‘Comfort women’ issue refuses to go away

Nationalists using Asahi errors as ammo against 1993 apology


Staff Writer

“Comfort women,” as Japan refers to the females who were forced into sexual servitude for the nation’s wartime forces, have been a constant source of controversy since the early 1990s, when the media started to take a serious look at their ordeal.

These women have recently again become a focus of debate in Japan, helping to fuel a diplomatic row with South Korea amid speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might be trying to rewrite history.

The Japan Times looked into some of the details pertaining to the comfort women issue in an FYI article on March 13, 2013, (www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/03/13/reference/in-abes-future-a-nationalist-rewrite-of-the-past/)

What is the main focus of the recent debate in Japan? What details have been confirmed or at least agreed upon? Following are questions and answers on the latest controversy surrounding the comfort women:

Why has the issue again become a hot topic in Japan?

In August, the Asahi Shimbun, a leading newspaper that in the 1990s extensively covered the comfort women issue, admitted that 16 articles published in the 1980s and ’90s on the comfort women contained erroneous elements and retracted them.

The Asahi’s articles centered on accounts provided by Seiji Yoshida, who claimed he had kidnapped hundreds of Korean females and forced them to work in military brothels.

Japanese historians had already concluded in the late 1990s that Yoshida’s claims contained apparent falsehoods, based on the testimony of Korean residents who denied Yoshida’s story. The retracted Asahi articles added no fresh evidence for experts, activists and journalists who have followed the legacy of the comfort women.

But the Asahi’s retraction gave political ammunition to nationalistic, right-leaning lawmakers and media outlets who deny that Japan should be held responsible for the comfort women’s suffering.

Nationalists have long been frustrated by the government’s 1993 apology for the comfort women ordeal.

Many members of the Japanese public, particularly young people, have also been displeased over recent efforts by South Korean citizens to build memorials and statues dedicated to the comfort women. Korean residents of the United States have been particularly conspicuous in this movement.

Critics have thus played up the Asahi’s admission as key proof of their contention that neither the Japanese military nor Japanese authorities were directly involved in the forceful recruitment of females to work in military “comfort stations.”

Are the nationalists right in claiming that the Japanese military and authorities did not directly force females into sexual servitude?

Most Japanese historians agree that as far as what is today’s South Korea is concerned, private-sector brokers there, not the Japanese military and government authorities, mainly rounded up the females while Japan was at war in the 1930s and ’40s.

Nationalists may be technically correct to an extent on this point, although some women from South Korea have claimed they were forcibly taken to the brothels by Japanese authorities.

But historical records have shown that the civilian brokers — who were usually selected by the Japanese military — often rounded up Korean females against their will through deception and via human trafficking.

The comfort stations were set up at the instruction of the Japanese military, which regarded them as “logistical facilities” to provide “comfort” to wartime forces.

Thus many Japanese historians, Western media and South Koreans argue that the Japanese military and administrative authorities should be held directly responsible for the victims’ plight.

In other parts of Asia, including China, the Philippines and Indonesia, it is believed that the Japanese military directly “recruited” the victims and forced them to work in military brothels, at least in some cases.

What is the official position of the Abe Cabinet?

Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga are the only ministers who represent the Cabinet to discuss sensitive history-related issues. Other ministers are only allowed to repeat the official administration view.

Abe and Suga have said repeatedly that the Cabinet upholds the 1993 government apology issued by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono (www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9308.html) Before taking the prime ministership in December 2012, Abe had suggested he might revise the Kono statement.

Abe has also said he is “deeply pained to think of the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering, a feeling I share equally with my predecessors.”

However, when urged to reaffirm the Kono statement with their own words, the two have never elaborated, only repeating that they uphold the apology. And they have often stressed their belief that the Japanese military and authorities did not directly abduct females to work in the comfort stations.

This attitude has made Japan watchers overseas suspect that Abe is trying to minimize Japan’s overall responsibility for the comfort women legacy by focusing on what they can technically deny.

During an Oct. 21 Upper House session, Suga was asked by Yoshiki Yamashita of the Japanese Communist Party to reconfirm key points admitted in the Kono statement, including “in many cases (the victims) were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.”

Suga only said Abe’s Cabinet upholds the 1993 apology. Then he emphasized that the Kono statement did not admit that the females were taken to the brothels through “kyosei renko.”

Kyosei renko is a formal Japanese term that means “taking someone somewhere against the person’s will.” But in the government’s terminology, it means an organized abduction by the Japanese military or government, officials said.

Suga pointed out that Kono, during a news conference to announce the statement, verbally admitted victims were recruited through kyosei renko.

“We considered (Kono’s verbal admission) a big problem,” Suga said.

What other comfort women controversies are getting attention?

Many right-leaning politicians and commentators claim several assertions coming out of South Korea have been exaggerated, and some of their arguments are still subject to hot debate in Japan.

Japanese nationalists argue the comfort stations were no different from state-regulated brothels that existed in many other parts of the world, including in Japan, before and during the war years.

