International criticism is escalating over Tokyo's apparent attempts to whitewash its wartime wrongdoings as a group of US historians issued a strong protest against the moves, arguing no government has the right to "censor history."
In a joint statement, a group of 19 American scholars decried Tokyo's recent request for a US publisher to change the description of the issue of the "comfort women" ― a euphemistic term referring to Asians forced into sexual servitude by Japan during World War II ― in one of its textbooks, according to an online news provider.
"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," the statement said.
The scholars also criticised Tokyo for "vocally questioning the established history of the comfort women and seeking to eliminate references to them in school textbooks" to help promote patriotic education.
The statement came after Tokyo reportedly asked the US publishing firm McGraw-Hill to revise the description of Japan's wartime sexual enslavement in the textbook "Tradition & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past."
The book says Japanese troops forcibly mobilized some 200,000 women, aged between 14 and 20, to have them work at comfort stations, or frontline military brothels. The book also touches on the harrowing lives of the victims including some who were allegedly murdered after being caught fleeing.
During a parliamentary session late last month, Abe said he was "very surprised (at the false description)," a comment that reignited criticism from South Korea and elsewhere in the world.
"As a result of the international community failing to fix what should have been corrected, such a textbook is being used in the US Should we sit quietly, the world would not look at us positively. We should clearly make our claims," he said during the session.
In the historians' statement, they supported McGraw-Hill, underscoring that "they stand with many historians in Japan and elsewhere that have worked to bring to light the facts about the comfort women issue and other wartime atrocities."
"We practice and produce history to learn from the past. We therefore oppose the efforts of states or special interests to pressure publishers or historians to alter the results of their research for political purposes," the statement said.
The comfort women issue has long been the thorniest issue in South Korea-Japan relations.
Tokyo has long argued that the issue has been settled under a 1965 deal that normalized the bilateral relationship, and that there is no evidence to confirm the victims were forcibly mobilized by Japan's military.
But Seoul argues that the issue was not covered under the deal and should be dealt with separately from other issues, given that it concerns universal human rights, an issue that goes beyond the bilateral relationship.
For the US, Tokyo's apparent moves to whitewash wartime atrocities are disheartening as it is also the victim of Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor in which historians say some 2,400 Americans were killed.
Historical revisionists in Japan argue their country staged the war to fend off Western powers' invasions of East Asia and should be credited with the endeavours to "liberate" the Asian region. They also say their wartime wrongdoings are exaggerated or falsified.