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COMFORT WOMEN

In Abe’s future, a nationalist rewrite of the past?

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has kept a diplomatically low profile, particularly over historical issues, focusing instead on economic and other domestic matters ahead of the July Upper House election.

But if his Liberal Democratic Party fares well in the polls and adds an Upper House majority to the one it already commands in the Lower House, he may again attempt to push a nationalistic agenda.

A key focus will be his stance on the “comfort women,” the women and girls forced into sexual slavery in Japanese-occupied Asia during the war.

Following are basic questions and answers about the comfort women and the prime minister’s stance:

Whom does the term comfort women refer to?

Comfort women refers to females who were forced to provide sex at military brothels for the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. Most of them came from occupied Asian lands, including China, the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, present-day Indonesia and the Philippines, but from even Japan as well.

The term is a euphemism first used by the Japanese military. Many historians and activists in Asia now refer to them as “sex slaves” to reflect the harshness of their situation and inability to escape their plight.

No historical materials apparently remain to document their exact numbers. But Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a leading historian who unearthed a number of records on the females, estimates there were at least 50,000, on the basis of one female for every 100 Japanese troops, with the victims having a hypothetical replacement rate of about 1.5.

Some believe there were as many as 200,000 females placed into sexual servitude, but this figure is not backed up by existing records, according to Yoshimi.

Nor have any records been found breaking down the women by nationality.

However, there is one Imperial army document on sexually transmitted diseases suffered by Japanese soldiers in China up to 1940 that breaks down the females who infected them by nationality.

According to the army document, Koreans accounted for 51.8 percent, Chinese 36 percent and Japanese 12.2 percent. Yoshimi believes most of those were comfort women.

What’s the main point of contention?

Besides the lingering trauma and stigma the survivors have had to endure for decades, many former comfort women and their supporters, in particular those in South Korea, say the Japanese government has not yet offered a full apology and official compensation for their brutal experiences at the military brothels, or “comfort stations,” many of which were set up in China and Southeast Asia.

In 1993, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono for the first time admitted the responsibility of the Japanese military and other authorities “at times” in recruiting women “against their will” and forcing them to work at comfort stations set up by the military.

Tokyo, however, has maintained that all postwar compensation issues were settled by the 1965 Japan-South Korea basic treaty and an attached agreement, which literally stipulates that postwar compensation “is settled completely and finally.”

But the apology and compensation issue flared up again after August 2011, when the South Korean constitutional court ruled it is unconstitutional for Seoul not to help the former comfort women seeking compensation from the Japanese government.

Has Japan offered any official apology or compensation?

Japanese prime ministers have repeatedly offered what they termed official apologies, but critics have branded them as insincere. Meanwhile, compensation money was provided by a government-linked fund, but not directly by the government.

Thus many former comfort women in South Korea have refused to accept the money and letter of apology.

In 1995, the Japanese government set up the Asian Women’s Fund, which provided “atonement money” of ¥2 million per person from donations by Japanese citizens, and ¥1.2 million to ¥3 million “medical/welfare” support money from contributions from the government.

A letter of official apology, signed by Prime Ministers Ryutaro Hashimoto, Keizo Obuchi, Yoshiro Mori and Junichiro Koizumi, was sent to women who agreed to accept the money from 1996 through 2001.

Separately, since 1993, every prime minister has officially upheld the Kono statement, including Abe himself.

Some Japanese politicians and commentators have tried to play down the responsibility of the Japanese authorities and military, further offending the South Koreans and complicating the issue. What do they say?

Many right-leaning politicians and commentators have argued the comfort stations were no different from state-regulated brothels that existed in many other countries, including Japan itself, before and during the war years, when the rights of females were not protected as they are today in developed countries.

They have also claimed that private-sector brokers, not the Japanese military or government authorities, recruited females for the comfort stations.

The rightists reckon the females were professional prostitutes willing to work, or they were sold off by their impoverished parents to brokers.

Was recruiting outsourced?

Yoshimi and many mainstream historians also claim that as far as South Korea is concerned, it was private-sector brokers, not the military or government authority, that mainly rounded up women for the comfort stations.

But the military brothels were set up under instructions from the Japanese military, which regarded them as their “logistical facilities” to provide “comfort” to soldiers during wartime, Yoshimi said.

