Commentary / Japan | THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Sex slave wrangling misses human picture

by Hiroaki Sato

“These days bands of excitable people are making rackets on the streets, shouting ‘Death to Koreans! Koreans, Get Out!,” my friend in Tokyo, Akira Ueda, has recently written. “The other day some of these were marching down the conspicuous street of Roppongi where I live, saying unspeakably vulgar things.”

“It may be true that an extremely small portion of Korean residents of Japan are doing some outrageous things,” my friend continued, “but I’m horrified to imagine how I’d have felt if some group marched, shouting, ‘Death to Japanese!,’ while I lived in the U.S.”

Akira lived in Manhattan for a decade from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s.

Still, he wondered: “The forces that insist that Japan did wrong and must remain contrite about it no matter what have grown too large, with no proper debate,” until it has “now provoked this strong reaction.”

Akira was talking about the ianfu (“comfort women”) controversy, but he also marveled, he said, how Japan and South Korea have come to have such divergent views of the period from Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910 to the South Korea-Japanese Treaty of 1965.

The root problem lies in South Korea’s ineradicable contempt for Japan as an inferior culture that goes back to the beginnings of history, Sonfa O, the South Korean scholar who naturalized in Japan, has explained.

But with the ianfu question, wranglings have long ceased to be Japan vs. South Korea, says Yuha Park, Sejong University professor in Seoul.

When a dispute arises between the two countries, the South Koreans who most fiercely criticize Japan are “liberals,” whereas the Japanese who criticize South Korea are “conservative rightists.”

The serious 1990s confrontation between the two countries was touched off when Japanese conservatives condemned “liberal” politicians and citizens who tried to deal seriously with the ianfu question as “traitors,” accusing them of harboring a “masochistic view of history.”

Japanese conservatives’ opposition to the “postwar restitutions” for Korea that Japanese liberals advocated upset South Korean liberals. And so forth.

Thus the South Korea-Japanese conflict has come to exist not between the two countries so much as between South Korean liberals and Japanese conservatives.

That’s how Park summarized the conflict in her 2005 book, “For a Reconciliation.” In it, she discussed controversies over Japanese textbooks, ianfu, Yasukuni Shrine and Dokdo (Takeshima in Japan). The book won a prize both in South Korea (2006) and in Japan (2007).

In her “Comfort Women of the Empire,” published at the end of last year, Park greatly expands on the ianfu question. To consider who or what was “responsible,” she sets up a large framework.

First, there is imperialism — not the emperor system that may come to mind when you think of Japan until its defeat in 1945, but of the kind that prompts a state to expand its authority and control to other countries and territories. The Cold War world order that replaced imperialism is little different, in Park’s view. Consider the United States in South Korea, for example.

Then comes the state that necessarily controls its citizens in one form or another, as well as the patriarchal system that puts women at the lowest stratum, even allowing a father to sell his own daughters. Park cites some former Korean comfort women who said they hated their own fathers more than Japanese soldiers.

People in a colony are not exempt from responsibility, either. Most people in a colony more or less try to assimilate themselves into the system imposed by the colonizing state. Koreans were no exception. Their country annexed, most Koreans began to behave as Japanese citizens, which they were, officially.

Park cites former Korean comfort women who said they regarded some of what they did as “patriotic duties.” I refer to the diary of a Korean manager of “comfort stations” in Burma and Singapore, in 1943 to 1944, that was discovered in South Korea, in 2012.

The diarist begins by expressing his wishes for “the health and everlasting prosperity of the Imperial Family.” On New Year’s Day, 1944, he got up early, washed his face, and cleared up his soul, the diarist wrote, before “bowing deeply toward the Imperial Palace in the distant eastern sky.” That’s what all Japanese were expected to do on that felicitous day.

South Korean activists ignore all this and more, their “collaboration and subservience” included. They believe that their country was pristine until the Japanese barged in and ravaged it. Thus they have “enjoyed their position of moral superiority.” The resulting “moral arrogance” makes others cringe.

The bronze statue they built in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, then in the U.S., presents an innocent girl in a traditional Korean dress. It clearly suggests that Korean virgins were kidnapped and forced into prostitution for the Japanese military, a distortion of what actually happened.

Also, in successfully “globalizing” this particular plight of their own past, Koreans have made it impossible to contemplate why “so many comfort women were Korean,” Park says.

For their part, the Japanese “supporters” of Korean comfort women are too busy insisting that “Japan did wrong and must remain contrite about it no matter what,” as my friend Akira put it, to accept the actual acts of contrition of their government.

These include the Japanese House of Representatives resolution in 1995, the Asian Women’s Fund set up the same year, and the monetary compensation given to some Korean comfort women with a letter of apology first from Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

The activists reject all such acts as meaningless on the grounds that restitutions and atonements were not made “legislatively.” It’s as if they do not know that “politics is the art of the possible.”

No wonder that a 2010 survey showed 97 percent of South Koreans thought Japan had “not apologized enough.”

What prompted Yuha Park to study this subject in detail was the concern: As the dispute escalated since the early 1990s, “both in Japan and Korea, only the voices of the governments and citizens groups have grown louder, in the process drowning out the voices of those directly involved,” namely, the Korean comfort women.

One thing Yuha Park found in the course of her exploration is that the retroactive term “sex slaves” actually deprives the Korean comfort women of their humanity. Some of them found Japanese soldiers kind and considerate, some commiserated their fate, some fell in love with them.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York