Commentary / World | THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

'Comfort women' politics in Japan, Korea, U.S.

Why has the wartime existence of “comfort women” gained such notoriety in recent years? I’d suggest three causes: Japan’s retroactive bad conscience; South Korean politics, internal and external; and the unwarranted U.S. propensity to be a moral scold.

Upon Japan’s defeat in 1945, the U.S. Occupation told Japan to abolish “legalized” prostitution. Japan did, in January 1946. Why the U.S. didn’t like the legalized aspect of prostitution is anyone’s guess. Occupation personnel continued to make full use of Japanese prostitutes, including those in the Relaxation and Amusement Association (RAA) brothels specifically set up for them.

The official U.S. moral rectitude led to Japan’s enactment of the Prostitution Prevention Law of 1958, but that didn’t prevent the business of baishun, “selling spring,” in any way.

By the early 1960s, Tokyo had won international fame, as it were, for its “cabaret hostesses,” who were “numerous,” if “elusive,” and would “guarantee you a night’s frolic on the futon,” if the price, which was not set, was met.

Or so William Fitzpatrick reported in “Tokyo After Dark” in 1965. His account is included in a large collection of writings on sex stories of the world, old and new, “Fille de Joie” (1967).

By then, the Japanese had materially recovered from the devastations of the war and begun to have time to reflect on the horrible things they’d done in the past. Kako Senda (1924-2000), who would go on to be known for his writings on “comfort women,” wrote that his interest in the subject began in 1963, when he was asked by the Mainichi Shimbun to edit a book of wartime photos that Mainichi journalists had taken but the Japanese military had banned from publication.

While looking through 25,000 photos, Senda spotted one showing two women crossing a river, with the hems of their kimono tucked up, during the Battle of Xuzhou in 1938. Why women in a warzone? They were “comfort women,” he was told.

I remember the book Senda edited, because my father bought it. Most photos were stamped “top secret” across them.

When you think of it, Senda’s story of how he got to know about “comfort women” is slightly suspect. When the war ended, he was 20, past draft age. How come he didn’t know of “comfort women”?

But what later provoked some protests was the term to which Senda seemed proud to have given currency: jugun ianfu, “military comfort women.” Not just that it was redundant — ianfu, “comfort women,” meant those who worked for service clubs for the military, mostly prostitutes — but the term also suggests that they were coerced or forced into the job by the military.

Among those who protested were Tetsuo Aso, the obstetrician who served on the Chinese front and became an important source for Senda’s books in 1973, and his daughter Kuni Amako, also an obstetrician.

Their main complaint was that Senda misrepresented Aso’s role as regards “comfort women.” But the term jugun ianfu stuck.

Korea has been in a more complicated situation because of its modern history. With Japan’s defeat in 1945, Korean people thought they were “liberated” from Japan’s 35-year-long colonization, but they soon discovered that the two dominant victors of World War II, the U.S. and USSR, had no such plans in mind for the country.

The U.S. soon put it in trusteeship, an euphemism for colony.

The first disaster resulting from the hegemonic U.S.-USSR contest was the 4.3 Incident of 1948, on Jeju Island. The U.S. moved to snuff out any kind of “people’s movement” with an iron hand, and anywhere from 8,000 to 30,000 inhabitants were killed. That was followed by a far bigger disaster, the Korean War.

The U.S. dropped four times more bombs on the peninsula than it had on the Japan archipelago just several years earlier. The resulting consolidation of the split of the country into north and south continues unabated today.

In her 2014 book “Bunichi ron” (On Korean Contempt for Japan), Korean-Japanese scholar Sonfa O argues that the question of whether Korea really won its “liberation” or independence from Japan or not has simmered from the start, and that has colored its attitude toward Japan ever since.

What she calls South Korea’s strong “anti-Japanese nationalism” came to the fore with the first civilian president in more than 30 years, Kim Young-sam (1993-1998). It intensified under President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), as he took up the Sunshine Policy. It was an admirable move toward the reunification of Korea, but fanning an overt anti-Japanese sentiment was needed to counterbalance it.

Then, President Roh Moo-hyun (2004-2008) openly advocated a “diplomatic war against Japan.” Under his administration South Korea enacted ex post facto laws to punish any South Koreans who had engaged in “anti-Korean activities under Japanese Imperialism” 60 or more years earlier.

Those laws were passed in the name of “clearing up the past,” which, in fact, was intended to sweep away all the “pro-Japanese elements” from South Korean society, Sonfa O points out.

President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) reversed the Sunshine Policy, but pushed the matter of “comfort women” upfront.

Park Geun-hye, who succeeded Lee as the first woman President of South Korea, maintained no less a tough policy toward Japan, but that may have backfired in some way.

Earlier this year, a group of former Korean prostitutes sued their government for having had them serve as “U.S. military comfort women” in state-controlled brothels right after the Korean War.

Yes, South Korea inherited the Japanese euphemism “comfort women,” ianfu (wianbu in Korean). As early as 1956, it had even done a study of the same group of comfort women.

U.S. Ambassador to Tokyo Tom Schieffer, who apparently had not read John Dower’s “Embracing Defeat” (1999) with its description of what happened in RAA facilities, attracted a good deal of attention in March 2007, when he pronounced that comfort women were “raped by the Japanese military.” What would he say now?

“The root of the problem,” Sonfa O argues, and I agree with her, is that following World War II, “the victorious nations one-sidedly convicted Japan of its war as ‘evil’ and ‘unjust.'”

That is precisely the point that American journalist Helen Mears had made in “Mirror for Americans: Japan,” back in 1948.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.

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