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Comfort Women or Sex Slaves?

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It has recently been in the news that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe distanced Japan from its 1993 apology for Imperial Japan’s actions in confining large numbers of young women, mostly Korean, Chinese, or other Southeast Asian, for the purpose of providing sexual services to Japanese troops. As those who follow international news know, Abe relies on the support of Japan’s nationalistic elements, who prefer to see all of Japan’s WWII actions in a much less negative light than most historians do. Whatever his personal beliefs, it is widely assumed that this is Abe’s primary reason for his actions.

I teach conversational English in Japan and I often discuss the topics of the day with my students. They are usually keen to do so, but I’ve noticed their interest and enthusiasm drops somewhat when this topic is raised, though they do gamely have a go at it. This lack of interest is also seen in the popular media. NHK (Japan’s public television network, much like the BBC in the U.K.) and other hard-news programs carried the story, but the 5:30-8:30 a.m. news-ish shows (think Today or Good Morning America), which think first and foremost about ratings, won’t touch it. One might say this is quite natural, as mass rape isn’t a topic that goes well with breakfast. On the other hand, a few months ago there were two cases in Japan of murder/dismemberment, and the morning shows couldn’t get enough of it.

Terminology is very important to this topic. The term Japanese prefer is ‘ianfu,’ which translates to ‘comfort women.’ When this story became prominent in the 1990s, Western media at first used this term, but the organizations representing the victims protested that it was a euphemism that completely distorted the reality of what happened. Today, the Western media uses the phrase ‘sex slaves.’ The Japanese media, however, still use ‘ianfu,’ or ‘jugun ianfu,’ which may be roughly translated as ‘comfort women following the military.’ It gives a stronger impression of the military’s connection to what happened, while falling far short of assigning blame.

Most students don’t defend Japan’s wartime actions, but to my surprise, one student objected to my characterization of what happened as ‘mass rape’ on the grounds that some of the women were there voluntarily. Other arguments he made were the same ones that the nationalists make. Some records, they say, show that at least some of the women received payment. Some women signed contracts, meaning they gave consent. Perhaps unscrupulous middlemen misled the women by telling them they would do office work, but the military isn’t responsible for what those people did. Few records exist from the time, so little can be really proved.

To the extent that anything like that happened it’s regrettable, but rape is extremely common in war. Japan did nothing that other countries haven’t done for centuries; they just did it in an organized way. Yes, the women who say this was done to them are Korean and Chinese, so they have a motive to lie: to help their governments who are using this issue as a political weapon against Japan.

The counter-arguments are, to me, obvious. The stigma of rape is such that elderly Asian women don’t make such claims lightly. Just because Korea and China use it against Japan doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The preponderance of evidence does not prove, but strongly suggests, that Japan did this on a massive scale with no regard for whether the women consented. The women were confined by the army and couldn’t leave. Japan was responsible for what the middlemen did, especially if no steps were taken to correct abuses. Because rape is common in war doesn’t make it all right, and any countries that allowed such a thing should apologize. No one should defend it.

I did not, however, argue with him. He clearly had his mind made up and he was paying me for my time, but I found it rather revealing. When you don’t want to believe or accept something, you look for reasons not to, and the nationalists provide those reasons. This guy buys into it enthusiastically, as do many Japanese. Many others don’t pay much attention, feeling that since there are two sides to the story, how can we really know? Such ambiguity is comforting. The Japanese hate conflict and love ambiguity. The Japanese reluctance to believe what most historians consider very clear gives their government the ability to shove it in the closet, excise it from history books, and run out the clock until the last of the victims have died.

This is hardly surprising, of course. People in any country don’t want to face the unpleasant things their country did. In America, most people ignore the clear fact that despite the President’s protestations that “we do not torture,” we do according to any reasonable definition of the term. In Japan, sex slaves are ‘comfort women.’ In America, torture is ‘coercive interrogation.’ People are the same, the world over. It’s only the details that are different.

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About Shari

  • A Concerned Citizen

    Wow, if it’s all true, it’s an incredibly terrible reality. Hopefully the Japanese people will step up and accept it — and then, abolish it.

  • STM

    Japan has a history of rewriting history to cover up its wartime atrocities. Ask any Japanese kid about WWII and they’ll be able to tell you all about the atomic bombs dropped by the US and how dreadful that was. Sadly, however, they won’t offer any reasons.

    What they won’t be able to tell you, because the history books have glossed over it, is the aggressive war waged in south-east Asia and the Pacific in the name of Japanese militarism and imperialism, the wholesale massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing (and elsewhere), the attacks on Pearl Harbour, Malaya/Singapore and Hong Kong, the Bataan death march that led to the deaths of thousands of captured US soldiers, the Changi POW camp and the camps along the Burma Railway that led to the deaths of thousands of British, Australian and Dutch servicemen, along with thousands of Thai slave labourers, and the beheadings, and random bayoneting and shooting, the starvation of prisoners, and the general brutality involved in the waging of the war.

