Stance on ‘comfort women’ undermines fight to end wartime sexual violence


Today, no one would deny that the following case is a war crime and that these acts represent some of the most serious violations of international humanitarian and human-rights laws.

Capt. X, an officer with an invading army, came across two young sisters on the battlefield. He sexually assaulted the older girl before taking the small amounts of cash the pair had on them, and their clothes and underwear.

He confined these two young women to his company’s living quarters for seven weeks, and organized or tolerated the abuse and rape of the sisters by his subordinates. After seven weeks of this ordeal, the sisters were shot dead.

This account can be found in official documents preserved in the National Archives in Tokyo. The captain was a Japanese soldier, 28 years old, while the two victims were French sisters, the youngest aged 14. It happened in March 1945 during the Japanese invasion of Indochina, France’s colony in Southeast Asia that spanned parts of modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

These papers are the first documentary evidence to come to light of sexual violence committed on French women by Japanese soldiers. The documents have been in the National Archives since 1999, after being transferred from the Ministry of Justice. Although they became available to the public in 2007, it was only last summer that they were examined by researchers.

These records were originally issued by the Permanent Military Tribunal in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), which dealt with the so-called minor war crimes trials conducted by France after World War II. According to the documents, in January 1947 Capt. X was convicted of murder, rape, complicity in rape and robbery in connection to events including the massacre of more than 40 French prisoners of war. The court condemned him to death and the sentence was carried out on Aug. 12, 1947.

The first international war crimes tribunals — the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials — were established by the Allies to prosecute suspected war criminals for acts committed during World War II. Although suspects were rarely referred to or charged by the Tokyo tribunal over sexual crimes against women, documentary evidence in 87 rape cases and eight more relating to the “comfort women” — women and girls forced to provide sex for Japanese forces before and during the war — were submitted to the court.

At the Class B and C tribunals — the minor war crimes trials — more than 30 sexual violence cases were prosecuted as war crimes, and all the defendants in these trials were found guilty. Historian Hirofumi Hayashi of Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama, an authority in this field, has already revealed Dutch trials in Batavia (now Jakarta) in which Japanese officers were convicted for the forced prostitution of 35 Dutch women.

The Tokyo tribunal applied the principles of the Hague Conventions of 1907 — the first international treaty implicitly outlawing sexual violence — and Geneva Conventions of 1929, which stated that women prisoners of war should “be treated with all consideration due to their sex.”

Of course, these treaties and conventions did little to protect women from violence in World War II, a fact that spurred the revision of the Geneva Conventions in 1949 to read: “Women shall be especially protected . . . against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.” With that move, international legal prohibitions against sexual violence in conflict were considerably expanded.

In the 1990s, at the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, rape and other forms of sexual violence were recognized as breaches of international law. In the following decade, preventing sexual violence in conflict became a global human-rights and security concern.

As interest in safeguarding women’s rights in wartime has grown and measures have been put in place, the Japanese government has been vocal in its support of this trend. In June 2014, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was held in London. At the largest-ever event of its kind, Nobuo Kishi, the parliamentary senior vice-minister for foreign affairs, told participants from more than 140 nations: “Anyone who had been charged with these crimes ought to stand trial in accordance with international law. There is also an urgent need to provide assistance for the victims of sexual violence.”

The summit was almost completely ignored in Japan. Ironically, the public and media were much more preoccupied at the time by picking apart the results of a government-ordered review of the 1993 Kono Statement, the Japanese government’s apology for the forcible recruitment of comfort women to satisfy the needs of Japanese soldiers in WWII.

The irony is that although the current Japanese government might not accept it, these comfort women have contributed a great deal to preventing sexual violence in conflict around the world. Although rape and other forms of sexual violence were already considered international crimes before WWII, the coercion and abuse suffered by the comfort women were not discussed easily or openly for decades after their ordeal ended. It was only in the 1990s that the first voices were raised. When three Korean women filed suit in Japan in December 1991, comfort women — and sexual violence in conflict — became a public issue. Women, especially sexual assault victims, have channeled the shame they suffered under for half a century into fundamental human rights.

