Commentary / Japan | COUNTERPOINT

Abe downsized, comfort women reprised

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now understands why political gurus say that a week is a short time in politics.

Last week, I speculated about why Abe remains popular despite promoting policies that most people oppose. But even before two of his Cabinet ministers submitted their resignations amid financial scandals, he was already sliding in the polls and it is likely his popularity will further erode despite swift action on damage control.

The opposition and media smell blood and Abe now faces his first real test since being elected in 2012. His 2007 meltdown in the face of adversity is not encouraging, a series of gaffes and miscues that proved his undoing. Can he staunch the hemorrhaging crisis this time around?

A lot rides on how he handles tough questioning in the Diet, any further damaging revelations, an aroused media and the planned consumption tax increase.

The Abe juggernaut is sputtering and the aura of invincibility and inevitability are gone. For example, a recent Kyodo poll shows that 85 percent of the public believes that “Abenomics” is not working. This should not only encourage the opposition to tackle Abe on his unpopular policies, but will also embolden those within the Liberal Democratic Party who have never been keen on structural reforms — the so-called third arrow of Abenomics.

Surely Abe must rue his recent Cabinet reshuffle featuring five female ministers. It has been an unmitigated disaster, doing little to help him among voters who saw right through the hollow tokenism, and backfiring with a vengeance following revelations of financial improprieties.

The sudden fall of economy, trade and industry minister Yuko Obuchi and justice minister Midori Matsushima is revealing. Abe threw them under the bus because they became embarrassing liabilities. But when it came to light that two of his other female ministers, Eriko Yamatani and Sanae Takaishi, have ties to hate-speech groups, Abe never publically repudiated or admonished them. Why not?

In May 2013, Abe graced The Economist cover as Superman, but is now a significantly downsized political force, both domestically and diplomatically. One suspects that East Asia is enjoying a heaping spoonful of schadenfreude as Beijing and Seoul delight in Abe’s woes. His planned summit with President Xi Jinping next month may no longer be a sure thing as Beijing weighs whether it adds to his misery or calculates that it would be shrewder to help Abe out when he is in trouble.

As noted in my last column, the prime minister courts controversy with his quibbling about the level of coercion used in the recruitment of young women to serve as comfort women in Japan’s system of wartime sexual slavery. One reader disagreed with me that coercion was involved and suggested that many women claiming to be comfort women were dissembling, citing C. Sarah Soh’s “The Comfort Women” (2008) to support his assertions.

Soh’s fine book is far more nuanced than indicated in this reader’s posting. She complicates the issue persuasively, arguing that there was no monolithic comfort women system, and that recruiting methods along with working and living conditions were not uniform. Soh draws our attention to the coercive nature of the colonial context: Japanese issued orders that were carried out in many cases by Koreans working for the Japanese colonial administration. In elaborating the role of Korean collaborators, Soh emphatically does not absolve the Japanese of responsibility for establishing and operating a degrading system of sexual servitude that depended on intimidation, deception, coercion and violence.

Soh is mostly concerned with highlighting the role of patriarchal prejudices in Korean society that facilitated establishing the comfort women system and the exploitation suffered by these women. She also criticizes the subsequent neglect of their plight as these aging and often destitute women were left to shift for themselves while their sordid story was kept out of the official narrative. Patriarchal Korea, she argues, considered comfort women an embarrassment because their fate highlighted Korean men’s inability to protect Korean women.

But it was at the Japanese military’s behest that Korean brokers recruited comfort women in the context of colonial subjugation and systemic coercion. Clearly, coercive recruitment does not only mean Japanese soldiers dragging women out of their homes at bayonet point, but Soh argues this also happened.

She points out that comfort stations set up in battlefront areas were run directly by troops and relied on forced recruitment. She refers to these as “criminal ianjo” (comfort stations) that resulted from sex crimes committed by Japanese soldiers who abducted local women and subjected them to sexual enslavement.

There is something insidious about the blanket dismissal of the former comfort women’s testimony. The notion that those who came forward with their stories were all lying and trying to shake Japan down for money is unlikely since, in fact, very few actually came forward and all of them endured an unpleasant public exposure of their private hells. If this was such an attractive scam, one would expect that tens of thousands would have jumped at the chance to enrich themselves, but the Asia Women’s Fund distributed atonement funds to only a few hundred.

It is worth recalling that Japanese soldiers prosecuted for abducting and raping Dutch women interned in Java, and making them serve as comfort women, were convicted and punished, with the war crimes tribunal held in Java relying extensively on statements that the victims submitted. In connection with the AWF, the Dutch government compiled documents from the court proceedings showing that at least 65 women were forced into prostitution. To my knowledge, the Japanese government has not disputed this finding of coercive recruitment. So it only happened in Java?

It is troubling that when white women insist they were forcibly recruited to serve as sex slaves, their word is accepted, but when Asian women make similar claims, they are sweepingly dismissed as fabulists. Some may well be, but the story is the same elsewhere in Southeast Asia and now Chinese victims have come forward with their testimonies about coercive recruitment in Peipei Qiu’s “Chinese Comfort Women” (2013).

Some apologists will undoubtedly argue that this is a regional conspiracy to tarnish Japan’s reputation, but in my view it is those who deny and minimize the depredations of this system that inflict far greater indignity on Japan and its victims. A few weeks ago I suggested that Japan establish a museum for trafficked women in Asia from the early 20th century onward and I believe that is a more constructive way forward than beautifying the wartime past and sweeping the comfort women’s horrific experiences, and their recruitment under duress in coercive conditions, under the national tatami mat.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.