“In today’s terms, the military just ‘outsourced’ recruitment work to private-sector businesses, which were selected by the (Japanese) military or administrative authorities,” he said.

It is the Japanese military and administrative authorities that should be held directly liable for the women’s misery, he said.

In other parts of Asia, including China, the Philippines and Indonesia, the Japanese military directly “recruited” women and forced them to work in military brothels in some cases.

Has Abe maintained the same position as right-leaning politicians?

Apparently not, at least officially, although the difference is very subtle and often ignored by Western media.

During his first prime ministership, which ended in 2007, Abe caused a stir when he claimed no hard evidence had been found proving there was “forced recruitment” of women by the military or administrative authorities, throwing the focus on how the females were brought to the comfort stations.

Meanwhile, Western media have repeatedly reported that Abe has categorically denied there was any coercion in the military brothels, which helped to make his remarks contentious in South Korea, China and the U.S.

Why has he only focused on how the females were placed in the brothels?

Abe has said no historical materials have been found to show the military had forcibly or directly abducted hundreds of females in a systematic manner.

Japanese historians also agree Abe may be technically correct at least as far as the situation in present-day South Korea is concerned.

During past Diet sessions, Abe argued many people still believe the Imperial army carried out something like “human-hunting” to abduct a large number of females in South Korea. Abe claims the accounts are false, and, because they were put forward to “disgrace” Japan, they should be dismissed and the facts clarified.

Abe in particular pointed to allegations made by Seiji Yoshida, whose accounts were widely featured in media reports both at home and abroad in the early 1990s.

Yoshida claimed that he kidnapped hundreds of Korean females during the war, based on an official order from an Imperial army commander.

However, based on the accounts of locals, historians now generally agree that Yoshida’s account is most likely a fabrication. But the story got considerable attention, and was also mentioned in a high-profile report by U.N. human rights official Radhika Coomaraswamy that was submitted to the United Nations in 1996.

Regardless of how the victims were impressed into service, weren’t the females forced to provide sex for Japanese troops and is Abe denying this as well?

Abe has never denied the women were forced to work against their will.

“I feel heartbreaking pain when I think of (the comfort women) who suffered cruel experiences hard to describe with any words,” he told the Diet on Jan. 31.

But at the same time, Abe has rarely elaborated, saying only he officially upholds the 1993 Kono statement as the prime minister.

This attitude has only deepened suspicions that Abe is trying to focus on accounts that are technically deniable and play down the significance of the overall responsibility of the Japanese military and authorities.

Does Abe plan to revise the official stance and replace the 1993 Kono statement, as he indicated during the election campaigns last year?

Only Abe knows what his intentions are. Many are worried he will revise the official stance if the LDP wins big in the Upper House election and establishes a strong power base.

But Abe has given repeated assurances that he will not let the comfort women issue develop into a diplomatic or political row, and now no longer comments on whether he will consider replacing the 1993 statement.

“I’m no different from the prime ministers of the past. I don’t think this issue should be made into a political or diplomatic problem,” he told the Diet on Jan. 31.

Abe has also passed the buck to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, saying it is his duty to handle the issue because the 1993 statement was issued by a chief Cabinet secretary.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. However, this week’s FYI was moved to Wednesday due to our special coverage of the March 11, 2011, anniversary. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

  • phu

    The diplomatic insanity currently embroiling Japan and South Korea is nothing short of irresponsible and juvenile on the part of both governments.

    It’s been almost 70 years since World War II ended. This means almost everyone who had a hand in it is either dead or has not long to live. Are we really going to let issues from the better part of a century ago plague our politics to the point where neighboring nations use it as political leverage and as a smokescreen to avoid dealing with the vastly more pressing issues facing their people?

    The enslavement and abuse of “comfort women” was truly awful. But when is enough enough? How much time, how many statements, how many donations will it take before we can finally move on and start trying to solve the problems facing us now without leaning on the past as a crutch to extort leverage and subservience?

    There is no good reason to continue this. If it weren’t so horrifyingly negligent it would be comical; as it is, this attitude of belligerence for any reason is a serious and unconscionable hindrance to peace and prosperity, both in southeast Asia and all over the world, and perpetuating it is unforgivable.

    • Toto Bato

      They just want to extort more money from the Japanese government!

