WASHINGTON - A group of American history scholars have protested against Japan's attempts to pressure US publisher McGraw-Hill that references World War II sex slaves, saying no government should have the right to "censor history".
The 19 scholars also said in a joint statement titled "Standing with Historians of Japan" and sent to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency that academic research and testimonies of survivors "have rendered beyond dispute the essential features of a system that amounted to state-sponsored sexual slavery".
"As historians, we express our dismay at recent attempts by the Japanese government to suppress statements in history textbooks both in Japan and elsewhere about the euphemistically named 'comfort women,' who suffered under a brutal system of sexual exploitation in the service of the Japanese imperial army during World War II," the scholars said in the joint statement, according to a Yonhap report on Thursday.
The professors are from the University of Connecticut, Printon, Cornell, Columbia and others.
It emerged last month that Japanese diplomats had petitioned McGraw-Hill to change passages of a book used in American schools that refer to "comfort women", a euphemism for those forced to work in military brothels.
"The Japanese government, through an overseas diplomatic office, in mid-December asked McGraw-Hill executives to make a correction in the content of their textbook titled 'Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past'," a foreign ministry statement published by the Wall Street Journal said.
They did this "upon finding grave errors and descriptions that conflict with our nation's stance on the issue of 'comfort women'".
The Japanese government under nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has embarked on a global campaign to right what it sees as the wrongs of global perceptions of its WWII violence.
Mainstream historians agree that around 200,000 women, mainly from Korea, but also from China, Taiwan and the Philippines, were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers in a formalised system of slavery.
Right-wingers in Japan dispute this, and insist the women were common prostitutes. They say neither the state nor the military was involved in any coercion.
McGraw-Hill Education confirmed they had been approached by "representatives from the Japanese government... asking the company to change the description of 'comfort women' in one of our publications," according to Wall Street Journal.
"Scholars are aligned behind the historical fact of 'comfort women' and we unequivocally stand behind the writing, research and presentation of our authors," they said.
The approach to a foreign publisher is unusual, but nationalists at home have pressed hard for a reinterpretation of history.
The sexual slavery issue has been the biggest thorn in relations between Japan and South Korea, with Seoul demanding Japan take steps to address the grievances of elderly Korean "comfort women" and Japan refusing to do so.
The American historians said in their joint statement that there have been debates about whether the number of victims numbered in the tens of thousands or the hundreds of thousands and what precise role the military played in their procurement, Yonhap reported.
However, careful research by Tokyo's Chuo University professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki in Japanese government archives and accounts from survivors throughout Asia made it beyond doubt that there existed state-sponsored sexual slavery, they said.
"Many of the women were conscripted against their will and taken to stations at the front where they had no freedom of movement. Survivors have described being raped by officers and beaten for attempting to escape," the statement said.