The charms of denial

Paul Greenberg

3/7/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

A couple of years ago, the Japanese consul general at New Orleans dropped by to straighten me out about the Rape of Nanking - a six-weeks-long orgy of rape, murder, torture and general barbarity that a Japanese textbook had just referred to as "the Nanking Incident."

Useful things, euphemisms. It was as if a German text had referred to the Holocaust as the Auschwitz Incident.

My distinguished visitor, the Hon. Masaru Sokato, had already written an indignant letter to the editor in response to my editorializing about the tendency in today's Japan's to gloss over the atrocities that country committed during the late unpleasantness known as the Second World War.

Mr. Sokato followed up his letter with a personal visit, explaining that the new, enlightened and properly penitent Japan would never minimize the war crimes committed by the bad old Japan.

I was reminded of his assurances on reading a headline in the paper just last Friday: "Japanese leader: No proof / women forced to have sex / Lawmakers push to mute '93 apology for brothels."

It seems that, back in 1993, the Japanese government had apologized to the Comfort Women - the hundreds of thousands of mainly Korean and Chinese women forced to service Japanese troops during the war.

That was shortly after historians had unearthed official Japanese documents showing how military authorities worked directly with private contractors to force women into the brothels.

As good old Jake Burden noted in Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," there's always some clue left behind. Some document that surfaces years or decades later and blows the official cover. Like a government contract with the Imperial Army, or Kurt Waldheim's initials on a slip of paper authorizing an execution.

A group of Japanese parliamentarians - 120 of them at last count - now want to revoke their government's apology to the Comfort Women. Their leader explains that it was all a misunderstanding. The military brothels were only an example of free enterprise in action, a kind of Halliburton delivering sexual services.

To quote the Hon. Nariaki Nakayama: "Some say it is useful to compare the brothels to college cafeterias run by private companies who recruit their own staff, procure foodstuffs, and set prices. Where there is demand, businesses crop upŠ."

Why, sure. The law of supply and demand. Adam Smith and all that. Ain't nobody here but us entrepreneurs. The whole business was as wholesome as a college cafeteria.

Telltale phrases tend to pop up when politicians are preparing to say something beyond belief. One such phrase is the ever-handy introduction, "Some say." It serves to distance the speaker from the outlandish theory he's about to propound but doesn't want to accept personal responsibility for. Don't blame him; blame the anonymous Some.

Another such phrase is "There is no evidence that." When the current Japanese premier, Shinzo Abe, sought to absolve his country of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of women forced into prostitution during the war, he didn't say it never happened, but rather: "The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion."

All those hundreds of thousands of women must have volunteered. The official documents, the personal testimony of survivors, the Japanese government's own acknowledgment and apology Š all those are now to be consigned to the memory hole.

Even now, somewhere in some Japanese ministry of truth, a Japanese Winston Smith is doubtless being assigned to rewrite all that history. On the theory that he who controls the present controls the past.

The Rape of Nanking, the Comfort Women, the Bataan Death March - all those things that happened didn't happen. Or, if they did, the authorities were never involved. Or if they were, they were provoked by Western imperialism. We all know that routine by now.

But there will always be some of us who remember. And will even write about it. Remember Pearl Harbor. And so much else.

The Japanese are scarcely alone when it comes to rewriting the past. These days the most popular work of history in the new, enlightened Germany is a book by a once respectable scholar, Jorg Friedrich, who explains that the Germans were as much victimized by Hitler as the Jews. Since the Allied fire bombings that the Nazis brought down on German cities was the moral equivalent of the Holocaust.

It's a plausible enough theory - if you forget the difference between a debatable military strategy that resulted in terrible suffering and a deliberate, calculated program to wipe out millions. And some other elemental distinctions.

Nor is this kind of thing limited to the old Axis powers. Every people has its historical revisionists. What good, unreconstructed Confederate doesn't know that it was really the North that started the Civil War, that The War had nothing to do with human slavery but was all about states' rights, that Abraham Lincoln never freed a single slave, that the 14th Amendment is illegal.

It's not just the Japanese who tend to remember the past as they would like it to be remembered. It's a human tendency.