they influenced comfort women discourses, but of the intertextual referencing that exists among the documents.  

The majority of chapter 1 is devoted to an analysis and refutation of the Kono Statement, a highly contested piece of testimony released by a Japanese government official about the “comfort women” nearly 50 years after the end of the war.  Issued on August 4, 1993 by Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei, the statement “acknowledged the coercive nature of recruitment of comfort women… and… expressed heartfelt apology and regret to the comfort women.”  Sankei alleges the statement “spread misinformation to the world that ‘the Japanese government had publicly acknowledged the coercive recruitment and sex slavery,’ even though these allegations were groundless.”  Sankei Shimbun’s refutation of the Kono Statement is central to the overall argument presented in History Wars.  As a case study, History Wars’ discussion of the Kono Statement provides a useful example of the rhetorical style and method of argumentation used throughout the work and also touches on important and recurring themes of memory discourse.  Generally speaking, History Wars is inconsistently critical of sources and often partial in its critique of those documents and events.  The first chapter reflects how evidence and argument is employed in the broader scope of the book.  Analysis of the Kono Statement illustrates some of the problematic features found throughout the book: self-citation; disjointed and incomplete lines of reasoning; and inadequate partial analysis of documents and situations.  

In the forward, History Wars is described as a compilation of articles whose publication began in April 2014.  While the book actually assumes the format of an essay in four short chapters, the prefatory description nevertheless signals a self-referential tendency that recurs throughout the work.  This is particularly evident in its discussion of the Kono Statement.  In building its case against the credibility of the statement, History Wars focuses primarily on a series of selected interviews with former comfort women and on collaboration between the Japanese and Korean governments, both of which influenced the drafting of the Kono Statement and comprise the most developed points of refutation.

History Wars takes up the issue of the comfort women interviews by citing a Sankei article published in October 2013 which reported on the interviews’ contents.  A mere two paragraphs are devoted to the topic, the first of which reads as follows:


Concerning preparation of the “Kono Statement,” the Sankei Shimbun, in an October 2013 exclusive, reported the contents of surveys based interviews [sic] of 16 former comfort women in South Korea that had been kept secret by the government.  The article had the headlines and subtitles such as “Slipshod Survey: the former comfort women report”; “Testimonies including the names vague”; “Worked in regions that had no comfort stations”; and “The ‘Kono Statement’: Evidence Crumbles.”


In the next paragraph, History Wars references the source that informed the article, a government document, claiming that it “brought to light the true situation surrounding the making of the ‘Kono Statement’” and concludes with a second sentence that recapitulates, almost verbatim, the previously mentioned headlines.

The claim relies on headlines and subtitles to delegitimize the interviews, offering no concrete information from either the government report or Sankei Shimbun’s own articles.  It essentially gestures at documentary evidence without explaining its relevance or offering any analysis.  Ostensibly, the documents might support a legitimate argument, however History Wars does not do the work of actually presenting any evidence to the reader.  Ultimately, the argument relies on Sankei Shimbun’s credibility.  What can only be described as a rhetorical failure is thus compounded by the fact that History Wars makes no true effort to establish its own credibility.  

The second line of reasoning used to discredit the Kono Statement centers on the collaboration between the Japanese and Korean governments in preparing the statement and here again, History Wars similarly introduces the topic through Sankei Shimbun headlines.  In this case, however, the discussion expands beyond the summary list of findings to discuss contemporaneous responses to the articles cited in the essay.  By expanding the discussion here, the book opens itself up to critique of its arguments and lack of explanations in previous and later sections, as discussed earlier.  According to History Wars, the Sankei Shimbun had conducted interviews with Former Administrative Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobuo Ishihara on three separate occasions prior to releasing its January 2014 exposé.  On these occasions, Ishihara purportedly denied the existence of objective evidence evincing government involvement in coercive recruiting tactics.  The articles of January 2014, which reported on the Japan-Korea collaboration, contested previous denials made by Kono and other officials. As a result  of the articles, History Wars alleges, Ishihara was summoned to testify before Lower House Budget Committee after which the Japanese government launched an investigation into the matter of collaboration.