    • DA

      Although I agree with you that both governments have steps to take – not just the Japanese – I also believe that compared to the situation in Europe the post-war Japanese governments have acted very negligently in terms of war responsibility. Imagine the stir it would cause if current German top politicians denied the involvement of the military in the Holocaust? In that sense I definitely understand the anger of Korea, and China as well (as Japanese textbooks continue to brush over attacks as “incidents”). Of course part of the blame is to put on General McArthur and the sudden turn of the Occupation when the Korean War erupted. It’s when of these situations so common in Japan where a lot of different people are to blame and nobody wants to take responsibility. Anyway, I pray for steps to be taken by all governments concerned for a much more peaceful and friendly 21st Century.

  • yuji

    Your title’s irresponsibly misleading since it suggests that Abe has some sort of nefarious plan, which would of course you have no evidence of. I will be the first to say I was disappointed when he was elected due to his prior incompetence, but he has yet to make any serious mistakes; we should give him an opportunity to do his job without planting malicious rumors. Yes, his nationalistic rhetoric during the campaign was a bit unsettling but I think he has displayed proper conduct towards China and Korea thus far.

    On another note, the horrors faced by the comfort women should never be forgotten and always acknowledged by the government. But I agree with the poster below that this issue has been worn out many times over by the Chinese and Koreans. No apology will ever satisfy their impossible expectations; they simply keep the issue alive as a means of distracting their populations from their governments’ incompetence.

    I expect Abe to acknowledge what happened when confronted by outsiders, but I’m confident he won’t play along with China and Korea’s exaggerated outrage.

    • Toolonggone

      I mostly agree with what you say. There’s one thing slipping out of people’s mind about Abe. He’s the one who upset the international community by openly denying the existence of an organized sex slave through his statement six years ago. It was really a bad move for regaining public trust and his political integrity. That’s one of the mistakes he made–playing along with his enemies and got burnt.

  • Toto Bato

    If it is already settled in 1965, why are South Korean comfort women still asking for money? They should ask their government to compensate them (because South Korea already received the money from Japan). I smell something fishy here!

    • Toolonggone

      Why? That’s because their voices were not in conversations at the time of settlement. They
      are indeed bullied by both regimes. Japanese diplomats and conservatives are playing the ‘blame-the-victim’ game by demonizing them as legal prostitutes. South Korean government keeps refusing any accountability for the failure to respond to the rights of Korean women by translating moral responsibilities into a diplomatic fall-out with Japan. In my view, both governments are failed so far. That is apparently not the media narrative, and neither Japanese nor Korean news media will likely allow anyone to make that as a talking point, sadly.

  • YU

    Totally too unfair and inaccurate article. Pls read the Japan‐Republic of Korea Basic Relations Treaty. The deals have been done. Not Japanese nationalists but the other country’s nationalists are making up the solved issue to be unsolved one.

    • Toolonggone

      If it was settled already, then, why is the Japanese government still mumbling about the issue up until now? Why are there some LDP(and some DPJ) lawmakers still trying to make a mess with 1993 Kono Statement!?

      • YU

        You misunderstand how the whole story goes. That country keeps making a mess with the settlement. See the above article pic. Why are they putting that statue in front of the Japan Embassy even after the Treaty? Plus, some of them are lobbying and spreading a lie that “sex slaves” existed during the war. Japanese people and politicians don’t have to keep quiet even when the lie is spreading. Regarding Kono Statement, one of the issues is that the statement did not go thru deep discussion even within the Japan Cabinet at that time. Then the Japan Cabinet did not endorse the statement. It cannot be said that the statement appropriately reflects Japanese opinions and discussion. Yohei Kono is known to be a Korea and China-friendly politician, you know.

      • Toolonggone

        >That country keeps making a mess with the settlement. See the above article pic.

        Which country? Japan, South Korea, or both. It should be both countries, I think. And lobbying for what? Has the Japanese government been able to convince Japanese citizens that it was a lie? I haven’t seen it coming yet. There’s a strong opposition from the right wingers but that’s very small representative. Many people including Koreans, Japanese, and westerners are already aware of the problem. They all agree in one point: it has not been solved yet. Women’s
        issue was left out because it wasn’t in diplomatic conversations in 1965.