National / Politics

Main issue in sex slave debate is women's will, U.S. professor tells Tokyo


Women who served in Japan’s wartime military brothels can be considered victims of sexual slavery because they were recruited against their will, said Mike Mochizuki, an associate professor at George Washington University, in a recent interview.

The Japanese government has opposed labeling the so-called comfort women as sex slaves.

It has said no objective evidence has come to light that women were forcefully abducted by the military, apparently getting a boost from a leading newspaper’s recent retraction of articles quoting now discredited testimony by a man who has since died.

The individual had alleged he forcibly seized Koreans to serve as “comfort women” while the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule.

But Mochizuki said just because the testimony reported by The Asahi Shimbun in the 1980s and 1990s was fabricated “doesn’t deny that there were instances of force, coercion and forced recruitment, and that even if there weren’t cases of forced coercion, that there was deception, coaxing, that misled families or young women or girls, and they had no ability to, then, leave.”

“All of those cases, it doesn’t matter, is that they are all, under kind of contemporary definition, instances of sexual slavery or sexual servitude, because it is against the will of the women or children. So that’s the issue,” he said.

While acknowledging that it is wrong to think all the women were forcefully recruited, he stressed that the Japanese government should look “at the bigger picture” without being obsessed with the details.

Mochizuki also said he is “very supportive” of a 1993 statement issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, in which the government admitted to the Japanese military’s involvement in establishing “comfort stations” and apologized to the victims.

The statement admitted “coercion” in a broad sense, referring to a government study that has “revealed that in many cases comfort women were recruited against their own will” such as through coaxing.

“What is good about the Kono statement is that it covers the whole range. It doesn’t matter whether it was seen as voluntary or it was sold by families or whether it was by coaxing or deception or forced recruitment. All of it was a terrible thing, and a lot of women and young girls suffered for that,” Mochizuki said.

“And what they basically wanted is to restore their honor. So when some of the conservatives say, ‘Well, they were just prostitutes,’ then it destroys their honor. And this is, I think, what really angers people,” he added.

Mochizuki warned that trying to change or repeal the Kono statement would be “a disaster for Japanese diplomacy” not only in terms of Japan-South Korea relations, but also for Japan-U.S. relations.

The issue has drawn attention also in the United States amid growing international awareness of human rights problems. Korean-American groups have helped to elevate the matter to public discussion with monuments. In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution that urged Japan to apologize and accept historical responsibility over its military’s sexual enslavement of young women, while monuments commemorating the victims have been erected in the country.

According to Mochizuki, the Japanese government conducted intense lobbying efforts to block the resolution, which he criticized as “counter-productive.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative politician who has stirred concern among neighboring countries over what they see as his revisionist view of history, has said his government will uphold the Kono statement even after releasing a report last June on a study of how the statement was compiled.

But Mochizuki said Abe’s government should “go beyond” that to mend ties with South Korea, which have been strained by a territorial dispute and differing perceptions of wartime history, including Seoul’s demand for an official apology and compensation for the wartime sex slaves.

“It would be great if Prime Minister Abe himself could meet with the comfort women survivors (by visiting South Korea)…I am sure he would be criticized at home. But it’s precisely because of the political risks that he would take that would be meaningful…If he were to do that, instantaneously Japan’s reputation would change,” he said

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