The self-referential nature of the text is here accompanied by a self-congratulatory tone, which–though stylistically gauche–is bolstered by the claim that “the results of the experts’ examination confirmed nearly all of the previous reporting concluded by the Sankei Shimbun up to that date.”  In corroborating Sankei Shimbun’s reporting with the findings of government-hired investigators, History Wars attempts to legitimize the articles it references; however, the effort falls short because of a recurring problem in argumentation: partial analysis.

History Wars effectively undermines Sankei Shimbun’s credibility along with the legitimacy of their arguments by presenting incomplete and often disjointed lines of reasoning.  For instance, the discussion of Ishihara’s testimony and the ensuing investigation is followed by the assertion that “due to the revelation of previously unacknowledged facts like this [e.g. that collaboration between the Japanese and Korean governments had occurred], the Japanese public became aware that the assertions by Koreans and others about the interpretation of this history turned out to be not just inaccurate, but also far from the truth.”  Not only does History Wars fail to identify which specific assertions are ostensibly invalidated by the existence of collaboration, but the text does not explain the process by which the diplomatic collaboration renders the Kono Statement invalid.  The discourse instead jumps to the issue of reparations and the 1965 Japan-Korea Treaty on Basic Relations, and then turns to debates on the definition of “coercion.”  It finally returns to the topic of collaboration in the next section “Japan’s Goodwill Betrayed,” citing Ishihara’s claim the Japanese officials involved in crafting the statement had believed the issue would be settled if they admitted coercion.  Ignoring the fact that this claim relies primarily on the testimony of a single individual (Ishihara), even if one were to take this as evidence that the Japanese government was coerced into issuing the statement, the discussion fails to engage at any point the opposing viewpoint.  Moreover, the disjointed structuring of the subject renders the already weak argument difficult to follow.

The problematic analytical style also makes itself apparent in the issue of comfort women interviews.  History Wars is limited in the variety of sources it uses and is inconsistently critical of those it does draw upon.  Where the interviews are concerned, this limited engagement with the literature serves to obscure an important fact: these interviews were but one part of a study upon which the Kono Statement was based.  The interviews were conducted in addition to the collection of official documents revealing military involvement in the coercive recruitment of comfort women.  In Sankei’s myopic focus on the interviews, the documents and indeed context fall by the wayside.  Scholar Tessa Morris-Suzuki points out that official military records, soldiers’ diaries, and recorded oral testimony from soldiers are among the documentary evidence showing clear “involvement of the military in the recruitment, transport, and organization of women.”  Morris-Suzuki cites  an official document of the Imperial Japanese Navy that evinces direct military involvement in recruitment for a comfort station in Balikpapan, Indonesia.  Amidst Sankei’s assertions that “truthful” histories have been unfairly suppressed, it is significant that Morris-Suzuki notes that the official Navy document has been largely ignored since it was presented before the Japanese Diet in May 2013.  While the methodology is problematic due to its tendency to ignore certain facts and favor others, it causes even more problems for the larger argumentation method used throughout the book.

Strategically speaking, History Wars utilizes the tactic of attempting to destroy the credibility of important works that have been cited as evidence in subsequent influential works on the comfort women issue–texts that espouse views contrary to those advocated by Sankei.  In this manner, History Wars presents evidence to arrive at an argumentative claim, which is subsequently presented as evidence for further claims, a process which occurs on several levels.  This layering of arguments is precarious given that the foundational assumptions that form the basis of their claims are often based on questionable, simplistic, or ambiguous analyses.  Moreover, in the presentation of various subject matter, the sequencing is somewhat chaotic and occasionally disjointed.  This disjointed narrative, paired with the questionable method of argumentation, ultimately gives rise to a fairly muddled and disorienting “study” of the comfort women issue.  Whether intentional or not, History Wars presents the discerning reader with the monumental task of disentangling a jumble of flawed logic, incomplete analyses, and questionably relevant information that comprise numerous lines of argument which often drop off only to be taken up again at seemingly arbitrary intervals.

