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The Turning Tide in the Comfort Women Debate

Grossly exaggerated claims concerning the Nanjing Massacre and comfort woman controversies are faltering, and not due to lack of evidence alone.



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A comfort women statue in Berlin's Mitte district is unveiled by the German-Korean civic group Korean Council, with a plaque of false history written on it. (October 2020)

To the Joe and Jill six-packs of the West ー the everyman and everywoman ー comfort women comprise 200,000 school aged Korean girls who, they were taught, were dragged out of their homes and tossed onto the back of trucks, and the Nanjing Massacre was of 300,000 Chinese civilians.

However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, which in both cases of the comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre, does not exist. 

The Nanjing Massacre was predominantly made up of around 20,000 Chinese military deserters and stragglers who had attempted to blend in with the civilian population that was sheltering within a safety zone. A sociological study conducted in the immediate post-massacre months produced a civilian death toll of around 10,000, including the collateral damage incurred from bombing and shelling during the battle for the city, and those who were mistakenly or opportunistically deemed to be soldiers masquerading as civilians. 

The 300,000 figure is a fantasy. 

Similarly, there is little evidence of Korean women being physically press-ganged into the comfort women program. The women were undeniably coerced or maneuvered into prostitution via outside influence or poverty, but that has been the case with sex workers since the dawn of time. 

Coercion in the sex trade is a given. To conclude that the comfort woman program was substantively different from prostitution prior to the era of Japanese annexation of the Korean Peninsula or since the World War II era is to believe in the concept of the willing prostitute, an insensitive and empathy-deficient mindset.

Image of a post card sent by Iris Chang to the author in response to comments on errors in her book.

Origins of the Distortions

How did these extreme interpretations of the Nanjing Massacre and the comfort woman program come about? 

In the case of the Nanjing Massacre, the principle reason is the book, The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, published in 1996 (Pengun Books). In her book, Chang starts with the premise of 300,000 deaths then attempts to collate the numbers. It is an uncritical assemblage of all available claims in support of massacre deaths that can be found.

Chang’s account has been widely challenged. Described by academic Mark Eykholt as “mixing good research and biased speculation to portray an evil and secretive Japan”, it is error-strewn. Her refusal to deal with these errors resulted in both a Japanese publisher canceling publication of the book and Japanese liberals alleging that Chang’s “flawed scholarship damages their cause.” 

Whether through timing, luck, or Chang’s considerable skills at self promotion, however, The Rape of Nanking has been a stunning commercial success, selling more than half a million copies. It remains the most widely read book on the Nanjing Massacre and dominates popular narrative.

Photo of an actual page of Ziegler's text in the history textbook, "Traditions and Encounters". (Photo by author)

Textbook Fiction

A particularly influential account of the comfort women issue was also collated in the late 1990s. It is the two paragraph insertion in the United States college world history textbook, Traditions and Encounters; a Global Perspective on the Past, by publisher McGraw-Hill. Co-authored by American historian Herbert F. Ziegler, it asserts “up to 300,000” women and girls “aged fourteen to twenty” were “forcibly conscripted, recruited or dragooned,” “80 percent” of whom were Korean. The women were “a gift from the Emperor,” the textbook alleges. And at war’s end, “large numbers were massacred to cover up the operation”. 

None of these claims is supported by the evidence. 

While Chang’s account on Nanjing has been challenged by American academia, Ziegler’s two paragraphs on the comfort women issue have not. They sat uncontested as a summation of choice for American college and high school students until the government of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe formally complained in 2014

American academics rallied around Ziegler. A group of twenty was formed. 

“We do not make claims about the content of the textbook,” stated Alexis Dudden, a spokesperson for the group, conceding by omission that American academia had allowed (and continues to allow) an indefensible account of the comfort women to be taught to American youth. 

“Our concern was and remains with two basic features of historical research in an open society such as Japan” she continued, expounding: “First, academic freedom; and second, the repression and denial of a proven international history.” 

Who Lacks Academic Freedom?

But academic freedom and a vigorous debate already abound in Japan, as academics quoted in articles referenced in this report can attest.

Instead, the academic freedom retort expounded by Dudden is typically the preserve of academics who face legal action or job dismissal in other countries for forwarding an unpopular historical interpretation. 

Contemporary examples are found in professors Park Yu-ha and Lew Seok-choon, who face prosecution for making statements on the comfort women issue that do not conform with the “correct view” held by the South Korean government. 

The charge wholly inappropriate in Ziegler’s case. The Japanese government has no power in the matter of American textbooks, no legal clout, no recourse. It can do nothing except state its position. A rural United States school board within a community of 5,000 citizens would have greater leverage. 

The group of twenty’s attempt to characterize Japan as a dark oppressive force through the academic freedom argument is very much out of Iris Chang’s playbook. Yet, the claim of academic freedom was a right to which Chang, as a non-academic, did not appear entitled. That argument was never forwarded in her defense. 

Indeed, Chang’s absence of an academic background has frequently been cited to excuse her failings. This is ironic, given that unlike Ziegler, Chang provided some degree of endnoting. 

A prerequisite of the academic freedom defense is for the work to conform with the basic tenets of academia, most specifically, that the writer references sources, enabling the work to be independently reviewed and challenged by his or her peers. 

Ziegler’s sources can only be imagined. He has refused to provide details despite repeated requests. 

This claim of academic freedom by the twenty US historians is an attempt to portray their own petulant obstinacy as heroic defiance. It is totally without merit. 

