Japanese Prime Minister Sparks a New Uproar Over Apology to Wartime “Comfort Women”

Under pressure from the U.S. Congress and members of Japan’s opposition party, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe recently offered an apology to the thousands of women who served as sex slaves to Japanese soldiers during World War II. But his late and less than complete statement is unlikely end the uproar Abe himself began earlier in the year, when he seemed to back away from previous acknowledgments of guilt for Japan’s actions during the war.

When a group of U.S. congressmen began pushing last winter for Japan to unequivocally apologize to the women, Abe initially responded by saying that their position was “not based on objective facts” and insisting that the military had no responsibility in coercion of the women. Abe, a nationalist politician who was elected in September 2006, is, at 53, the first Japanese prime minister born after the war.

Before Abe’s comments, Japan’s policy on sex slavery was considered settled. An official government statement acknowledged in 1993 that the Japanese military had mistreated “comfort women”—mostly from Korea and China—during the war. In addition to the testimony of many women who have come forward to tell their stories, Japanese Defense Agency documents discovered in the early 1990s by historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi confirmed the government’s role in managing the brothels. It was Yoshimi’s discovery of the documents, which included the personal seal of high-ranking army officers, that forced the Japanese government to make the 1993 apology.

Other actions by Japanese leaders have added to concerns about a growing nationalistic movement in Japan that seeks to deny or minimize the nation’s responsibility for war crimes. Junichiro Koizumi, Abe’s predecessor, drew protests throughout the Asian world for his visits while in office to a Tokyo shrine honoring Japanese war dead that included several executed war criminals. The country’s Ministry of Education also sparked protests earlier this year when it ordered history textbook publishers to remove any references to the Japanese army ordering civilians to commit suicide during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

When pressed a few weeks after his initial comments by an opposition member of the Japanese parliament, Abe softened his stance on com fort women slightly, saying, “I express my sympathy for the hardships they suffered and offer my apology for the situation they found themselves in” and that he stood by the 1993 apology. The U.S. State Department called Abe’s latest statements a “step forward.”

Recovered at Last, a Collection of Old Master Paintings Grabbed by the Nazis Goes Up for Sale

Stolen by the Nazis and then waylaid by the Dutch, a large portion of the art collection of Jacques Goudstikker, a prominent art dealer in Amsterdam in the 1930s, is being put up for sale by his heirs this summer and fall. The works spent more than sixty years outside the Goudstikker family’s hands after the Nazis seized them during the German invasion of Holland in 1940. “This is arguably the most important collection of old master pictures ever restituted,” says Nicholas Hall, a specialist at Christie’s, which is conducting the auctions.

Goudstikker, a Jew, fled Holland with his wife and son in 1940, leaving his col lection behind, but died soon after their departure when he fell into the hold of a blacked-out ship. After the war, the Allies recovered about three hundred of the paintings and returned them to the Dutch government, which held them in national collections. The rest of the inventory, which totaled some fourteen hundred works, has never been recovered.

Only last year did the Dutch government agree to return some of the art to the Goudstikker family, which has been arguing for years that it is the rightful owner. A small notebook found on Goudstikker’s body, which included detailed records of his inventory, proved instrumental in establishing the family’s claim.

The paintings are being sold in three separate auctions this year. The first, in April, was in New York; the second will be in London in July. The final auction, in November, will be in Goudstikker’s hometown of Amsterdam.

Letters from Iwo Jima: The Real-Life Sequel

Clint Eastwood’s movie Letters from Iwo Jima didn’t just move audiences: it seems to be inspiring a new generation of Japanese to recover their war dead from the island.

During a service honoring the more than 28,000 soldiers—the majority Japanese—who died on Iwo Jima, Kiyoshi Endo, the head of a Japanese association representing families who lost relatives there, delivered a warning. It is important to convey the families’ losses “to future generations so that the tragic war will not be repeated,” he said. The Japanese government showed little interest in recovering its dead after the war, and today the battle receives little mention in Japanese textbooks. But Endo said his group, the Association of Iwo-Jima Japan, has been deluged by e-mails since the film’s release. Many were from young Japanese curious about what happened on Iwo Jima, and they are behind a push for the government to recover the bodies of the soldiers who died there. Of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers killed in the fighting, only about 9,000 bodies have been recovered.

“Great Escape” Planner Dies

Ian Tapson, one of the last surviving planners of an attempted mass POW escape made famous as “The Great Escape” in a 1963 movie, has died. He was eighty-four.

Tapson was a lieutenant in the South African Air Force when he crash landed behind enemy lines in Tunisia in 1942. The Germans captured him and sent him to Stalag Luft III, in what is now Poland. It was there that another South African, Roger Bushell, masterminded the escape attempt.

Working inside the prison using material they secretly scavenged, the POWs forged papers, made civilian clothes, and constructed a series of tunnels hundreds of feet long. Tapson, who was twenty at the time, helped build the tunnels, using planks from the camp’s beds to reinforce the walls. He did not draw one of the lots that would have allowed him to join the escape attempt, however, which may have been a lucky break: of the seventy-six men who made it out of the camp the night of March 24, 1944, only three made it to safety. The rest were recaptured, and fifty of them, including Bushell, were executed.

Captain America, Fascist Fighter, 1941–2007

A patriotic crime fighter for sixty-six years, Captain America is dead. In a Marvel Entertainment comic book released earlier this year, shots from a sniper’s high-powered rifle killed the superhero, bringing to an end a career that began in World War II.

Captain America was one of a host of comic book heroes who emerged to aid the Allies in their fight back then. The Blackhawks flew against Nazis in their F5F Skyrockets; Captain Marvel battled the superstrong Captain Nazi; the Sub Mariner tackled a U-boat; and it was his occasional nemesis, the Human Torch, who incinerated Hitler in his bunker. Superman, who first appeared in 1938, had his creator in a tight spot. “As the mightiest, fightingest American, he ought to join up. But he just can’t,” Time magazine observed in 1942. “In the combat services he would lick the Japs and Nazis in a wink, and the war isn’t going to end that soon.” His creator solved that dilemma by having Superman fail his eye exam (he mistakenly used his x-ray vision to read the chart in the next room) and instead serve his country fighting spies stateside.

It was the stars-and stripes-clad Captain America, though, who “came to epitomize not only the values and fighting spirit of the national war effort, but also the fortunes that comic book publishers would reap from their enlistment into patriotic wartime culture,” writes comic book historian Bradford W. Wright in Comic Book Nation. The superhero first appeared in March 1941, when America’s real-world friends were being battered by fascist regimes all over the world. “Super-Soldier serum” administered in a secret military lab transformed weak ling Steve Rogers into powerful Captain America. Over the course of the war, the Captain raced all over the comic book world: he met with FDR in the White House, fought Hitler and Tojo, and took out more Nazis than Patton and Montgomery combined.

The Captain’s death cast a pall over fans, but they can take solace in the fact that Cap has returned from the dead before.


Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here