Although Japan and South Korea reached a final settlement several years ago involving payments to Korean women who were forced to sexually service Japanese troops in the 1930s and ’40s, the issue won’t go away, and not just because the new South Korean president is questioning the settlement, which was concluded by his predecessor. Japan wants everyone to forget about those women, who are all nearing the end of their lives, and when the government cries foul because some Korea-related organization continues to draw attention to them and what they suffered, it’s because it thinks the other side is reneging on the deal. We’ve all agreed to drop the subject, Japan says. Can’t we get on with other things?
In doing so Japan implies a refusal to acknowledge the ineluctable relationship between war and sexual violence. The “comfort women” will always be part of the history of World War II no matter how desperately the government tries to erase them from people’s memories or deny that it was what it was. This inalienable truth was reinforced this summer when two separate media outlets covered the same story about sexual violence that took place in a community of Japanese migrants in Manchuria right after Japan’s 1945 surrender.
This story is being told publicly for the first time. One version appeared in the Tokyo Shimbun on July 2, explaining how hundreds of thousands of Japanese were compelled to move to Manchuria in the 1930s after Japan set up a puppet regime there. A good portion of the migrants were farmers charged with growing food for a country that was escalating its war on the Asian continent. Japan eventually lost that war, and the migrants were left to their own devices by retreating Japanese forces. Many communities committed group suicide rather than face the approaching Soviet Army or the returning Chinese whose property they had taken.
The article focused on one farming community from the village of Kurokawa, Gifu Prefecture. The leaders of the community, which numbered about 600, also discussed suicide but in the end determined they would try to survive and return to Japan. They were already being attacked by Chinese bent on revenge, so they asked a group of Soviet soldiers for protection. In the end, they entered into an agreement where the soldiers would have sexual access to about 15 of the community’s unmarried girls and women.
Three of these women are still alive. They kept silent about their ordeal for many years, but have now decided to talk about it. For three months, until the Soviets withdrew, they were raped frequently, often at gunpoint. “They’d use their rifles to push us down onto the futon,” one woman recalls, “as if we were logs.” Four of the women died before the nightmare was over.
When the community, reduced by disease and starvation to about 400, finally returned to Japan in the summer of 1946, no one talked about these “settai” (recreational receptions), the euphemism used for the arrangement the community’s leaders had made with the Soviet soldiers, least of all the leaders themselves. One woman said she didn’t even know of the arrangement until the first day she reported to the special house prepared for the settai. Even after they were back in Japan, the men who made the decision never acknowledged the pain they had put her through.
“They couldn’t understand how much we suffered,” she said. “But they should remember what happened to us so that they could return to Japan.”
Another woman, now 91, said she contemplated escaping many times, but would instead dutifully go to the settai “when it was my turn.” She felt she had to do it to save her community.
The only recognition of the ordeal until now was a small statue erected at a shrine in Shirakawa-cho (present-day Kurokawa) dedicated to the “maidens” (otome) who “sacrificed” themselves for the community, though the nature of that sacrifice is unspecified.
Also unspecified in the Tokyo Shimbun article were the names of these women, but in its documentary about the Kurokawa migrants broadcast on Aug. 5, NHK identified two of them, as well as another woman who died several years ago. In fact, it was that woman, Yoshiko Yasue, who first came out with her story in 2013, at the age of 89.
Her husband, who didn’t know about the settai before her public “confession,” told NHK, “I think she felt she had to talk about it.” Her son surmised, “She had to verbalize her experience, because she wanted to question why she had to endure it in the first place.”
More than the Tokyo Shimbun article, the documentary stresses that the community believed they would have been killed by returning Chinese, who started looting as soon as Japan surrendered. NHK’s version is also more detailed, with testimony from surviving men of the village who express contrition for what happened, though they admit no one ever talked about it until Yasue’s testimony. One man, who was only a boy at the time, shows NHK the notebook of his father, who recorded what went on. However, in 1981, when he published an official history of the village’s time in Manchuria, he papered over the rapes by describing the settai as entertainments where the women served drinks to the soldiers.
“We could not write the truth in 1981,” the man says, and shows NHK the passage in his father’s notebook describing the women’s screams as they were raped.
The central figure of the NHK documentary is Harue Sato, who at 92 talks candidly about the rapes but, more significantly, shows how one moves past such a tragedy without denying or forgetting it.
Unable to wed in Kurokawa because of “rumors,” she left for the mountains, spent three backbreaking years clearing inhospitable land and started her own dairy farm, which thrived with the help of a man to whom she told everything.
“He understood and he married me,” Sato says, the point being that all men know what they’re capable of during war, but not all have the courage to face that ugliness openly.