South Koreans hold posters reading “The Japanese government should apologize to former comfort women” during the weekly rally against the Japanese government, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. (Jeon Heon-Kyun/European Pressphoto Agency)

A group of American historians is issuing a call to their Japanese counterparts to remain steadfast in the face of pressure from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to play down the army’s use of “comfort women” during World War II.

As it prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, Abe’s conservative government is pushing to put a gloss on Japan’s wartime history and, in turn, to loosen some of the postwar constraints on its military.

“We stand with the many historians in Japan and elsewhere who have worked to bring to light the facts about this and other atrocities of World War II,” says a letter signed by 19 academics from American University as well as Princeton, Columbia and others, referring to the “comfort women” who were coerced into working in Japanese military brothels during the 1930s and 1940s.

“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,’ ” says the letter to be published in the March issue of the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives on History.

The comfort women, many of whom were Korean, have become a major source of contention between the Japanese and South Korean governments. Many Japanese conservatives say the women were simply prostitutes, while Seoul accuses Tokyo of trying to whitewash history.

The Comfort Woman statue stands beside an empty chair symbolizing survivors who have reached old age without having yet witnessed judgement in Glendale, Calif. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Both governments have turned up the volume in their efforts to sway international opinion, most recently with a Japanese attempt to get McGraw Hill, the American publishing house, to remove two paragraphs about comfort women from a college textbook.

The book, “Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past,” says the Japanese army “forcibly recruited, conscripted, and dragooned as many as 200,000 women aged 14 to 20 to serve in military brothels, called ‘comfort houses.’ ” It also says that the Japanese imperial army “massacred large numbers of comfort women to cover up the operation.”

A key part of the dispute over comfort women revolves around the number of women forced into sexual slavery and the precise role the military played in their procurement.

Work by academics, especially Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi, has “rendered beyond dispute the essential features of a system that amounted to state-sponsored sexual slavery,” the historians’ letter says.

McGraw Hill refused to change the textbook, saying that “scholars are aligned behind the historical fact of ‘comfort women’ ” and that it “unequivocally” stands behind the book.

“When you start targeting history, then go across borders, then we as historians have to stand up in solidarity for what we do,” said Alexis Dudden, a University of Connecticut professor who was one of the organizers of the letter.

“We do not want this to be seen as Japan-bashing,” she said. “It’s the opposite of Japan-bashing. It’s a statement in support of our Japanese colleagues.”

Herbert Ziegler, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii and co-author of the textbook, said the Japanese request to remove the paragraphs was “an infringement of my freedom of speech and my academic freedom.”

Ziegler said that he received an e-mail from an official in the Japanese Consulate in Hawaii late last year, requesting a meeting to discuss the passages in the book. He declined.

Then, Ziegler said, two officials showed up in his university office during office hours, when the door was open, and “just came in and sat down and started telling me how wrong I was.”

“It’s a very strange game that they’re playing here,” he said.

Takako Ito, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said the Japanese government “respects and values [the] freedom of expression” of the publisher and authors but that the textbook “includes some factual inaccuracies.”

“What Japan is asking for is to be given proper evaluations by the international community on what Japan has done, based on the understanding of accurate facts. Japan should be given a fair opportunity to present its concerns,” she said. “From this perspective, the government of Japan explained to the publisher and to the author, through its overseas diplomatic missions, Japan’s understandings and what Japan has done.”

Abe has signaled that in a speech on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end this summer, he will not repudiate an official apology issued in 1993. Still, he recently said in parliament that he was “shocked” by the textbook and that the government must step up its efforts to disseminate the “correct” view abroad.

Katsuto Momii, the president of the Japanese broadcast company NHK, said Friday that it would have to “consider very carefully whether it’s truly appropriate” to pick up the issue of comfort women while the government policy remains unclear.

Critics attacked the comment as proof that the broadcaster, which is supervised by the government but insists that it is editorially independent, was toeing the government line.

“There’s no change in the way we stick to independence, autonomy, fairness, equity and political neutrality while creating shows,” NHK spokesman Shoji Motooka said.

South Koreans also have been assiduously pushing their case in the United States, erecting memorials to “comfort women” in Virginia and California, where there are large Korean American communities. They also have been lobbying some states to change their school textbooks to use South Korean names for disputed waters and territories.