TOKYO — As one of Japan's former top television newscasters, Yoshiko Sakurai used a sweet modulated voice to convey the view shared by the country's elite on a controversy dating back more than 60 years: Japan's wartime use of "comfort women," the euphemism for sex slaves.
No documents exist to prove that Japan's military coerced women into sexual servitude during the war, Sakurai said. The allegations "are not based on fact."
A great many historians outside Japan consider Sakurai's view mistaken, and the issue simmers abroad. On July 30, the U.S. House of Representatives urged Japan to apologize "in a clear and unequivocal manner" for coercing thousands of women into laboring as sex slaves in World War II-era military brothels.
The nonbinding resolution doesn't compel Japan to act, but it's unsettled Tokyo and resurrected an issue that bedevils its relations with neighbors and even with its closest ally, the United States.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's spokesman rejected the resolution as "regrettable" and urged Japan's critics to focus on the nation's future, not its past.
For the hundreds of women around East Asia who've come forward since the mid-1990s to say they were forced into sexual servitude during the war, that's easier said than done. Many historians abroad have found their testimonies to be compelling and overwhelming despite only scattered written documentation of the Japanese Imperial Army's links to operating the brothels.
But Japanese conservatives such as Sakurai, one of the nation's most recognizable journalists, cast doubt on the testimonies, suggesting that they've changed over the years, and cling to the view that the army didn't fill the brothels by force. The English-language newspaper Daily Yomiuri said in a recent editorial that "there are no documents proving that women were recruited forcibly" by the army.
Partly at issue is the role of wartime "brokers" who served the army in the run-up to and during the war, rounding up what scholars and victims say were as many as 200,000 women and girls in Korea, China and other occupied regions such as the Philippines, Taiwan and the Dutch East Indies for service in military brothels.
Sakurai, who's 61, said no documents from the era proved that the Japanese Imperial Army had organized a hunt and roundup for women to fill the brothels.
"You may not believe it. I couldn't believe it myself. But it's the truth," she said.
Many others across Japan's political spectrum echo the view that while the brokers may have coerced women into prostitution, the army did nothing wrong.
"It is the brokers who snatched some women against their will," said Katsuei Hirasawa, a Liberal Democratic Party legislator. "Most women applied to be comfort women because they could get lots of income."
Such positions draw disbelief from advocates for the comfort women abroad.
"This was a state-created, maintained and sanctioned system of brothels for its military. No one else has ever done that. . . . These women . . . were a total commodity," said Mindy L. Kotler, the director of Asia Policy Point, a nonprofit research center in Washington that studies U.S. relations toward Northeast Asia.
Historians who've studied the issue say the weight of oral testimony from survivors has convinced them of imperial Japan's guilt.
"There is widespread acceptance among scholars outside of Japan that the Japanese military was centrally involved in organizing the system," said Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a historian of modern Japan at the Australia National University in Canberra.
The brokers, she said, ranged from known criminals to civilians at the local level complying with military orders and luring women with false promises of work, only to trap them in "comfort stations." In some cases, women were rounded up at gunpoint. How the brokers were paid isn't clear.
Sakurai contends that no definitive document ties the Japanese military to operation of the brothels, but others say that's hair-splitting.
"There are not as many documents as one would want because the Japanese had two weeks (at war's end) to burn them, and they did burn them," Kotler said.
Scholars have collected other written records, such as battlefield diaries and regulations on the operation of "comfort stations," that have filled in the history of the brothels, adding to testimony by surviving sexual slaves.
"For people who don't have a really strong agenda of whitewashing the Japanese Imperial Army, this is very convincing evidence," said Jordan Sand, a historian of modern Japan at Georgetown University in Washington.
Anger flares easily on both sides over the issue. Sakurai joined a group of Japanese commentators, academics and 45 legislators who bought a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post on June 14, titled "The Facts," that accused surviving "comfort women" of distorting history. The ad absolved the Japanese army.
Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, brought up the ad in anger July 30 before the vote on the resolution.
"The advertisement suggests that these women, who were forcibly and repeatedly raped by soldiers, were engaged, and I quote, in 'licensed prostitution that was commonplace around the world at the time.' This is a ludicrous assertion totally counter facts," Lantos said.
In a telephone interview before the vote, Rep. Michael Honda, a California Democrat of Japanese descent who sponsored the resolution, said three surviving "comfort women" who'd testified before his subcommittee last February offered persuasive accounts.
"They are pretty credible," Honda said. "I can't tell a woman she wasn't multiply gang-raped. If she said it happened, it happened. The big fight is over whether it was military organized."
During his Feb. 15 hearing, one of the victims, Jan Ruff O'Herne, described how Japanese military officers came to her prison camp on Java one day in 1944.
"The order was given: All single girls from 17 years up had to line up in the compound. The officers walked towards us, and a selection process began," Ruff O'Herne testified. "They selected 10 pretty girls. I was one of 10." The girls were taken to a large Dutch colonial house. "A Japanese military (officer) told us that we were here for the sexual pleasure of the Japanese. The house was a brothel. . . . There was no way to escape."
A weakened Abe lost control of Japan's upper legislative House in elections last week, and Tokyo is unlikely to offer the unequivocal official acknowledgement of the government role in sexual enslavement that the U.S. House resolution calls for.
Many Japanese say a 1993 statement is apology enough. Then, a senior official offered "sincere apology and remorse" for the "incurable . . . wounds" left on women in the brothels. Two years later, the government backed a private fund to compensate the women, though only some 285 accepted the offers of money.