Between this method of argumentation and the inflammatory, one-sided rhetoric, it is little wonder that scholars are reticent to engage with this type of work.  History Wars reads as a history book, and a deeply flawed one at that.  It engages in similar analytical exercises and employs the same methodologies, but does so recklessly and with an agenda.  As a standalone document, it undermines the careful work being done on this topic by qualified scholars.  However, as much as History Wars  imitates a scholarly text and mimics historical methodologies, it is not a scholarly text.  It must be read and interpreted differently.

One of the most striking features of History Wars is how it illustrates the interactions between the national and vernacular realms of memory and discourse.  The Japanese government’s stance on the comfort women issue, as well as its position and interests within the international community inform and shape the way information is presented and arguments are deployed in History Wars. In the case of the conservative Japanese right, its  position variously overlaps with, interacts with, is influenced by, and exists independently from the state’s stance and interests.  In a manner of speaking, the nationalism that was fostered during the war took on a life of its own and continues to play out in the vernacular realm of the conservative right.  The so-called “false indictment of the century” is not a denial that the military comfort women system existed and was terrible, but rather a denial of direct government involvement in the systematic oppression of these women.  However fallacious the claim, the singular focus on proving this point operates out of a nationalist paradigm, so much so that History Wars attempts to distance the Kono Statement from the official state line by pointing out that it was not approved by the cabinet at the time it was issued.

The malleability of this nationalist-orientation manifests throughout the text and allows Sankei to both use the nation-state as a source of legitimacy and to undermine/support different interested parties as necessary.  History Wars’ discussion of the collaborative component of the Kono Statement is a case in point.  In focusing on the collaboration between the Japanese and Korean governments, it fails to account for other interested parties (former comfort women, advocacy groups, overseas activists, etc.) assuming that any agreement negotiated between the nations would adequately resolve the issue in its entirety.  Moreover, the book seems to take for granted that the comfort women issue is an issue between nations, thereby privileging the nation-states over smaller groups and validating the authority of the nation to represent its constituents.  This of course ignores the fact that many opposition groups do not fall under any single nationality.  Thus, the myth of the monolith is reinforced by way of argument for the sake of the nation state.

In its many manifestations, the nationalist paradigm that permeates History Wars is characterized by and facilitates a sort of myopia that allows its authors to strategically navigate its terrains of discourse.  Just as the nationalist-orientation of the “false indictment” facilitates the omission of the actual victims, so too does the nationalist ideal inform Sankei’s dismissive explanation of Japanese people who are sympathetic to the comfort women issue and redress movement.  Conjuring the trope of the victor’s history, History Wars claims that Japanese comfort women sympathizers are the victims of forgetting and brainwashing.  History Wars does not explore any arguments that it does not deliberately attempt to dismantle, and in so doing displaces the ideological division between countrymen to give the illusion of unity through victimhood.  Even the outrage expressed about the Korean government’s influence on the Kono Statement is tempered by attributing changes in attitudes to pressure from “anti-Japanese groups,” a careful move that softens their critique of this international ally and former colony.  In a lengthy and problematic discussion on public memory in the United States, History Wars similarly attributes the passing of U.S. House Resolution 121–“a nonbinding resolution condemning Japan”–to the unscrupulous lobbying of anti-Japanese Chinese- and Korean-American activists.  It is noteworthy that in virtually all its discussion of international affairs, Sankei Shimbun delineates alliances and enmities that closely parallel state interests.  History Wars demonstrates the ways in which the vernacular realm of memory and the agendas of special interest groups are subject to the influence of state rhetoric and official commemoration. These relationships express the essential features of the dynamic Carol Gluck gestured at when she muses, “so it seemed that by imprisoning a world war within national borders, nations recapitulated in memory the nation-centered interests that had caused the war in the first place.”