    They can’t tell you any of that stuff, and it is not the fault of the Japanese people, who are good people. It is the fault of their government, which over the years has just conveniently forgottten to talk about it.

    I live in Australia, however, and there are people here who haven’t forgotten. IMO, any nation that doesn’t accept some measure of responsibility for its conduct is doomed to repeat the mistake, in one way or another.

    It’s time Japan fessed up and accepted full responsibility for its behaviour. Not to shame Japan or its people, as time can heal all wounds, but just so its people know that they never need go there again.

  • ATP

    “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” – Abraham Lincoln

  • Shari, this another great blog you have. I posted a comment on this topic to your other blog that I should have posted here (I didn’t have it quite figured out, sorry) so I will paste it here where it belongs.

    I love many, many things about Japan but they need to step up to the plate and start owning up to some past behaviors. Plain and simple. Until they do, their relations with their neighbors will always be strained and their reputation internationally will suffer. I can appreciate the “must not lose face” values that the Japanese espouse but there’s honor in humility and truth as well. It takes a strong person with a deep sense of integrity to admit faults. I wish the Japanese government could see that. Continuing to deny what the whole world already knows (and has SOLID, irrefutable proof of–such as the comfort women and the rape of Nanjing, among others) makes the Japanese government kind of look like a bunch of ninnies. I feel sad about that. America, for all our faults, doesn’t get off easy–why should anyone else. In our schools we teach our children about the Trail of Tears and years of oppression against blacks prior to the Civil Rights Movement. We teach these things–rather than hide them–because we believe we must face our past, own it and never forget it. By facing it, we can help ourselves never to repeat it. The Japanese would do well to learn this difficult but important lesson.

  • fuck_ianfu

    There Korea women(ianfu) in 1940’s was “Japanese”. Because Japanese low applied them. And, In 1960 the Japan-South Korea agreement, the problem in the annexation age is final. It was completely solved. The South Korean comfort woman tells a lie, and a foolish yankee is cheated ..WWWWW

  • Fuck_Ianfu

    The South Korean is a liar, and the liberal yankee is average infant’s intelligence.

  • This is for the fool who styles himself “fuck_ianfu”.

    I suggest you read comment #2 above by STM. Especially this line, which applies directly to you and all who think like you.

    “IMO, any nation that doesn’t accept some measure of responsibility for its conduct is doomed to repeat the mistake, in one way or another.”

    Quoted for truth and proven by your own remarks above.

  • BACKGROUND OF ‘COMFORT WOMEN’ ISSUE/ Comfort station originated in govt-regulated ‘civilian prostitution’ The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Controversy over the so-called comfort women has been inflamed again. The U.S. House of Representatives has been deliberating a draft resolution calling for the Japanese government to apologize over the matter by spurning the practice as slavery and human trafficking. Why has such a biased view of the issue prevailed? The Yomiuri Shimbun carried in-depth reports on the issue Tuesday. The writers are Masanobu Takagi, Hiroaki Matsunaga and Emi Yamada of the political news department. Starting today, The Daily Yomiuri will carry the stories in three installments.

    To discuss the comfort women issue, it is indispensable to understand the social background of the time when prostitution was authorized and regulated by the government in Japan. Prostitution was tacitly permitted in limited areas up until 1957, when the law to prevent prostitution was enforced.

    Comfort women received remuneration in return for sexual services at so-called comfort stations for military officers and soldiers. According to an investigation report publicized by the government on Aug. 4, 1993, on the issue of comfort women recruited into sexual service for the Japanese military, there is a record mentioning the establishment of such a brothel in Shanghai around 1932, and additional similar facilities were established in other parts of China occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army.

    Some of them were under the direct supervision of the military authorities, but many of the brothels catering to soldiers were privately operated.

    Modern historian Ikuhiko Hata, a former professor at Nihon University, says the comfort women system should be defined as the “battleground version of civilian prostitution.”

    Comfort women were not treated as “paramilitary personnel,” unlike jugun kangofu (military nurses) and jugun kisha (military correspondents). During the war, comfort women were not called “jugun ianfu” (prostitutes for troops). Use of such generic terminology spread after the war. The latter description is said to have been used by writer Kako Senda (1924-2000) in his book titled “Jugun Ianfu” published in 1973. Thereafter, the usage of jugun ianfu prevailed.

    In addition to Japanese women, women from the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan, both then under Japanese colonial rule, and China, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries invaded by the Imperial Japanese Army were recruited as comfort women.

    Hata estimates that 40 percent of the wartime comfort women were Japanese, 30 percent Chinese and other nationalities and 20 percent Korean.

