Japan revisionists deny WW2 sex slave atrocities

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News

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Media caption,
Lee Ok Seon: "I was forced to have sex with many men each day"

Seventy years after the end of World War Two, the voices of revisionism in Japan are growing stronger and moving into the mainstream, particularly on the issue of comfort women, who were women forced to be sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the war.

One of the most eloquent voices of revisionism is Toshio Tamogami.

Mr Tamogami is well-educated, knowledgeable and, when I meet him, exquisitely polite. The former chief of staff of Japan's air force believes in a version of Japanese history that is deeply at odds with much of the rest of the world.

But it is increasingly popular among young Japanese, tired of being told they must keep apologising to China and Korea.

Last year Mr Tamogami ran for governor of Tokyo. He came fourth, with 600,000 votes. Most strikingly, among young voters aged 20 to 30 he got nearly a quarter of the votes cast.

"As a defeated nation we only teach the history forced on us by the victors," he says. "To be an independent nation again we must move away from the history imposed on us. We should take back our true history that we can be proud of."

In this "true" history of the 20th Century that Mr Tamogami talks of, Japan was not the aggressor, but the liberator. Japanese soldiers fought valiantly to expel the hated white imperialists who had subjugated Asian peoples for 200 years.

It is a proud history, where Japan, alone in Asia, was capable of taking on and defeating the European oppressors. It is also a version of history that has no room for the Japanese committing atrocities against fellow Asians.

Mr Tamogami believes that Japan did not invade the Korean Peninsula, but rather "invested in Korea and also in Taiwan and Manchuria".

I ask him about the invasion of China in 1937 and the massacre of civilians in the capital Nanjing. Surely that was naked aggression?

"I can declare that there was no Nanjing Massacre," he says, claiming there were "no eyewitnesses" of Japanese soldiers slaughtering Chinese civilians.

Media caption,
Former chief of Japan's air forces, Toshio Tamogami, says that stories of atrocities such as the Nanjing massacre in the 1930s are "lies and fabrication"

It is when I ask him about the issue of Korean comfort women that Mr Tamogami's denials are most indignant.

He declares it "another fabrication", saying: "If this is true, how many soldiers had to be mobilised to forcibly drag those women away? And those Korean men were just watching their women taken away by force? Were Korean men all cowards?"

Although they may not say it as loudly and as bluntly as Mr Tamogami, this is a version of history that is widely believed by many of Japan's nationalists.

Earlier this year at a joint session of the US Congress in Washington DC, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed deep sorrow for the suffering caused by Japan during WW2.

Mr Abe does not deny there were Korean women serving as comfort women near the frontlines in China and South East Asia.

But he has repeatedly said there is no evidence these women were coerced or that the Japanese military was involved in their recruitment and confinement. The implication is the women were prostitutes.

This is a very murky area. Girls from poor families have been sold in to prostitution in Japan, Korea and China for centuries, and the practice was certainly still going on in the 1930s and 1940s.

But that does not absolve the Japanese military from responsibility.

'We were kidnapped'

In a quiet valley an hour's drive from Seoul there is a small care home called the House of Sharing. This is where some of the last surviving comfort women are cared for in their old age. There are only ten left here now.

Lee Ok Seon is a tiny 88-year-old with thick white curly hair and badly-fitting false teeth. She chuckles as I try to cajole her to speak to me in Chinese.

Ms Lee spent 65 years in China, and only returned to South Korea 15 years ago.

She was born in the port city of Busan on the southern tip of modern day South Korea. Her family was poor and she was sent out to work at the age of 14.

"I had to start work as a housekeeper for another family at a young age. It was at that time I was out on the street one day… that's how I got kidnapped," she says.

She said two men grabbed her and put her on a train. "By the time we arrived I realised we had crossed the border into China. I was sent to a place where there were already several comfort women.

"I wonder why they called us comfort women. We didn't go by our own accord, we were kidnapped. I was forced to have sex with many men each day."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
A monument to comfort women was erected outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2011

Ms Lee spent three years in the brothel close to a Japanese military camp in Manchuria. I ask her why she didn't try to escape.

"Of course I tried to escape several times!" she says. "Each time I was taken back and I was beaten over and over.

The military police would ask me 'Why are you trying to escape?' I would tell them because I am cold and have no food. They would hit me again saying I talked too much."

She says that she lost part of her hearing and some of her teeth from those assaults.

Revisionists like Mr Tamogami say women like Lee Ok Seon have been coached to embellish their stories; that they are tools of a South Korean government that is intent on humiliating Japan and squeezing it for more money

It is certainly true that the comfort women issue is used by the South Korean government for its own political ends. But there is plenty of other evidence that the Japanese military organised the comfort women system, not least from the men who served in the Japanese imperial army in China.

'Ridiculous to deny'

Masayoshi Matsumoto is now 93 and lives with his daughter on the edge of Tokyo. He has a warm open face and the piercing eyes of a much younger man.

Media caption,
Former Japanese soldier Masayoshi Matsumoto: "I call myself a war criminal"

As a 20-year-old he served as a medical orderly in northwest China. "There were six comfort women for our unit," he tells me. "Once a month I would check them for sexually transmitted diseases.

"The Korean women were mainly for the officers," he says. "So the ordinary soldiers attacked local villages screaming, 'Are there any good girls here?' Those soldiers robbed, raped, or killed those who did not listen to them."

Those who were captured were taken to Mr Matsumoto's unit to serve as comfort women.

After the war Mr Matsumoto became a priest to try and atone for his sins. For decades he said nothing of what he'd seen.

But then as the voices of denial grew stronger he was filled with righteous anger, and decided to speak out.

"It's ridiculous... Mr Abe speaks as if this is something he witnessed, but he didn't. I did," says Mr Matsumoto.

"Someone told me this, 'One who fails to look back and perceive the past will repeat their wrongdoing'. But Mr Abe thinks we should erase anything bad Japan had done in the past and pretend nothing happened. That is why I cannot forgive him," he adds.

Mr Matsumoto sits back in his chair and chuckles.

"One day the right-wingers will come and get me for saying such things," he says, drawing a finger across his throat.

That seems unlikely, but Mr Matsumoto and all the other survivors are now in their late 80s or 90s.

Soon they will all be gone - while the voices of denial grow louder and stronger.

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