Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

While Pollay was quite reasonable in his expectations, the fact that a user believes that there is a gap or silence in the archives may not necessarily be true. It could be an example of confirmation bias. This form of cognitive bias was defined by Nickerson as the ‘seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand’.5 Nickerson cites the example of the British expedition to West Africa in 1919 to take advantage of a solar eclipse to test Einstein’s theory that light would be bent by a gravitational field. The evidence taken by the expedition was noisy and its leader, Arthur Eddington, had to decide which photographs to use. He took his decision on the basis of Einstein’s theory, leading to the paradoxical situation that Eddington could only claim to have confirmed Einstein because he used Einstein’s derivations in deciding what his observations really were, while Einstein’s derivations only became accepted because Eddington’s observation seemed to confirm them.6

An example of confirmation bias is, perhaps, Naomi Wolf’s reading of the Old Bailey records. In her book Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love, Wolf sought to show that‘modern homophobia’was born in 1857, when the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act made sodomy a threat to marriage. On a BBC Radio programme she claimed to have discovered several dozen executions of men for having sex with other men. The Old Bailey records show such cases with the phrase ‘death recorded’. In fact, this phrase was a piece of legal jargon that had been introduced in 1823, which allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on anyone they considered suitable for a pardon and it appears that no men were executed for this crime in the period under discussion.'

The ending of silences does not always resolve issues

In his article on archives as spaces of memory, Eric Ketelaar discusses the role of archives in truth, justice and memory.8 While there are many cases of people being helped to find some sort of closure by the release of previously silent archives, this is not the inevitable outcome. The power of archives to prevent tragedies or to heal in highly conflicted situations is limited. At a conference at Northumbria University on 24 November 2015, Onora O’Neill said ‘Do not imagine better record keeping will solve all this, it will not’. Equally, while the Independent Panel on Hillsborough revealed most of the hidden records of the tragedy and helped the families of victims, it did not bring closure.The report was followed by a further coroner’s inquest and attempts to prosecute senior police officers involved.

The dispute over the so called ‘Comfort Women’ was equally visceral and wrapped in archival silences. However, the eventual discovery of relevant records did not resolve the issue. The story of the ‘Comfort Women’ was described by Chien Liu.

During World War II, the Japanese military recruited 50,000 to 200,000 women, with varying degrees of coercion and deception, from its colonized and occupied territories into sexual slavery for Japanese troops. It has been estimated that Koreans made up about 80-90% of comfort women; the others were from Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and Australia. The most common method of‘recruitment’was to deceive women with false promises of employment in Japan. The comfort women endured tremendous agonies under inhumane conditions, suffering from mental anguish, sexually transmitted diseases, and violence from soldiers. At the end of the war, many of them were abandoned or killed by retreating Japanese troops; some were forced to commit suicide along with the soldiers.9

Probably between a quarter and a third of the women survived. When they returned home, they were too afraid to speak, fearing that if they did so, they would be ostracised from their families and society.10

The Japanese military destroyed most of the records relating to these women and so, for many decades, archival silence meant that the truth of what happened was covered up. In 1988, the Korean Church Womens Association began to press for action on this matter. In 1991, Kim-Hak-sun, angered at the Japanese refusal to admit what had happened or to issue an apolog)' became the first Korean former comfort woman to speak out. It was the very archival silence that led to her decision. The Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery had written to the Japanese Embassy demanding an apolog)'. The embassy had replied that a government investigation had found no evidence that women had been forced into slavery and so no apology could be issued. Kim-Hak-sun had been kidnapped at the age of 17 and sent to a Japanese army unit.11

In January 1992, the historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki found, in the Japanese Defence Agency’s National Institute of Defense Studies, documents, including one called Matters Concerning the Recruitment of Women to Work in Military Comfort Stations, which was sent on 4 March 1938, by an adjutant in the Japanese War Ministr)' to the Chiefs of Staff of the North China Area Army and the Central China Expeditionary Force. These documents clearly demonstrated that the Japanese military were involved in the establishment of so-called comfort stations and the recruitment of women as sex slaves to work in them.12

The Japanese government issued an apolog)' in 1993, the so-called Kono document, which recognised the Japanese military’s role in coercive recruitment and transfer of ‘Comfort Women’ and in the establishment and management of the comfort stations, accepted the moral responsibility of the Japanese government and apologised to the victims.

It is at this point that we run into the limits of the role of archives in promoting social justice, because the issue of social justice rapidly moved from a debate about archival facts to one about politics.

Although the Japanese government issued an apology, this did not settle the issue because, it only accepted moral, not legal, responsibility and it refused compensation. Instead, it set up a private foundation, the Asia Women’s Foundation, to compensate the surviving victims.13 Right-wing Japanese politicians began to deny the Japanese government’s involvement in mobilising the ‘Comfort Women’ and this view was supported by Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe in 2007.14

Abe’s denial damaged relationships between South Korea and Japan and it was not until 2015 that President Obama, as part of his pivot to Asia sought to achieve a reconciliation. His aim was to achieve a resolution of the ‘Comfort Women’ issue and to secure a trilateral security arrangement between the US, Japan and South Korea. The Japanese government admitted the involvement of their military in the

‘Comfort Women’ issue and agreed to contribute $8.3 million to a fund to support the surviving women. However, they still did not admit legal responsibility. This was as good a deal as could be got and both sides declared the matter closed. A year later, on her return from a reconciliation visit to Pearl Harbor, Japanese Defence Minister,Tomomi Inada, visited theYasukuni Shrine, a traditional Japanese militarist centre where 14 class A war criminals are enshrined. It rapidly became clear that the ‘Comfort Women’ matter had not been resolved to the wishes of ordinary people in South Korea.13

Archives relating to ‘Comfort Women’ were a significant source of contention between China and Japan at the meeting of the Advisory Committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2015. The Register was established in 1992 and was originally concerned with documents at risk. It is now a list of significant documents for global history. We despair at this approach, having moved away from the ‘great man’ view of history, we are now being pushed towards a ‘great documents’view ofhistory.As Ian Wilson, former Librarian and Archivist of Canada observed:‘Creeping politicization has underlined the impact of documentary heritage on national historical narratives and identities’.16

At a time of rising tension between China and Japan, China sought to have two collections of records added to the register: papers concerning the episode of mass murder and mass rape by Japanese imperial troops in Nanjing, China in 1937-1938 and a collection of papers relating to Chinese women used as ‘Comfort Women’ by Japanese troops. There was a furious row between China and Japan over these two collections of archives, with the Japanese government threatening to withdraw funding from UNESCO. Eventually, while the Nanjing papers were added to the register, the ‘Comfort Women’ papers were not. China was instructed to co-ordinate with other countries which might be considering submitting documents on the same subject.17

The dispute over the Nanjing and ‘Comfort Women’ archives demonstrates clearly the intensely political nature of archives and their limits in resolving historical issues. The release of previously silenced records does not necessarily ensure resolution or reconciliation.

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