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Wartime suffering that didn’t count


JAPAN’S COMFORT WOMEN: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War Two and the U.S. Occupation. By Yuki Tanaka. Routledge, London, 2002, 212 pp. $24.95

This is by far the best book available on this sordid chapter in Japan’s history. Yuki Tanaka’s sophisticated and textured assessment of Japan’s institutionalized system of sexual slavery draws on a rich array of sources and sheds new light on the larger historical context of “. . . how sex is used and abused to maintain military organization and discipline.”

The suffering of tens of thousands of teenage girls, ignored for half a century, is recounted in graphic detail. Those in Japan who seek to deny, minimize, rationalize or mitigate this inhumane system can no longer evade the powerful indictments argued so compellingly in “Japan’s Comfort Women.” Tanaka’s dispassionate and logical analysis of the evidence and what it implies leaves little wiggle room for Japan’s Dr. Feelgoods and their popular attempts to conjure up a glorious, exculpatory and unstained version of the country’s conduct during World War II.

Tanaka counters by placing the comfort women in the larger historical context of Japan’s economic and military expansion, beginning with the “karayuki-san” (prostitutes) in the late 19th century. At this time, Japanese women were sent to overseas brothels run by Japanese men that were scattered about Southeast Asia. Their earnings and remittances were a crucial source of capital feeding development in Japan, and they spearheaded Japanese economic penetration of the region.

Later, during the U.S. Occupation, the sex industry that served the troops proved to be a crucial and large source of employment and foreign exchange for a nation recovering from war and poverty. The author concludes: “While it is not peculiar to Japan that the female workforce was, and still is, exploited for the development of a modern economy, it may be unusual to find another nation that exploited women for sex to such an extent. The socioeconomic and cultural climate of Japan provided the environment for Japanese men — our fathers and grandfathers — to create an extraordinary military machine whose organization was deeply intertwined with sexual enslavement.”

What of Japan’s Pan-Asian crusade? Tanaka contends that “The extraordinary scale and brutality of the organized sexual violence committed by the Japanese Imperial forces against women is a powerful example of demeaning other people in the name of ‘high ideals’ — in this case, Japan’s claim to liberate Asian people from the toils of Western colonialism.” In organizing rape centers to protect the health of their troops and to prevent widespread sexual violence against the general populace in areas occupied and invaded by Japan, men in the highest echelons of the military and bureaucracy condoned and sanctioned an irreparable violation of the human rights of the more than 100,000 women coerced and deceived into sexual slavery. While careful monitoring of these rape centers helped to reduce somewhat the incidence of venereal disease, there was little impact on widespread rape and random sexual violence against women in the countries that suffered the horrors of Japan’s war of “liberation.”

Was the comfort women system unprecedented or just another, twisted but well-organized variation on a familiar consequence of war? Tanaka argues that war and sexual violence are inextricably linked, but suggests that Japan’s version was “. . . unprecedented perhaps both in its cruelty and in the magnitude of a state organized system of forced military prostitution.” He also asserts that it was unique “. . . in terms of the violation of the basic human rights of so large a number of women of different nationalities who were violated and abused as ‘sex slaves’ over a considerable period.”

Moreover, this system was based on official policy, involving the top brass of the military implementing a system with the blessing and support of ranking civilian state authorities. The procurement, distribution and medical testing of this sought after “commodity” was carefully and openly administered, although key relevant archives remain closed to researchers eager to sift through what might be a voluminous paper trail. Establishing and staffing the comfort stations was given priority in frontline war zones and mostly targeted young Korean women because as virgins they would not have sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, since they were colonized subjects of the Emperor, transporting these girls across international borders would not technically violate Japan’s international treaty obligations.

Why did this terrible saga remain buried for so long? After all, the victors were not reluctant to trumpet the many acts of terror committed by Japan during its 15-year rampage across Asia. In Tanaka’s view, the Japanese and Allies were silently complicit in the coverup because both sides were prejudiced against Asian women and both sides were guilty of committing extensive crimes of sexual violence.

In examining U.S. and Australian archives, Tanaka proves that the comfort women system was no secret to the Allies. In various theaters the U.S. had an ambivalent policy toward establishing and regulating brothels for its own troops. Official policy was against doing so, but large amounts of money were spent on keeping the soldiers supplied with condoms to prevent VD, and local commanders were often involved in organizing and monitoring local brothels for military use and on occasion brought women from the U.S. to serve the troops. Like their Japanese counterparts, limiting the spread of VD, maintaining morale and preventing rape constituted the logic behind such efforts.

It is damning that at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, the Allies did prosecute Japanese soldiers for coercing Dutch women into sexual slavery while consigning to oblivion the similar suffering endured by Asian victims: These women just did not count.

Within three days of Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, the Japanese government was already preparing comfort stations for the Allied troops. Tanaka argues that Prince Fumimaro Konoe played a crucial role in ensuring that Japanese women were recruited to service the occupiers. Orders went out to prefectural police offices throughout the country to recruit women and secure necessary facilities. Here the Japanese officials were less concerned with protecting GIs from VD than they were in sacrificing small numbers of women to protect the general population from sexual abuses. The horrendous record of rape committed by U.S. soldiers against Okinawan women led many to reasonably fear that the Occupation would bring more of the same. Despite these precautions, a VD epidemic was soon raging among Allied soldiers and Japanese women were suffering from a wave of sexual assaults.

The establishment of comfort stations for the Allies involved future pillars of the establishment and led to an odd cooperation among bureaucrats, police and gangsters. Hayato Ikeda, who later served as prime minister (1960-64), pledged up to 100 million yen of government money funneled through the Industrial Development Bank of Japan to create the euphemistically named Recreation and Amusement Association at a time when the average monthly wage for factory workers was 166 yen.

Apparently, Ryoichi Sasagawa and his brother, Ryohei, were involved in recruiting Japanese women for the comfort stations such as their American Club in Osaka. Ironically, “. . . even the most ardent nationalists like Sasagawa, who had led a popular anti-American movement during the war, quickly became flattering sycophants of the U.S. Occupation forces as soon as the war ended. We find Japanese politicians who had procured tens of thousands of non-Japanese comfort women during the war quickly turning to the procurement of their own women for the benefit of soldiers who had only recently been their enemies. It is obvious that, for people like Sasagawa, political ideologies were simply tools of self-promotion.”

In his characteristically evenhanded manner, Tanaka points out that the progressive social policies of the U.S. Occupation forces benefited Japanese women significantly, but “. . . as far as the prostitution business and the plight of tens of thousands of Japanese women working in this industry are concerned, the Occupation forces, far from implementing ‘democratization policies,’ actively participated in their subjugation.”

The story of the comfort women is one that reveals contempt for women and for Asians by the Japanese perpetrators and the Allies, who not only did nothing about the hideous crimes of the Imperial forces, but then turned and committed similar crimes of their own against Japanese women. Tanaka does not expose the dirty laundry of the Allies as a way of rationalizing or mitigating Japan’s sorry record, rather he is eager to highlight the links between organized sexual violence and a military culture based on control and imbued with a sexualized masculinity. His efforts to explain and understand the roots of sexual violence committed by soldiers is an ambitious and pathbreaking aspect of his work and raises the debate about man’s inhumanity to women to a more profound level. The implications of his study reverberate from Bosnia to contemporary Okinawa and provide a new framework for assessing the organized and random excesses committed by military men throughout history against women.