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.Powered by Sidelines