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A lonely struggle for recognition

by Jeff Kingston

LEGACIES OF THE COMFORT WOMEN OF WORLD WAR II, edited by Margaret Stetz and Bonnie B.C. Oh. M.E. Sharpe: Armonk, NY, 2001, 230 pp., $55 (cloth)

More than 50 years after the end of World War II, the question of whether or not the Japanese government bears responsibility for forcing tens of thousands of mostly Korean teenagers into sexual slavery for the Imperial armed forces between 1932-1945 continues to cause controversy.

Japan’s official policy of centralized recruiting and dispatching of “comfort women” to carefully administered comfort stations under military control has been bitterly disputed by reactionaries in Japan attempting to glorify, vindicate, mitigate and shift responsibility for the war onto others, and reimpose an exculpatory, sanctimonious narrative of Asia’s shared past. Only grudging and hedged admission of responsibility has been made by the government, and proponents of the “pride by denial” school of history continue their efforts to suppress and minimize textbook coverage of the issue.

Fortunately, there are many Japanese who do not subscribe to this blinkered distortion of history and who are not willing to turn back the hands of the clock to a time when national history focused on Japan’s victimization rather than its acts as victimizer. The rejection by school boards around the country of a new ultranationalist textbook inspired more by the dictates of parochial patriotism than sound scholarship indicates that these reactionaries are only a noisome minority, much like the rightwingers who pollute the capital with their black sound trucks spewing hatred and vapid slogans. It is all the more telling, and pathetic, that this textbook was imposed on schools for the handicapped over the protests of teachers and at the behest of officials more sympathetic to the plight of myopic historians than students.

“Legacies of the Comfort Women of World War II” was inspired by a 1996 conference that brought together scholars, activists and artists and aimed at approaching the topic of comfort women from various angles. The contributors are bound by their common effort to restore and assign value, “. . . to women who have been designated, in multiple contexts, as without value. They were chosen for systematic rape, in the first place, because they were seen as worthless and, afterward, defined as worthless, because they had been raped. . . . It deliberately challenges so-called racial hierarchies that allowed the Japanese Imperial Army to exploit and then dispose of the women of Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Burma as inferior creatures, fit only to be military chattels. It opposes, moreover, hierarchies of class that enabled the peoples of several cultures — both Asian and Western — to ignore for decades the fate of the ‘comfort women,’ since these were figures from the ranks of the poor and uneducated.”

Thus the authors draw attention to the mutually reinforcing ideologies of race, class and gender that have prolonged the comfort women’s suffering, and emphasize that it was, and is, not only the Japanese government that has to answer for this dreadful episode.

Grant Goodman, professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, writes about his first-hand knowledge of the comfort women from 1945 U.S. military sources. One document he kept was based on interrogations of Japanese POWs, some of which he conducted while stationed in Manila. At that time, Japanese government and military involvement in establishing and running the comfort stations was no big secret. Decades later, he provided this document to a reporter for Kyodo News who wrote about the government’s involvement in “battlefront brothels” in an article that was published in The Japan Times on Feb. 5, 1992. This was part of the initial efforts to unravel the Japanese government’s denial of complicity and knowledge about the running of the comfort stations. His document also reveals that the U.S. military knew about the plight of the comfort women, but did nothing to raise this issue at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, making it complicit in the prolonged silence endured by these young victims of war.

Yuki Tanaka, professor at Keiwa University, writes about the comfort women in Indonesia, formerly the Netherlands East Indies. He highlights the nexus of race, class and gender and how it influenced Japanese practices toward the mostly indigenous sex slaves and the Dutch women who were also pressured into service. The sexual exploitation of Indonesian women by the colonial overseers, whether Dutch or Japanese, remained constant. Significantly, in investigating the violation of women’s human rights by the Japanese, the only charges that were ever brought were for violations involving Dutch women. As Tanaka argues, “. . . due to a lack of interest by the Dutch and other Allied nations’ military authorities, the unprecedented scale of sexual abuse by the Japanese of Indonesian women was consigned to oblivion.”

This blindness to the suffering of the indigenous people was a constant of Dutch colonial rule and was perpetuated by the Japanese military authorities who dragooned some 10 million Indonesians into various compulsory labor schemes, killing in excess of 1 million in the process. Japanese policies were strongly influenced by racial chauvinism, even as they proclaimed Asian solidarity. Aware that they might be held in violation of the Geneva Convention, the Japanese demanded that Dutch sex slaves sign formal contracts while no such legal niceties were contemplated for indigenous colonized women, who were deemed inferior and beyond the scope of international legal protection.

Such official indifference has been the legacy of the comfort women for too long, explaining why justice still eludes them even now. “They continue their isolated existences in poverty and poor health. They have neither regained their honor nor had their pains eased, for the Japanese government continues to delay issuing its official apologies or to compensate them from the government treasury. The ‘comfort women’ continue to endure insulting comments made by irresponsible Japanese officials and neoconservative nationalists who claim that many Korean women were merely sex workers for money during World War II.”

“Legacies” is probably not for readers unfamiliar with the comfort women issue since some prior knowledge is assumed and some of the essays tend to focus more on the debate and how the issues have been conceived and conveyed. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether they wish to hack their way through the bramble of some of the more self-consciously intellectual contributions. For example, in discussing a Chinese-American director’s film, “In the Name of the Emperor,” Pamela Thoma from Colby College writes, “While transnational feminists may agree that this construction of the viewer/reader as the arbiter of justice for testimonial is problematic, given the usual dynamic of the First World viewer/reader of the subaltern or Third World woman’s testimony, in the case of ‘In the Name of the Emperor’ some may think the gender and status of the polyphonic testifying subject as former colonial ruler make the politics of ‘crossing the divide’ less complicated for elite female readers. But the politics of this arrangement are undoubtedly fraught, since they apparently maintain the Otherized position of the subaltern female subject, who does not speak and may not be heard in the film.”

Undoubtedly. Fortunately the 14 essays in this volume encompass a wide array of analysis and approaches, many far more accessible than the previous quote might indicate, that should appeal to a diverse readership and make this an important addition to any library collection.