Which brings us to the question: Why do so few people in Japan make the link between the wider issue of sexual violence in conflict and the comfort women?

One explanation is that the latter issue tends to be depicted here as a purely diplomatic matter between South Korea and Japan. In reality, comfort women were recruited all over Asia, and their plight matters to a great many people around the world — not just on this continent — who are concerned with issues of women’s rights and justice. In Japan, however, still a male-dominated society, it seems people have trouble filtering out the nationalist noise and seeing the issue in terms of fundamental human and women’s rights.

In September 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mentioned sexual violence in conflict at the 69th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations: “We intend to make the 21st century a world with no human rights violations against women. Japan will stand at the fore and lead the international community in eliminating sexual violence during conflicts.”

The prime minister’s declaration flies in the face of his government’s refusal to objectively examine the historical facts and recognize Japan’s responsibilities toward the comfort women.

Abe and his nationalist supporters have cast doubt on the Kono Statement, suggesting that the testimonies of comfort women might be unreliable. But on the contrary, personal testimonies are regarded as crucial evidence by experts in this field because rape and sexual violence are such difficult experiences for women to talk about. If the former comfort women had not spoken, nobody would know what had happened in wartime. It is commonly accepted today in the international community that gathering evidence and testimony is invaluable to the prosecution process in such crimes.

In a statement in May 2013 to clarify his contentious remarks about comfort women, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto said he hoped that the upcoming G-8 Summit would be an important opportunity for the nations’ leaders to examine how soldiers around the world behave toward women in wartime. But given the scale of the comfort women program and the controversy it continues to generate, the onus is on Japan to take the initiative and examine how its soldiers behaved toward women and girls on their march across Asia. Further, Japan should take the lead in demanding that other countries, especially former colonizer nations, examine the treatment of indigenous people across the continent during that period. For example, the minor war crimes trials conducted by France have never dealt with the ordeals faced by the local population in Indochina.

Ironically, as a consequence of shameful acts committed against women during WWII, Japan has led the world to recognize and prosecute sexual violence in conflict. As the 70th anniversary of the end of the war approaches, Japan needs to be reminded that it cannot be excluded from international norms.

Kayoko Kimura is a freelance journalist. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to Japan. Comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • johnniewhite

    I understand both the logic of utilising the testimony of the former comfort women, and the needs to do so given that the evidence is scarce (namely that there is no testimony from their family, relatives or anyone else of seeing them forcibly taken by the army — all the objective evidence we have is the newspaper articles pointing at the Korean brokers doing the deceptive work). But one must examine the credibility of such testimonies. Some of them have been proven to be unreliable as a result of their own legal actions at Japanese court. There is also a widely known statistics in an article entitled ‘a country of liars’ published by a Korean paper (The Chosun Ilbo) on 7 March 2005, depicting the Korean society being filled with deceptions (viz. perjury, libel and fraud) in an unimaginable scale for Japanese people. Miss Kimura did not take these facts into consideration, but connects only that Japan has a history of war crimes, and hence they must be responsible for everything. I do not think this article is fair or just.

    • JusenkyoGuide

      One can only hope that you are never involved in any kind of legal action if you cannot accept the notion of testimony.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        Testimony usually needs to be backed by other evidence to result in a conviction. Two scholars, one Korean, one Korean-American, both women, have shown that some (not all) of the testimony by the self-styled comfort women is inconsistent or improbable and has changed over time. Both scholars say that only a small fraction of the women were coerced. They do not deny coercion but they say is was not the modal case. If you don’t like this interpretation, do not complain to me. I am the messenger, not the message. If you want the citations, ask.

      • JusenkyoGuide

        Two WHOLE SCHOLARS?! My God man! Stop the presses! Obviously we should ignore the reams of other evidence AND the work of hundreds more historians based upon that!