The ‘Proven International History’ Ruse

The second of the group of twenty’s stated complaints concerns the “repression and denial of a proven international history.” 

Plaque on the grave of 'Rape of Nanking' author Iris Chang.

This complaint is equally questionable. The group’s allegation equates the insistence upon a credible interpretation of a controversial event with denial of that event in toto. Additionally, a not uncommon follow-on charge employed by Dudden, for one, is to characterize such as objections as on par with holocaust denial. 

The Long March was an iconic event in the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The party line is that the march was 12,500 kilometers in length. Two British men spent more than a year retracing the Red Army’s route and disputed the CCP’s claim. They contend that the march could only have been in the order of 6,100 kilometers

If retorting in the manner of the twenty US historians, the CCP would charge that the British men were denying that the march (and the holocaust) had ever taken place. Of course they do not, and the CCP has not.

The 'No Records' Excuse

A couple of additional arguments in support of the exaggerated claims regarding the Nanjing Massacre and the comfort women have become common during recent years. One is to argue that the Japanese military destroyed the records and that’s why the assertions cannot be documented. 

It is indeed true that the Japanese military destroyed innumerable sensitive documents in the days between surrender and the arrival of the occupational force. But the onus for verification must always lie with those who make claims. 

It is not within the bounds of accepted academic practice to forward a wildly exaggerated and unsubstantiated interpretation of an historical event and then defend it on the grounds that the documentation which might have supported it has been destroyed, especially when there is clearly some documentation left.

Most Common Argument: Accept the Gist

Perhaps the most common argument, however, is to state that the Nanjing Massacre and comfort woman program were undoubtedly incidents of significance, and for that reason the Japanese should simply accept the gist of the commonly advocated interpretations and stop obsessing on the numbers and details. 

Following the reasoning of the proponents of this theory, there are evidently two schools when it comes to the interpretation of  history: the “gist” school and the “facts matter” school. 

Applying this to the controversy regarding Ziegler’s two paragraphs, an acceptable resolution would be for the following proposed language to be placed within the foreword of the textbook:

Notes on the application of numbers.

There are two schools of thought when it come to numerical totals: the gist school in which numbers such as 200,000 and 300,000 should be taken to mean “a great many,” or “a considerable number,” or “a lot”, and the facts matter school in which 200,000 and 300,000 are considered to mean 200,000 and 300,000. 

When discussing the Nanjing Massacre and Japanese comfort women program, the gist approach has been employed. The objections over lack of evidence raised by the facts matter advocates are acknowledged. 

Would Ziegler and the twenty US historians support such an inclusion? I suspect they would recoil with incredulity at the thought of “facts matter” being attributed to the other side. But they can’t have it both ways.

Patriot Games

The alternative to historians initiating a revision is for the publisher, McGraw-Hill, to commission one. The chances of this seem unlikely. 

A landmark publication on the subject of US history texts was Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W Loewen, first published in 1995 by The New Press. Disturbingly, Loewen concludes that no US publisher promotes accuracy as a selling point, preferring to market on the basis of patriotism. 

In the case of Traditions and Encounters, moreover, it is not just American patriotism that has been taken into account. The text has also passed muster with the Chinese Communist Party. A translated version is published by Beijing University Press

As well as the paragraphs on the comfort women, the Chinese translation contains a section on Nanjing that goes even further than Iris Chang, claiming that “[f]our hundred thousand Chinese lost their lives as Japanese soldiers used them for bayonet practice and machine gunned them into open pits.” These interpretations are ones that Chinese Communist Party patriots would surely wish to retain. 

With the comfort woman statue in the background covered by a blue sheet by the Korean organization, a protest calling for an end to the comfort women fraud was held in Berlin in June 2022.

Changing Times

The future may look bleak for those in favor of a balanced view of the Nanjing Massacre and comfort woman controversies. But in the medium and long term, there is reason for considerable optimism. 

The ultimate arbiters in any historical debate are the Joes and the Jills, whose willingness and capacity to examine an issue is limited. When it comes to contested history, they unsurprisingly come down in support of those perceived as “good” over those considered to be “evil”.

In the late 1990s, China was a land of promise and hope while Japan was both an economic threat and the World War II tormentor of the elderly generation, the grandfathers and grandmothers of 1990s America. The defenders of Japan were as good as wasting their time in their appeal to the American everyman and everywomen. An unfavorable interpretation was destined to prevail. 

Times, however, have changed. Opinion polls are indicating that the everyman now sees the threat coming via China. Meanwhile the passions of the grandfathers and grandmothers of the late 1990s have passed from this world. 

Reason for Optimism

Japanese bids for a balanced accounting of the Nanjing Massacre and comfort woman controversies are increasingly resonating. Chinese insistence on the exaggerated interpretations are coming to be seen as part of a pattern of duplicity from the untrustworthy. 

South Koreans are discovering that their kinship with China as victims of Japan is no longer an asset in cementing “correct views”.

I was recently informed on social media to be wary of a latent samurai spirit lurking beneath Japan’s surface veneer. I replied with amusement that based on my recent social media exchanges, apprehension regarding the present conduct of China has risen to the point where many within the West are counting on that to be true. 

Accordingly, historians supporting Chang, and Ziegler, and publisher McGraw-Hill, will find themselves attempting to hold back an incoming tide. That the evidence does not back the exaggerations could even be less of a concern than their erosion of support among the Joes and the Jills of the world.


Author: Paul de Vries

Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history at this link.

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