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Japan’s inescapable ‘comfort women’ problem

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Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo and Seoul may believe they have resolved the “comfort women” problem after signing a joint agreement in December, but it’s wishful thinking and confronts mounting evidence that this diplomatic deceit is already unraveling and falls short of the grand gesture needed to restore dignity to these victims or indeed Japan.

Through deception and intimidation, many women were dragooned into wartime brothels to provide sex for the Japanese military, an indelible stain that our implacable state seeks to expunge.

The United Nations has issued a yellow card to Tokyo on the accord, with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) stating that it “did not fully adopt a victim-centered approach” and was evasive on responsibility for the human rights violations endured. In its March 2016 report, CEDAW also admonished Japanese leaders for ongoing disparaging statements about the comfort women and urged their reinstatement in junior high school textbooks. Subsequently, on March 11, a group of U.N. human rights experts issued a statement rebuking the Japanese and South Korean governments for the diplomatic chicanery, insisting that they “should understand that this issue will not be considered resolved so long as all the victims, including from other Asian countries, remain unheard, their expectations unmet and their wounds left wide open.”

They also expressed concern that the South Korean government “may remove a statue commemorating not only the historical issue and legacy of the comfort women but also symbolizing the survivors’ long search for justice.”

Japanese politicians insist that the ¥1 billion Seoul is promised under the accord won’t be paid until after the comfort woman statue across the street from the Japanese Embassy is removed, but citizens maintain a round-the-clock vigil to prevent this. Forcible removal risks igniting a firestorm of protest that would ensure the accord going up in smoke and perpetuation of bilateral discord no matter what the diplomats want to believe. But if the statue remains, the accord will be derailed because the “not-called reparations” won’t be paid.

As the U.N. notes, this heinous system of sexual slavery involved other Asian women as well. China has been surprisingly reticent about the saga of Chinese comfort women forced into service by Japanese soldiers beginning in 1932, but this is consistent with Mao Zedong’s emphasis on reconciliation rather than redress or retribution.

“The comfort women redress movement in China has always been a grass-roots movement since its start, and the Chinese government seems to have remained uninvolved,” explains Peipei Qiu, a specialist in Japanese literature and author of the 2014 book “Chinese Comfort Women.”

Ban Zhongyi’s recent film “Taiyo ga Hoshii” (“I Want the Sun”), is a poignant documentary shot over two decades. Ban is a Japan-based filmmaker who first heard about Chinese comfort women in the early 1990s while studying here. He relied on 700 contributors to crowdfund the project, which involved several trips to Shanxi Province to meet several of the survivors. He recorded interviews with them that highlight their penury, frail health and painful experiences, and discovered that many of these women were victims of Japanese soldiers who kidnapped and gang-raped them for weeks or months until their families ransomed them. One of these victims of sexual violence said she was a Communist Party cadre and rape was used as an instrument of torture to extract information. Others were intimidated or deceived into service and all feel betrayed by their own government for not pursuing redress and the Japanese courts for rejecting their lawsuits. Before she died, one of China’s few remaining comfort women vowed to become a demon and continue fighting for justice and truth.

Qiu has not seen the film, but read Ban’s book “Gai Shanxi and her Sisters,” written in Chinese about the unfortunate victims in Shanxi’s Yu County. Her own investigations revealed “the scope and brutality of Imperial Japan’s comfort women system.”

“I noticed that although there had been a large number of English publications on Korean and Japanese comfort women, little had been available in English about Chinese comfort women,” she says. “I couldn’t stay indifferent, as the survivors’ testimonies I had read haunted me.”

Qiu says that telling the stories of these women is extremely important.

“Imperial Japanese forces treated women and civilians of Japan’s enemy countries with unspeakable brutality,” she says. “They kidnapped numerous women from the occupied regions and enslaved them in the military’s ‘comfort stations.'”

She found that in addition to officially authorized “comfort stations,” established by large Japanese military units, there were many improvised “comfort facilities” set up by small military units.

“Even a platoon or squad would often detain local women as their sex slaves,” she says. “These makeshift facilities existed in tandem with officially authorized military comfort stations throughout the war and housed extremely brutal torture and killing. Most Chinese comfort women were enslaved in those makeshift comfort stations.”

Qiu found that “the government has provided no substantive support to these individual victims, although some survivors received very limited financial aid from local administrations as part of the regular social welfare program. At the grass-roots level, the confirmed comfort station survivors in China have received support from local people and a small amount of monthly aid from private donors.”

“The point of confronting the tragedy of comfort women is not to disgrace the people of Japan, any more than the point of commemorating the victims of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb is to disgrace the people of Germany and the United States. I want to emphasize that this is not about politics or national interests; it is about human suffering, about our shared humanitarian principles.”

She says it’s unfortunate that even now, some Japanese politicians and activists continue to present the denial of war crimes as a patriotic act to protect Japan’s honor, and regard the recognition of comfort women’s sufferings as damaging to Japan’s international image.

“However, what really makes Japan look bad is precisely the denial of its war responsibilities,” she adds. “Truly honorable are the actions of countless Japanese people who have supported the war victims’ struggle for justice.”

In Qiu’s view, “true reconciliation begins with recognizing the war victims’ sufferings and rights.”

While watching Ban’s film, I recognized the Brooklyn twang of the narrator — my predecessor in this column, Roger Pulvers.

“This film reveals the horrible truth of sex slavery imposed on Chinese women by the Japanese military and civilian government during the war (and) with its real-life stories, unequivocally refutes the platitudinous cover-up by the Japanese government of Japan’s crimes against women during the war,” Pulvers says. “You would think that a Japanese administration truly dedicated to truth would welcome this testimony; and by sincerely apologizing for past deeds, free itself and the Japanese people of the burden of guilt for what was once done in their name.”

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.