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.