THE BLOG

The Desperate Cover-Up of a Shame Culture: The Provenance of Mayor Hashimoto's Incendiary Comments about the Necessity of Comfort Women

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto's recent bluster about the necessity of comfort women during WWII as a means of "maintaining discipline" within the Japanese army is another egregious red flag of Japan's rising right-wing militarism and revisionist revolution towards covering up their wartime atrocities.

"Comfort women" is a Japanese euphemism for the 200,000 young women abducted by the Japanese army to serve as sex slaves for their soldiers. Shipped in holds like cattle to military bases throughout the Pacific theater, the girls were beaten and raped repeatedly, forced to serve as many as 30 to 40 soldiers a day. For the majority, this would be their first sexual experience. They would succumb to venereal disease, forced sterilization, abortions and early death.

In 1993, the Japanese government made an official apology to the comfort women, only to have the new Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, consider revising it. Before ascending to power, Abe was one of the better-known supporters of The Society for History Textbook Reform.

Prompted by Hashimoto's comments, I have questioned the divergent ways post-war Germany and Japan have dealt with their wartime past. Why has one nation legislated genocide-denial as a crime, while the other resorted to whitewashing such irrefutable atrocities as the comfort women and the Nanking massacre?

Supporters of Japan's revisionist movement tout "freedom of speech and publication," but more to the point, they consider the admission of war crimes a dishonor to their ancestors. Ultimately, their on-going denial boils down to Japan's traditional culture of honor and shame. As Ruth Benedict, in her seminal study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, rightly deemed, Japan is a "shame culture."

Shame runs deep in the Japanese ethos, instilled centuries ago in the Samurai era. The traditional antidote to shame was suicide, the ritual seppuku or hara-kiri. Nearly a thousand years later, shame still dictates much of Japanese behavior. Particularly in the admission of wrongdoing. And particularly in public. Accepting blame, and to do so on the international stage, would be akin to mortification, a word whose roots mean "to make death."

The only alternative to enduring the excruciation of shame would be to hide the cause or replace it. Not too different from the fig-leaf solution Adam and Eve devised to cover their nakedness. Why else would Hashimoto and some of Japan's other leaders choose to revise or rationalize their nation's transgressions despite compelling documentation, eyewitness accounts, photographic evidence and international consensus?

Why else would they attempt such blatant censorship and offend the judgment and intelligence of their countrymen in an age when such easy access to contradicting sources and the Internet would readily sabotage their attempts? Without the cultural account of shame, Hashimoto's vociferous (and ironically shameless) justification of mass rape and the brutal destruction of human lives just sounds chillingly pathological.

In the end, Hashimoto's hubristic remarks are not only a disservice to the rapprochement between Japan and Korea and the welfare of the international community, but to his own nation. Most pitiably, they serve to staunch the progress that Japan has made in coming to terms with its past, thus preventing a full national recovery from the traumas of WWII.

Healing requires Japan and its leaders address its record of war crimes in an honest, open and humble way. They must sincerely confess their wrongdoings and apologize to those to whom they've caused enormous suffering.

Otherwise, the generations to come will inherit this unresolved shame, and it will permeate the soul of the land and its people. Suffering will only continue in new forms, and healing will never be fully effected. Which is so unjust to the innocent children born after the war, and the enormous potential of their lives.

The scars and wounds of history will not just go away, nor can they be so defensively covered up with jingoistic claptrap. They remain in the blood like a virus and must be cured before they can infect subsequent generations.

Japan's war crimes have incurred a debt that must be paid--not only in reparation to the victims of neighboring countries, such as Korea and China, but for the sake of its own future.

Subscribe to the World Post email.