    The total number of comfort women has yet to be determined exactly.

    According to a report compiled by Radhika Coomaraswany of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1996, there were 200,000 comfort women from the Korean Peninsula alone. The figure in the report was based on information Coomaraswany had obtained in North Korea. But this report contained many factual errors, and its quoted sources lacked impartiality. Foreign Minister Taro Aso rejected the figure of 200,000 as “lacking objective evidence.”

    The reasons cited for the need for comfort women and wartime brothels are as follows:

    — To prevent military officers and soldiers from raping women and committing other sex crimes in occupied areas.

    — To prevent venereal disease from spreading through troops who would otherwise contact local prostitutes who did not receive periodic medical checks.

    — To prevent military secrets from being leaked by limiting the women who provided sexual services to officers and soldiers to recruited comfort women.

    Such a system and the use of wartime brothels generally are not limited only to the Imperial Japanese military.

    The U.S. troops that occupied Japan after the war used brothels provided by the Japanese side. There was a case in which U.S. military officials asked the Japanese authorities to provide women for sexual services. During the Vietnam War, brothels similar to those established for the former Japanese military were available to U.S. troops, a U.S. woman journalist has pointed out.

    Hata said: “There were wartime brothels also for the German troops during World War II. Some women were forced into sexual slavery. South Korean troops had brothels during the Korean War, according to a finding by a South Korean researcher.”

    (Mar. 31, 2007)

  • BACKGROUND OF ‘COMFORT WOMEN’ ISSUE / Kono’s statement on ‘comfort women’ created misunderstanding

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Directed at comments #8 & #9.

    All this is irrelevant. What Japanese authorities did was wrong during WWII and they are unwilling to say it was wrong – to admit that they cruelly used women as sex slaves. All the rest is mere hand waving. For this there is punishment. And you are suffering that punishment now.

    The truth is that the evil your nation visited upon the Korean women and others in WWII and before them is now been visited upon yourselves. You have created a culture of pornographic sex in which your own young women lust after the sexual slavery that your people imposed upon the colonial peoples under its rule.

    Let’s repeat the principle:

    Any nation that doesn’t accept some measure of responsibility for its conduct is doomed to repeat the mistake, the sin, in one way or another.

    Your own sins are now visited upon yourselves, and your own young women in particular. This principle was enunciated by the G-d of Israel thousands of years ago. “There is no sin without punishment, and there is nor punishment without sin.”

    “He who says that the Almighty forfeits on sin, let his life be forfeit” [Masekhet Baba Kama (ed:50)]

    Now learn and live. Ignore this wisdom, and your own women will continue to sacrifice themselves as whores to your men, and they will call it liberation. Your own sins will continue to be visited upon yourselves. You will see the justice of the G-d of Israel, Who created and rules the universe, a G-d you do not even recognize, visited upon you.

    Your nation must do repentance. They must admit to the sin they committed and then resolve not to commit it again. They must make restitution to the women they hurt, to the degree that they are able. This must be done publicly. If you lose face with yourselves, that is part of the punishment you must endure.

    But do it, and your nation will prosper by having faced doen and dealt with the truth.

  • Terawaki

    Check this out and comment on it.

  • do u think the Japanese did good things ?

    Think about
    it’s not a funny happened

    If ur grandmother used as sex slaves of Japanese soliders

    the slaves captured from Japanese when they play out side or when they got some water from the

    who knew that
    who knew what happened to them

    they sexed 30 or 15 soliders a day
    and if the slaves got a problems in their body
    the Japanese just killed them or put the very hot stuff to the women ‘s thing

    i ‘m not a good English speaker so i cant explain

  • carol

    The term “comfort women” is confusing an misleading. I believe that we should use the real words to describe such horrible system: Sexual slavery.
    The first time I heard the term “comfort women” I was in Berlin, Germany. I always thought that military was about male bonding and brotherly love. That’s the reason soldiers enjoy wars and killings so much. Why did the Japanese soldiers need ‘comfort women.’
    In the end of 20th century, there were many people worked togather in Berlin, asking Japanese government to apologzie formally–there were Korean, Japanese and Germans.
    Yes, there are many Japanese do feel that their government should address the past war crimes during WWII formally. They are quite active in Japan and aboard. This year, the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace received the Pax Christi Peace Reward for their work in Japan–to address the sexual slavery issue and to educate the general public in Japan. The museum is locates in Tokyo.
    There are many Japanese want to address Japanese government’s role in the war crimes.
    However, there are more people do not want to know they started the war against humanity. All they want to talk about are the 2 H-bombs and Japan is the only country that suffered during the war. In general, what I feel is that they are not interest in history and those Asian women (and their experiences) were not different from those happened in the Japan’s past–may it be Japan in WWII and in the 18th century.
    From what I

