Commentary | THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Redaction of a ‘comfort woman’ story

by Hiroaki Sato

One of the Japanese stories sometimes mentioned in the “comfort women” controversy is “Shunpu den” by Taijiro Tamura (1911-1983). That’s because the story, written in the spring of 1947, depicted Korean “comfort women,” but the U.S. Occupation “suppressed” it.

A few years later, when an attempt was made to turn it into a film, Occupation censors intervened again and ordered the rewrite of the script for a total of eight times. As a result, in the film, its main character was changed from a comfort woman to a singer visiting soldiers in a war zone.

Today, the Asahi Shimbun, et al., might point to the story as yet another proof of the Japanese abuse of “sex slaves” during the war. Back then, though, it wasn’t a matter of controversy. Prostitution was rampant in a devastated and occupied nation. Also, standards of judgment were different, not least with the U.S. policymakers.

How different? The reference to “Korean” prostitutes itself was judged to be “criticism of Koreans,” though not the existence of prostitutes on the front. GIs of the Occupation were making full use of Japanese prostitutes. The story was romantic Hollywood-style, like the 1957 Marlon Brando film, “Sayonara.” But that didn’t matter.

First, the title: It was translated “The Story of a Prostitute” for the Civil Censorship Detachment of the Civil Information and Education (CIE) Section of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s GHQ. A more faithful translation may be “The Life of an Alluring Woman,” with the understanding that shunpu, “alluring woman,” is one of the many words for prostitute.

The distinction is important for the story. The heroine is an attractive, strong-willed woman known by her Japanese name, Harumi. In her sexual dealings with a dozen men a day, she still can develop a passion for someone she likes. So, she falls in love with a low-ranking soldier named Mikami, who is naive and timid.

Mikami is mortally conscious of the rigid Japanese military hierarchy that places an absolute value on ranks. In fact, one of Harumi’s regular customers is Mikami’s immediate superior, an arrogant lieutenant. When he finds out that his orderly is the man she really loves, he sends him away to a different company.

In a subsequent battle, Mao Zedong’s Eighth Route Army captures Mikami. Though he is treated kindly and he knows he’ll be court-martialed and executed if he is sent back to the Japanese, Mikami, ever a Japanese soldier, insists on it. Upon his return, he is put in a stockade to await court martial. He decides to commit suicide and asks Harumi to steal a hand grenade for him.

Harumi, believing that he plans to escape with her, gladly steals him one, but when she delivers it to him, he tells her to leave. When she adamantly refuses, Mikami removes the pin from the grenade. When she realizes what’s happening, she finds herself “immersed in ecstasy” for the few seconds before the grenade explodes and blows apart the two lovers into a bloody mess.

In the finally approved film, the two lovers escape, but the vengeful lieutenant shoots both dead. It’s titled “Escape at Dawn.”

No, U.S. Occupation’s “suppression” did not mean what it normally means. “The Life of an Alluring Woman” was dropped from the April 1947 issue of a magazine for which it was intended, but the next month it was published in a collection of Tamura’s short stories, with the direct references to Korea or Korean deleted or altered.

One important deleted passage was the author’s heartfelt dedication at the outset of the story: “This piece is dedicated to the tens of thousand of Korean Daughters who volunteered to every battlefront, which Japanese women would not approach with fear and contempt, in order to comfort the lowest-ranking soldiers of the Japanese Army deployed to the interiors of the Continent during the war, and who thereby destroyed their youth and bodies.”

What I’ve given as “Daughters” is “joshigun” (in Chinese, “niangzijun”). Originally the word referred to the army of women that Tang Emperor Liyuan’s daughter Gongzhu is reputed to have raised to help her father.

Among the altered words or expressions was “Korea” or “the Korean Peninsula,” which was changed to “the land that is a corner contiguous to this Continent.” But such deletions and alterations would not have duped any of the readers of the day.

Then why did they bother?

Looking at the censor’s decision (reproduced in its entirety, along with an English summary of the story, in Volume 2 of Taijiro Tamura’s five-volume selected works, 2005), you see next to “Examiner: Kunzman” a note saying: “Per check with Mr. W. H. Fielding, chief of Ryukyu-Korea Division, officer of the Executive Officer, chief of Staff.”

With Ryukyu (Okinawa), it’s easy to see why the matter came under the purview of the Occupation’s division chief. The archipelago had been put under a special U.S. administrative rule even before Japan surrendered in the battle there. (The rule continued long after Japan was made independent — until 1972 — when the islands “reverted” to the country.)

With Korea, the matter was subtler. When Japan surrendered, Korean people felt “liberated.” And some of those in Japan turned into mobs. In “Encounter with Japan” (1983), Herbert Passin describes the riotous mobs he witnessed in Hakata, the main junction for those who wanted to go back to Korea. Passin introduced the idea of the opinion survey in Japan as a CIE employee.

However, in U.S. policymakers’ eyes, Korea wasn’t really independent. Administratively the country was more or less part of occupied Japan. Nevertheless, every effort had to be made not to allow defeated Japanese to offend Koreans in any way.

The U.S. view 60 years ago still holds in Japan today, at least in this instance. While reproducing Kunzman’s decision, the editors do not just print the story as censored by the U.S. Occupation. They do so, they explain, because “improper, discriminatory expressions toward those who were under colonial rule should not be permitted.”

So this is a case of a Japanese publisher perpetuating a U.S. censors’ old cover-up, a dozen years after the allegation of the Japanese government’s cover-up became a matter of great contention in the early 1990s.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and an essayist. His most recent book is “Sakutaro Hagiwara: Cat Town.”