An international outcry has flared again after members of the U.S. House of Representatives submitted a resolution in January urging Japan to formally apologize for forcing young females across Asia into sexual slavery during the war.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said he stands by the government’s 1993 statement of apology to the “comfort women” that admitted the Imperial forces’ involvement — directly and indirectly via agents — in forcing young females into frontline brothels. But Abe also claimed no official document ever surfaced to prove the military coerced them.
Leading historians with conflicting views — Ikuhiko Hata, a lecturer at Nihon University who denies there were any sex slaves, and Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a Chuo University professor who played a central role in bringing the dark episode in Japan’s history out into the open, offer the following:
Where does the term “comfort women” come from?
That is how the military referred to women who worked in its frontline brothels, or “comfort stations.”
There were four main reasons for the brothels, according to Hata and Yoshimi. The military reckoned it would prevent soldiers from raping women in the areas they invaded, would prevent venereal disease, would stop soldiers from leaking military secrets to the civilian population by limiting exposure with locals, and the women would bring “comfort” to the soldiers, away from their families.
Why do some Japanese call them “comfort women” and not sex slaves?
A conservative segment is trying to euphemize Japan’s wartime deeds as well as erase Japan’s war-making from school history texts.
Hata, for example, refers to comfort women and refuses to say sex slaves because he claims the women, and according to historians, girls, were not forced into the frontline brothels. Hata claims the women were trading sex for money.
Yoshimi explicitly refers to them as sex slaves. He says the military forced them into sexual slavery, imprisoning them in brothels.
How many women served soldiers at the brothels?
No official figures have been provided, as there are few documents discovered. Historians have calculated the numbers by tallying how many soldiers were in the field and consulting documents on the ratio of women to soldiers. They also made assumptions about the “replacement rates” of women at the brothels.
Hata has estimated there were up to 20,000 “comfort women,” while Yoshimi says the figure was between 50,000 and over 200,000.
Where did the women come from?
They came from Japanese-occupied Korea, Taiwan, French Indochina (now Vietnam), the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Burma (Myanmar) and even Japan, according to Yoshimi. He believes the majority were Korean, followed by Chinese, Taiwanese and Filipinos. But there were also Vietnamese and Dutch women, and he said roughly 10 percent were Japanese.
Hata, however, figures about 40 percent of the women may have been Japanese while 20 percent were Koreans and the remainder included Chinese and Filipinos.
How were the frontline brothels run?
According to Yoshimi, the government and military played a major role in operating the brothels. Although private agents were commissioned to round up the women, the military brought the women to frontline brothels and controlled their operations, he said.
But Hata claimed the agents took the initiative because it was their business. The military only played a secondary role, he said, offering facilities for brothels. He also emphasized the business side of it, saying the women had contracts with the agents, not the military.
How did the “comfort women” live?
According to media reports and books by the two scholars, one sex slave, from what is now South Korea, recalled being forced to serve several soldiers a day at a frontline brothel in China when she was 17. Meanwhile, a Filipino testified that at age 14, she was gang-raped by Japanese soldiers and forced to work at a “comfort station” at age 15, where soldiers kept them at gunpoint.
A 1944 U.S. document on 20 Korean “comfort women” and two Japanese civilians in Burma shows the women were given sufficient food and goods while they took part in sports events and picnics with officers and could refuse “customers.” Although the women received pay, “the ‘house master’ received 50 percent to 60 percent of the girls’ gross earnings, depending on how much of a debt each girl had incurred when she signed her contract.” The master charged high prices for food and other articles, which made life very difficult for the girls, it said.
Hata figured the situation was similar to prostitutes at regular brothels, which were legal those days. However, Yoshimi says the sex slaves were that by definition — they did not have freedom to leave or refuse sex with soldiers.
Since the early 1990s, some former sex slaves have filed lawsuits demanding the government make an apology and pay compensation. Their suits have been dismissed at the district, high and even the Supreme Court level, usually by a statute of limitations being trotted out.
But the Tokyo High Court acknowledged in a 2003 ruling that the government had failed in its obligation to provide security for South Korean plaintiffs and in another verdict in 2004 that Japanese soldiers kidnapped Chinese women and repeatedly raped them, describing it as a “comfort women” situation.
Did the military or government forcibly take women to frontline brothels?
Yoshimi said the military knew private agents sometimes cheated, kidnapped, traded or forcibly took some women to frontline brothels. Some former sex slaves testified that the military and Japanese police were involved in the coercion, he added. Because the victims were forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers against their will, the “comfort women” system was obviously sex slavery.
But Hata noted no documentary evidence of systematic state or military coercion has been provided, although police and soldiers took it upon themselves to force victims into the brothels. He claimed the “comfort women” at the brothels engaged in the same acts as prostitutes at privately run whorehouses, which were legal. He said criticizing the “comfort women” system by today’s standards is unfair.
What steps did the government take after the 1993 apology statement?
After the 1993 statement of apology by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, in 1994, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement expressing his profound and sincere remorse and apologies to the “comfort women.”
In 1995, the semigovernmental Asian Women’s Fund was created and has delivered compensation to 364 former sex slaves in the Netherlands, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. Letters of apology signed by the serving prime minister were also sent to them. But many ex-sex slaves refused the money because the “atonement” funds were technically not from the government and the apology was not convincing.
On March 11, Prime Minister Abe on an NHK program offered what was reported as a sincere apology to the comfort women for their hardships and incurable scars, although his comments were largely taken as an attempt to douse the ongoing ire.
Did other military forces have a similar system?
According to both Hata and Yoshimi, Nazi Germany had frontline brothels during the war, using women, even by force, in Eastern Europe.
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