On October 13, Japan announced the suspension of its payments to UNESCO, to which it is (after America) the second largest contributor. This was ostensibly done in belated protest at the decision a year ago to enshrine Nanjing Massacre documentation in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register.” However, it comes as the Japanese government attempts to ratchet up pressure on the international body as it considers a related application for registration of documents on the comfort women system of sex slavery operated by the Japanese military.
While UNESCO’s decision on that application is pending, in Nanjing itself a Comfort Women Memorial Hall, opened last December, has become the newest feature of the local landscape of war commemoration. Located in the restored buildings of a former comfort station (military brothel), it is the first major Chinese museum dedicated to the issue. It provides some insight into the official position on this issue, while begging the question: why is it only very recently that the comfort women have attracted significant attention from the Chinese authorities?
The style and content of the exhibition at the new memorial contrast markedly with those of most Chinese war museums. For example, the nearby Nanjing Massacre Memorial (NMM) last year experienced a makeover to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. A huge new annex opened, celebrating the contribution of China, and especially its Communist Party, to victory in the global Anti-Fascist War. The effect is to further eclipse the original conception of the NMM as a shrine to peace modeled largely on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorials. The overwhelming emphasis of the new annex is on triumphalist celebration of Chinese moral and military force.
At the Comfort Women Memorial, however, triumphalism and strident nationalism are notably absent. Instead, the exhibition focuses primarily on the comfort women themselves, and their stories. The mundane possessions of women who worked in this brothel are displayed in the rooms where they were incarcerated. These underline the grinding poverty that was the fate of most survivors. To foster sympathy for them, the exhibition prominently displays images of frail elderly victims – including, at one point, a bronze bust of an old lady actually shedding tears. Visitors are invited to wipe these away (towels are provided). Indeed, tears are the symbol of the museum.
The emphasis on evoking sympathy here needs to be understood in the context of the lack of it experienced by most Chinese former comfort women. The Director of the new Memorial Hall, Su Zhiliang, a history professor at Shanghai Normal University, has spent 25 years researching the comfort women system and campaigning on behalf of victims. In the 1990s, he says, “the government thought this was no good, or there was no need for it, and I couldn’t get research funding.” But all this changed since 2010, as Sino-Japanese tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands flared. And since Abe Shinzo became Prime Minister in 2012, relations with the Xi regime have been frosty at best. Alongside real Chinese anger at Abe’s historical revisionism, there is a sense that, in relations with the old wartime enemy, the tables have well and truly turned. Hence the new willingness to weaponize wartime heritage for diplomatic purposes.
But official attitudes towards comfort women remain distinctly ambivalent. It was in fact Professor Su’s home city of Shanghai, not Nanjing, which was central to the network of comfort stations in wartime China. The very first comfort station, the Dai-ichi Salon (“First Salon”), was recently identified. However, the Shanghai authorities have shown little interest in publicly commemorating comfort women. And as the destruction of older districts continues apace, traces of the wartime past are fast disappearing. Su recently succeeded in halting demolition of another former comfort station, the Umi no Ie (“Home of the Ocean”), but suspects that it is doomed anyway. As for the Dai-ichi Salon, it “won’t be demolished, but it won’t be preserved either,” he says.
Shanghai’s authorities like to celebrate their city’s heritage as an open, cosmopolitan metropolis. Commemoration of its wartime role as a haven for Jewish refugees has recently attracted lavish municipal sponsorship. But perhaps in part because the comfort women issue touches on the city’s past and present role as a major center for (illicit) commercial sex, and hence also the trafficking of women, it is not something to which the local government wishes to draw attention. In the early 2000s, a retired sociology professor, Liu Dalin, decided that Shanghai would be the ideal location for a Museum of Ancient Chinese Sex Culture; but after tensions with the local authorities, in 2004 he was forced to relocate to the small town of Tongli, 80 km away. As of this month, Shanghai does have an exhibition dedicated to the comfort women, but this is tucked away on the campus of Su’s university.
The opening of that exhibit was brought forward to coincide with the planned visit to Shanghai earlier this month of a UNESCO delegation. Last year, Su was prominently involved in a Chinese application to have comfort women documents placed on the Memory of the World Register. That bid, which coincided with the Nanjing Massacre-related application, was rejected by the UNESCO Committee after intensive behind-the-scenes lobbying from Japan. But the rejection was not outright: the committee recommended that, since the comfort women system extended across Japanese-occupied East Asia, an application to include related documents on the Memory of the World Register ought to come from several affected societies, rather than just one.
The current application to UNESCO therefore comes from a consortium of groups from Taiwan and East Timor to Holland and the UK (the Imperial War Museum holds a number of related photographs in its archives). Formally, it is led by the Korean academic Heisoo Shin – the bid initially enjoyed generous financial support from the Korean Government. But that abruptly ceased following a Korea-Japan agreement on December 28, whereby the Koreans agreed to adopt an “amicable” approach to settling the comfort women issue in return for a Japanese donation to a fund for supporting survivors. One result was the decision to host the UNESCO delegation in Shanghai earlier this month. For Su, securing government funding is relatively easy these days.
But while nationalism and realpolitik undoubtedly inform official Chinese support for the UNESCO bid, many of the researchers and activists involved are by no means the inveterate Japan-haters of Japanese media stereotype. At the Comfort Women Memorial in Nanjing, the exhibition text – largely drafted by Su Zhiliang – emphasizes that it was Japanese scholars, notably Nishino Rumiko and Yoshimi Yoshiaki, who first investigated the history of wartime sex slavery, drawing attention to the issue within Japan itself and overseas. Su himself first became aware of it during a spell as a visiting scholar at Tokyo University in the early 1990s. He counts many Japanese researchers among his friends.
This underlines the tragedy of the Japanese government’s stance. The fact that Japanese researchers have always been at the forefront of those campaigning for recognition for the victims of the wartime system of military sex slavery is testament to the relative openness of Japanese society. China’s recent history is replete with atrocities that Chinese scholars mention only at great personal risk. Japan is different. But rather than celebrate that difference, the Abe regime and its supporters have energetically sought to suppress open debate over difficult history both at home and abroad. In doing so, they sully Japan’s international reputation and play right into the hands of China’s propagandists.
Edward Vickers is Professor of Comparative Education at Kyushu University, Japan. He is a member of the War Memoryscapes in Asia Partnership (WARMAP), funded by the Leverhulme Trust and coordinated by Mark Frost of Essex University. He has published extensively on the history and politics of education in contemporary China, and on representations of history in public culture. His latest book, “Education and Society in Post-Mao China,” will be published by Routledge in 2017.