“Comfort women,” as Japan refers to the females who were forced into sexual servitude for the nation’s wartime forces, have been a constant source of controversy since the early 1990s, when the media started to take a serious look at their ordeal.

These women have recently again become a focus of debate in Japan, helping to fuel a diplomatic row with South Korea amid speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might be trying to rewrite history.

The Japan Times looked into some of the details pertaining to the comfort women issue in an FYI article on March 13, 2013, (www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/03/13/reference/in-abes-future-a-nationalist-rewrite-of-the-past/)

What is the main focus of the recent debate in Japan? What details have been confirmed or at least agreed upon? Following are questions and answers on the latest controversy surrounding the comfort women:

Why has the issue again become a hot topic in Japan?

In August, the Asahi Shimbun, a leading newspaper that in the 1990s extensively covered the comfort women issue, admitted that 16 articles published in the 1980s and ’90s on the comfort women contained erroneous elements and retracted them.

The Asahi’s articles centered on accounts provided by Seiji Yoshida, who claimed he had kidnapped hundreds of Korean females and forced them to work in military brothels.

Japanese historians had already concluded in the late 1990s that Yoshida’s claims contained apparent falsehoods, based on the testimony of Korean residents who denied Yoshida’s story. The retracted Asahi articles added no fresh evidence for experts, activists and journalists who have followed the legacy of the comfort women.

But the Asahi’s retraction gave political ammunition to nationalistic, right-leaning lawmakers and media outlets who deny that Japan should be held responsible for the comfort women’s suffering.

Nationalists have long been frustrated by the government’s 1993 apology for the comfort women ordeal.

Many members of the Japanese public, particularly young people, have also been displeased over recent efforts by South Korean citizens to build memorials and statues dedicated to the comfort women. Korean residents of the United States have been particularly conspicuous in this movement.

Critics have thus played up the Asahi’s admission as key proof of their contention that neither the Japanese military nor Japanese authorities were directly involved in the forceful recruitment of females to work in military “comfort stations.”

Are the nationalists right in claiming that the Japanese military and authorities did not directly force females into sexual servitude?

Most Japanese historians agree that as far as what is today’s South Korea is concerned, private-sector brokers there, not the Japanese military and government authorities, mainly rounded up the females while Japan was at war in the 1930s and ’40s.

Nationalists may be technically correct to an extent on this point, although some women from South Korea have claimed they were forcibly taken to the brothels by Japanese authorities.

But historical records have shown that the civilian brokers — who were usually selected by the Japanese military — often rounded up Korean females against their will through deception and via human trafficking.

The comfort stations were set up at the instruction of the Japanese military, which regarded them as “logistical facilities” to provide “comfort” to wartime forces.

Thus many Japanese historians, Western media and South Koreans argue that the Japanese military and administrative authorities should be held directly responsible for the victims’ plight.

In other parts of Asia, including China, the Philippines and Indonesia, it is believed that the Japanese military directly “recruited” the victims and forced them to work in military brothels, at least in some cases.

What is the official position of the Abe Cabinet?

Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga are the only ministers who represent the Cabinet to discuss sensitive history-related issues. Other ministers are only allowed to repeat the official administration view.

Abe and Suga have said repeatedly that the Cabinet upholds the 1993 government apology issued by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono (www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9308.html) Before taking the prime ministership in December 2012, Abe had suggested he might revise the Kono statement.

Abe has also said he is “deeply pained to think of the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering, a feeling I share equally with my predecessors.”

However, when urged to reaffirm the Kono statement with their own words, the two have never elaborated, only repeating that they uphold the apology. And they have often stressed their belief that the Japanese military and authorities did not directly abduct females to work in the comfort stations.

This attitude has made Japan watchers overseas suspect that Abe is trying to minimize Japan’s overall responsibility for the comfort women legacy by focusing on what they can technically deny.

During an Oct. 21 Upper House session, Suga was asked by Yoshiki Yamashita of the Japanese Communist Party to reconfirm key points admitted in the Kono statement, including “in many cases (the victims) were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.”

Suga only said Abe’s Cabinet upholds the 1993 apology. Then he emphasized that the Kono statement did not admit that the females were taken to the brothels through “kyosei renko.”

Kyosei renko is a formal Japanese term that means “taking someone somewhere against the person’s will.” But in the government’s terminology, it means an organized abduction by the Japanese military or government, officials said.

Suga pointed out that Kono, during a news conference to announce the statement, verbally admitted victims were recruited through kyosei renko.

“We considered (Kono’s verbal admission) a big problem,” Suga said.

What other comfort women controversies are getting attention?

Many right-leaning politicians and commentators claim several assertions coming out of South Korea have been exaggerated, and some of their arguments are still subject to hot debate in Japan.

Japanese nationalists argue the comfort stations were no different from state-regulated brothels that existed in many other parts of the world, including in Japan, before and during the war years.

Thus they say that phrases like “sex slaves” and “sexual slavery,” which are widely used by Western media, go too far to describe the comfort women system. Some even insist most comfort women were professional prostitutes.

Earlier this month, the government also demanded that Radhika Coomaraswamy, former special rapporteur on violence against women at the U.N. Human Rights Commission, revise her 1996 report on the comfort women. The report, which concluded that the comfort women system should be described as “military sexual slavery,” mentioned Yoshida’s accounts of kidnapping numerous Korean females.

Many Japanese historians, including Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a leading expert on issues pertaining to the comfort women, maintain that the terms “sex slaves” and “sexual slavery” are appropriate because the victims in general were not allowed to quit the forced prostitution and their working conditions were harsh.

South Korean citizens’ groups often stress that about 200,000 females were forced to serve in the brothels, but some Japanese historians say this number is exaggerated.

No historical materials have been found to pin down the exact number of females forced into the brothels, historians say.

Yoshimi, a professor of history at Chuo University in Tokyo, estimated there were at least 50,000 comfort women, hypothetically assuming one female was allocated for every 100 Japanese soldiers, and some of those women were replaced to increase the total number by more than 1.5 times.

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