Thus they say that phrases like “sex slaves” and “sexual slavery,” which are widely used by Western media, go too far to describe the comfort women system. Some even insist most comfort women were professional prostitutes.

Earlier this month, the government also demanded that Radhika Coomaraswamy, former special rapporteur on violence against women at the U.N. Human Rights Commission, revise her 1996 report on the comfort women. The report, which concluded that the comfort women system should be described as “military sexual slavery,” mentioned Yoshida’s accounts of kidnapping numerous Korean females.

Many Japanese historians, including Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a leading expert on issues pertaining to the comfort women, maintain that the terms “sex slaves” and “sexual slavery” are appropriate because the victims in general were not allowed to quit the forced prostitution and their working conditions were harsh.

South Korean citizens’ groups often stress that about 200,000 females were forced to serve in the brothels, but some Japanese historians say this number is exaggerated.

No historical materials have been found to pin down the exact number of females forced into the brothels, historians say.

Yoshimi, a professor of history at Chuo University in Tokyo, estimated there were at least 50,000 comfort women, hypothetically assuming one female was allocated for every 100 Japanese soldiers, and some of those women were replaced to increase the total number by more than 1.5 times.

  • Testerty

    The entire world confirmed the Japanese military engaged in sex slavery (aka comfort women), except the Japanese. Who do you believe?

    • johnniewhite

      That’s not fair. It is a fairer to ask “the entire world has not yet admitted that they used comfort women or raped local women at war except Japanese; the entire world just want to accuse Japanese for having the comfort women system, as if to use them as scapegoat.” isn’t it?

    • Toolonggone

      Huh? Sorry. I have trouble getting your point.

    • JustAThought

      You should believe Japan, and not the other countries (AKA the United States) who are trying to cover for THEIR Korean prostitute usage. About a decade after WWII, Park Chung-Hee rounded up Korean women to act as prostitutes to American soldiers. There are all sorts of accounts on the internet of Korean women claiming that their government acted to their detriment. Therefore, it raises the question as to whether or not Koreans actually rounded up Koreans during WWII for the same purpose. In which case Japanese soldiers were complicit in the crimes that were perpetrated by another entity to begin with. But Japan apologized. If Abe wants to revise the apology, it is because of the evidence that the Japanese government was not the entity that initiated the sexual slavery. Abe will not rescind the part of the apology about the damages caused to these women by their ordeal. I am a woman of Japanese ancestry, and what I find disrespectful to Japan and to all women, whether they were “comfort women” or not, is that every other country wants to place blame on Japan alone, when there is also just as much information out there about American soldiers abusing Korean women, as well as Chinese soldiers abusing Korean women. In fact, it is the denial of these other countries that is most upsetting. I truly am hurt that these women had to be treated like objects, no matter what entity initiated this injustice.

    • Max Inpains

      Entire world?could you name them all please with under what evidences? Thanks

  • KenjiAd

    I know I don’t count, but if any Korean person is reading this, please know that I, a Japanese national, feel really sorry for what happened to those women. I was born after the war but nonetheless, I feel ashamed of what Japan did to these women.

    I’m sure you often hear, perhaps even in this forum, many Japanese people making excuses for what happened, or even denying we did anything barbaric.

    Unfortunately, I can’t silence them all. They will not go away. Still, I want you to know that people like me do exist in Japan.

  • Ahojanen

    South Korea is responsible for making this issue more complicated. They could have settled it by accepting Japan’s apology and reparation from AWF in the 1990s. Korean support groups rejected the offer, even threatened some former comfort women who had agreed on the settlement plan. If being serious and fair, JT should report this “dark side” story instead of publishing copy&paste writings on anti-Japanese campaigns.

  • timefox

    The Japan-ROK Basic Relations Treaty, the Kono discourse, an apology of the Prime Minister, the Asia aid fund.
    This problem is already ended between the Japanese government and the South Korean government.
    The South Korean government should just secure comfort women’s life.
    When the Korean Peninsula was a Japanese territory, what was the South Korean President’s father doing?

  • Toolonggone

    It’s usually right-wing politicians like Hashimoto, Ishihara, and nationalist sympathizers including some creepy anti-Korean hate group, who shoot off a barrel of non-sense from their mouths. Also important to note is that Korean government representatives have refused to engage in conversations on the records of historical event in their national soil during pre-colonization period, wartime and afterward for years. Remember that South Korea was reigned under military regime until 1987. The issue of Comfort Women didn’t came out until 1990. They should also be held accountable for covering up the facts crucial to the victims of sexual slavery for over several decades. Instead of making a thorough reflection on the past to reach out to the victims for genuine reconciliation, they chose to engage in a blame-game with Japan and wasted years by treating the issue as if it was good-vs-evil. Neither Japan nor South Korea seems to be aware that the issue is more complicated than that. It’s the matter of gender which both countries have a troubling history. You can’t simply bury it under a superficial treaty that was made 50 years ago.

  • Max Inpains

    I was forced to work Korean guy’s warehouse for his car and motor cycle engines for three mothers while till his leases is up to evicted. he locked me up in the warehouse and he is telling me that he is Japanese but I can tell he speaks Korean with his friends and family.