  • Evyonn

    I don’t know what the expected outcome of this is, oh…money. My grandfather was a POW for over 3 years…he got a dollar a day for each day he was a prisoner …from Japan…nothing. Is that what you want a dollar for everyday of your service? And a better apology? As it has been mentioned, the man wasn’t even alive at the time…and he apologized for those before him.
    I don’t believe in your cause and I really don’t know I believe most of the “stories” Perhaps this confuses most of you…then we are even..because this issue is certainly full of unexplained things..like if asian women find itdihonorable to be prostitutes why are there still so many actively working? 1942…2007 and they are still working like gangbusters to “service” any American man they can get…then marry under whatever pretense necessary to move to the USA? And I’m fairly certain prostitution, forced or volunteered didn’t start with the Japanese, I am sure the next target, oh…already happening, you’ll attempt to sue the USA…most of our men from that time are gone, but do you really want our soldiers to take the stand and tell everyone who wants to listen to the millions of stories of how the prostitutes took the virginity of our boys? Many were…and then we can really bring to light some of the more unknown reasons many of our men were not allowed home…Black VD. Odd how we have yet to hear about that. The prostitutes who had it still worked, they needed money, and knowingly
    contracted it to our soldiers…Here in America that is premeditated murder…but that I am sure doesn’t count as a warcrime. Civillians who take part in war without government authorization are convicted here…the women who tied grenades and other explosives to their children to take out a few American soldiers have not been punished for the murder of their own children let alone the murder of our Americans. Take your apology and shut up… it’s more than my grandfather got!!!!

  • THINK.

    This is not just some lower school fight.

    This war crime should be recorded in every country’s, espeically Japan’s, history book.

    Also, the reason why the Prime Minister of Japan, who wasn’t even alive at the war period, has to apologise is because it was Japan that committed the warcrime, because this issue is now a political issue between two countries, and because this young Prime Minister Abe represents the country Japan.

    Therefore, if, IF the Prime Minister of Japan(Abe) does apologise, it is not Shinzo Abe as a person that is apologising, it’s Japan’s government and it’s country that is apologising.

  • I think most of you are missing the point, but how could you understand? I doubt you’ve expierenced rape in the degree these women have if at all. The apology is not about money but human dignity if someone had raped your grandmother, your mother, your sister, you would you not feel anger towards them and there family? Well Japanesse soldiers raped these women and the feeling of animosity is still there. I am sure the majority of the women relize japan is a diffrent country than it was during WWII but they would like recognition and remembrance. They are old, they have already suffered the ones who have spoken want to not have their stories forgotten because they love humanity and do not wish this to happen to another young women.

    If the apology helps bring an end to women suffering and sexual assault, or even raise awareness of the issue then it should be done. Rape happens in war, rape happens to school girls by their teachers, to women walking home from work, rape happens but it is wrong and for Japan to not apologize for the forced sexual labor of women is wrong.

    Human traffiking is still a major problem young girls (the ages of the women who were abducted to be comfort women) are being abducted still in the world and times we live in and shipped to countries all over so men can rape them and physically abuse them in the same way the comfort women were abused. The apology needs to be made because we, as humans not as a country or a group, need to end this suffering of people. Would you be okay with a women to be stolen and forced to sexually please men who pay her abductors while she contracts VDs and has an expectant life of 5 years after her abduction? 5 years of torture being repeatedly raped then dying of untreated illness. Not just women young boys. Children. This is what is happening today and the japanese goverment is not condeming it but hiding the evidence of its existence. what message does this send? forced sexual labor is fine as long as you cant be directly related to it, or can at least shift the blame elsewhere?

    The comfort women have a unique knowledge of what forced sexual labor is like, their stories are the stories of children being forced into this same situation that will not live to tell it at this moment. Japan should apologize for the suffering they have caused the women but more importantly they should apologize to show the world it is wrong to force children into sexual slavery for any reason and raise awareness to the problem of human traffiking. The fact that Japan doesnt want to admit it shows its naivity as a country for believing its pride is more important than the lives of children who are to be our future and inheirt this world.

  • Mr!

    There has been no Solid Evident at all to prove that the Japanese military FORCED those women into prostitution.

    Wow, if it’s all true, it’s an incredibly terrible reality. Hopefully the Japanese people will step up and accept it — and then, abolish it.

  • liberal

    the term “comfort women” was stated by seiji yoshida, who confessed that he kidnapped 200 korean girls and raped him in the book he published. But the problem is, that when the book was revised by researchers of ww2, it was proved that it was a lie with no evidence and even yoshida admitted it was fictional writing.
    Until the left wing asahi media picked up this fictional book in 1991!!! no one execpt yoshida ever stated that the “confort women” existed. Therefore, comfort women are non-existent and the ignorant quote “Japanese need to apologize” and “Nationalist are glorifying war crimes” are useless