Commentary / Japan | THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Censorship distortion of ‘comfort women’

by Hiroaki Sato

The U.S. Occupation censored Taijiro Tamura’s 1947 story “The Life of an Alluring Woman” (Shunpu den) for describing Korean prostitutes in a war zone. The Civil Information and Education Section with censorship power decided that identifying the nationality of the prostitutes constituted “criticism” of that nation.

U.S. censors ordered Korean references expunged but not the description of prostitutes in a war zone — not initially anyway. They knew soldiers needed sex. “Whoring” — to use the word the New York cultural icon Lincoln Kirstein, for one, employed in one of his poems about his experience in World War II — was standard fare for them. The Japanese military at one time had done a study showing that soldiers in a war zone had a particularly high output of adrenalin.

In this regard, the Relaxation and Amusement Association and the network of “special comfort stations” under it that the Japanese government worked to set up for the occupying soldiers in the very month the nation surrendered, August 1945, which John Dower describes in “Embracing Defeat” (1999), may elicit a sneer: Look how someone with a bad conscience behaves!

But the Japanese military was starkly aware of the conduct of its soldiers. After all, it issued the “Senjinkun” (The Code of Conduct on the Battlefield) in January 1941 in the name of the then Army Minister Hideki Tojo because military discipline on the Chinese front had broken down; insubordination, arson, pillage, and, yes, rape had gone out of control.

But in reality the move to set up RAA “comfort stations” was justifiable. Holly Sanders notes in “Prostitution in Postwar Japan” (2005), within 10 days after Occupations soldiers started landing in Yokohama on Aug. 28, more than 1,300 rapes were reported in Kanagawa alone.

The RAA brothels were shut down in half a year because of “a rampant spread of VD.” During that six-month period 70,000 women are estimated to have worked in them, Yukihiro Tsukada, of Kwansei Gakuin University, has written. After they were abolished, most of those “sex workers” became “panpan” (a corruption of “pompom girls” perhaps), as prostitutes catering to the Occupiers were called. By the 1950s their number reached 150,000.

As journalist Soichi Oya put it with a touch of exaggeration in his 1953 book, “Japan had become a nation of prostitutes.”

In April 1947 NHK did “street recordings” — interviews with men and women on the street. One of them, a panpan named Tokiko Nishida working around the Yamanote Line stations, sighed, in an aside, “Who’s made me a woman like this?” The lament struck such a chord that it turned an existing song with that refrain into a hit. The song itself had been inspired by a former military nurse turned prostitute.

Behind it all was the devastation Japan had brought upon itself. The writer Kafu Nagai pinpointed one pressing problem when he wrote in his diary, on Aug. 25, 1945: “food shortages are terrifying.” The possibility of “10 million Japanese starving to death” was thought serious enough for four years after Japan’s defeat. U.S. soldiers were a reliable source of money and food.

One reason Taijiro Tamura’s story “The Gate of Flesh” (Nikutai no mon), published just before “The Life of an Alluring Woman,” became a runaway best-seller — then wildly popular as a stage drama and a movie — may well have been that it dealt with a small group of prostitutes in Yurakucho who pledged never to have sex with GIs.

So, “The Life of an Alluring Woman” was published with direct references to Korea or Koreans deleted or rephrased. But that was not the end of it. A year later, when the Toho Studio wanted to turn it into a film, the U.S. censors stepped in again, and again. They required eight revisions of the script, in the end forcing out the references to prostitution altogether.

In her “Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation, 1945-52” (1992), Kyoko Hirano, basing her report on her research in the National Archives, details how that happened.

A Toho producer’s initial proposal to the CIE said the movie would aim “to show how the Japanese Army treated Japanese women during the war in China.” The CIE returned the proposal, advising not to treat prostitution and sex provocatively, but to stress the causes of Japan’s war.

The first script the director Senkichi Taniguchi wrote with Akira Kurosawa was rejected with “war and prostitution” noted and marked. Was the CIE saying the link between the two was too banal to take up? Probably not. The CIE also rejected the second script, with some other quibbles.

In the third script, Taniguchi provided a statement that he would stress the Japanese Army’s cruelty, adding how admirable love between a low-ranking soldier and “a woman of an ugly profession” — another name for prostitute — would have been in such a circumstance. The prostitute would not be depicted as “unnecessarily provocative.” However, Taniguchi and Kurosawa changed the “comfort station” to a bar.

When the CIE rejected this, saying the matter would be discussed with its Civil Censorship Detachment, Kurosawa stepped down.

In the fourth script, Taniguchi, writing alone, emphasized his intent of dedicating the film to all the soldiers killed by Japan’s war of invasion. He himself had been sent to the Chinese front during the war, taken prisoner, and repatriated to Japan two years after Japan’s defeat.

But the CIE rejected it once again. Bringing in a comfort woman was “Oriental thinking.” It would be sexually provocative and weaken the antiwar aim, the censors said. Obviously, Taniguchi thought dropping prostitutes altogether would have trampled upon what Taijiro Tamura had to tell.

There would be three more revisions ordered. It was in the seventh script that Taniguchi finally dropped the comfort woman and changed her to a singer visiting Japanese soldiers on the front. Yet U.S. censors demanded still another revision to take Chinese victims into consideration.

The resulting movie, titled “Escape at Dawn,” was a pure Hollywood melodrama: It does not leave a trace of what Tamura had written in “The Life of an Alluring Woman” — no trace of his dedication of the story to “tens of thousand Korean comfort women who volunteered to the front and thereby destroyed their youth and bodies.”

By all accounts, U.S. censorship of literature and film was mostly light, compared with Japan’s own that preceded it, as I examine at some length in “Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima” (2012). I’ve brought this up in the context of the “comfort women” controversy again (see “Redaction of a ‘comfort woman’ story,” Nov. 3), because the “truth” in such matters is seldom straightforward.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and a writer.