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        Hundreds more historians? I’m afraid not. I happen to be an historian specializing on modern Japan although not on the comfort women. There are at most a dozen or so who have seriously worked on this issue. And, there is not “reams of evidence.” Virtually all documentary evidence that has survived has been been put up on the web by women’s groups. There is surprisingly little evidence available either because it was deliberately destroyed or because the governments that hold the evidence (Japan, ROC, DPRK, PRC, etc.) have not released it. The PRC has said several times that it was going to release incriminating evidence but it has not in fact done so. If you think there are “hundreds more historians,” give me a list. I’ll settle for as few as twenty who have worked with Japanese, Korean, and Chinese sources or any combination of these languages.

      • R0ninX3ph

        I just want to understand your stance completely. You say there was at least some coercion, but it wasn’t always the case. So, because it wasn’t always the case, we should ignore it?

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        “So, because it wasn’t always the case, we should ignore it?” No. Let me draw an analogy. Most GIs in Japan did not rape Japanese women but some did especially in Okinawa. We should not ignore the rapes because most GIs did not rape Japanese women but we should not exaggerate the rape issue. Similarly, there is essentially no evidence that most comfort women were coerced although some quite probably were. We should not ignore the coercion but we should equally not exaggerate it. Got it?

      • R0ninX3ph

        I understand your point of view. Thank you.

  • Toolonggone

    >In September 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mentioned sexual violence in conflict at the 69th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations: “We intend to make the 21st century a world with no human rights violations against women.”

    Seriously!?!?!? I guess the name Hideaki Ueda did not come up to his mind on the occasion. Oh well.

    • Japanese Bull Fighter

      In what way has Ueda Hideaki been associated with human rights violations against women?

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    Sexual assault by military personnel occurs with or without a comfort women system. Inclusion of random assaults in an article on the comfort women issue is completely illogical. Or, if one is going to do this, why not mention the widespread and documented assault of women in Okinawa by GIs following its capture in 1945 and continuing even now. Or, why not take up the sexual assault of French women by American GIs after the liberation of France as documented in Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (2013). Further, in the Vietnamese case the author cites, the perpetrator was tried, convicted, and executed. In other words, “case closed.” The relevance of this to the question of whether Japan has dealt properly with the comfort woman system is not at all obvious to me. The author asks “Why do so few people in Japan make the link between the wider issue of sexual violence in conflict and the comfort women?” One obvious answer would be that “sexual violence” with or without conflict is unfortunately very widespread but it has no organic connection to something like the comfort women system. Indeed, the author essentially demonstrates this in her article. Long on emotion; short on logic.

    • JusenkyoGuide

      The point apparently went over your head. If it can be shown that such a culture exists elsewhere, then it gives far more credibility to the stories of the comfort women. Your attempt to use what amounts to the same kind of dodge given by Holocaust deniers is, well the same kind of dodge often used by Holocaust deniers.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter


      • JusenkyoGuide

        Yes, that is exactly what I am saying your argument is. Thank you for putting it more succinctly for me.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        As I always say, never left facts or logic stand in the way of the prejudiced beliefs you want to hold with respect to Japan and the Japanese.

      • JusenkyoGuide

        And there’s the defense “YOU’RE BEING MEAN!”
        Please, try something else on for a change.

      • Hendrix

        Japanese bull fighter is a well know japanapologist so i wouldnt bother engaging him in a logical discussion.

  • doriru keisan

    I checked Kayoko Kimura of this journalist. She seems unknown in Japan. Does the article such unknown journalist tells about history claim trust?The testimony is important, that there is no evidence in the one the victim even called tens of thousands of people from hundreds of thousands should need, abnormal.China and Korea call an own country “Asian countries”.
    We aren’t supposed to be tricked.When it’ll be a war, do all men rape a lady? When it’ll be a war, do all countries permit a rape? I say as a lady.
    A man shouldn’t leave this matter.