2015: Reexamining the “Comfort Women” Issue

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The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 1, No. 1, January 5, 2015.
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Reexamining the “Comfort Women” Issue

An Interview with Yoshimi Yoshiaki

Translated by Yuki Miyamoto
Introduction by Satoko Oka Norimatsu

Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a leading historian of the Japanese military sex slavery system, stresses three points in an interview held in late October of 2014, as part of the Japanese weekly Shūkan Kin’yōbi’s series of articles to counter-argue the prevailing trend in the Japanese mainstream media that inclined towards denying the history of the sex slavery itself, based on Asahi Newspaper’s correction of one of the witnesses Yoshida Seiji’s accounts in related articles published in early 1990’s. One, Yoshimi reasserts that Yoshida’s false accounts were not used at all in the making of Kono Statement, the Japanese government’s 1993 apology for and recognition of the Japanese military’s involvement in the sex slavery system. Two, the Japanese military was the main culprit in the crimes of mobilizing and confining women for forced sexual servitude. Three, the system was without a doubt one of sex slavery, as it deprived those women of the four kinds of basic freedom. The third point merits particular attention in light of the Yomiuri Newspaper’s November 28 announcementof retraction and “apology” for its use of the term “sex slave” in its earlier English-language reports. With the “apology,” Japan’s largest newspaper officially declared to the world that the women who were repeatedly raped by Japanese military members under the direct control of the military were not sex slaves. Japan’s public broadcaster NHK has also been known, according to the October 17 report of The Times, to have issued a set of directives called the “Orange Book” including one that instructed English-language reporters not to use the terms “sex slaves” and “be forced to.” Those moves, reinforcing the claims of the Abe administration, are precisely the kind of historical falsifications that Yoshimi fears may damage Japan’s international reputation. SN

Professor Yoshimi was the person who discovered the official documents revealing the Japanese Imperial Army’s inextricable involvement in the “comfort women.” He explains, from the perspective of an expert, what needs to be discussed and how to move forward in addressing this issue, while critiquing false reports and misinformation primarily from right wing media, which emerged after the Asahi Shimbun retracted its reports drawing on Yoshida Seiji’s testimony on the comfort women.

SK [Shūkan Kin’yōbi]: Ever since August 2014 when the Asahi Shimbun retracted its reports drawing on Yoshida Seiji’s testimony on the comfort women, press bashing has been directed against Asahi led by newspapers such as the Yomiuri and Sankei, followed by major weekly magazines. The media even called for retracting the “Kono Statement” [the 1993 statement, issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei] that acknowledges the involvement of the Japanese Imperial Army in the comfort women system.

Yoshimi: Yoshida’s testimony and the Kono Statement are unrelated. As early as 1993 at the latest, no one took seriously Yoshida’s testimony claiming that he had witnessed the Japanese Army’s forcible relocation of women in Jeju Island. The Kono Statement was not based on Yoshida’s testimony. Nor do scholars researching the comfort women issue draw on it for their argument. In short, Asahi’s retraction of Yoshida’s testimony due to its falsity should not affect the discussion. Nevertheless, based upon Asahi’s retraction, some label the comfort women issue a fabrication, and even deny the existence of comfort women themselves. I find this highly imprudent, though I fear that such assertions now prevail.

SK: Yet others criticize the Asahi Shimbun, because of its article based upon Yoshida’s testimony, for misinforming the world and therefore disparaging Japan.

Yoshimi: That is also untrue. The comfort women became known abroad because Kim Hak-soon a former comfort woman, came forward as a victim. I doubt that Yoshida’s testimony, made prior to Kim’s public appearance, was widely known. A journalist from the New York Times, who visited me when researching the issue, was unaware of Yoshida’s testimony. All things considered, what was crucial was that a victim identified herself in public. What is a lie is the very assertion that Yoshida’s testimony spread a false story throughout the world.

SK: Aren’t we losing the trust of neighboring countries because of the Asahi bashing?

Yoshimi: Not just our neighbors, but the international community. From the beginning, Prime Minister Abe has narrowly defined this problem as whether or not “the Japanese Army and Authorities forcibly relocated (abducted) women by the use of violence or threat.”

The Japanese Imperial Army as the Primary Culprit

SK: Abe’s point is “enforcement in a narrow sense,” isn’t it? That is to say, the problem is reduced to whether or not the Army and Authorities directly abducted women. Now that the Asahi has retracted its statements based on Yoshida’s testimony, the prime minister insinuates that no abduction occurred.

Yoshimi: Such an argument will invite more questions, logically—whether it is acceptable if women were kidnapped by deception or cajolement [rather than direct force or threat]. Or is it tolerable if it were human trafficking [involving cash payments]? The prime minister’s argument cannot address these questions. Even [historian] Hata Ikuhiko and right wingers have admitted that women were taken from the Korean Peninsula through kidnapping and human trafficking.
Kidnapping, human trafficking, and transporting victims beyond national borders were criminal acts at the time as well. When women were brought to a comfort station (Ianjo), the Army must have recognized its criminality as they examined women who were going into the station. What the Army should have done was to release those women and return them to their homeland, as they were obviously victims of illegal acts.

SK: Of course.

Yoshimi: Also, it was the Army that selected the traffickers who recruited the women. The Army should have arrested those traffickers who broke the law, and prosecuted them. Yet, none of them was pursued. The relationship between the Army and the traffickers indicates the Army’s culpability—it was an accomplice to abduction or human trafficking to transport the victims abroad.

Furthermore, none of these problems would have occurred if the Army had not established the comfort stations in the first place. The Army is, thus, the primary culprit while the traffickers are merely accomplices. There is no evidence indicating that the traffickers abducted women on their own independent of the Army.

Why Sex Slaves

SK: The fundamental issue of the comfort women does not lie in Prime Minister Abe’s argument concerning whether the women were forcibly brought into the comfort stations, that is, “enforcement in a narrow sense.” Is that right?

Yoshimi: That is right. What the international community pays attention to is not how those women were brought in, but the ways in which they were treated at the station. I have been arguing that there was no justification for depriving the women of freedom and confining them to the station. At the station, the women were deprived of four types of freedom: First, freedom of residence. Obviously, the women were brought to live in a room inside the station where they were forced to provide sexual services to the soldiers. Second is deprivation of freedom of movement. We have a fair number of orders from the comfort stations, and they indicate that leaving the station was strictly regulated or permission for going out was required. Some right wing critics insist that the women were free to go out as long as they obtained permission, but that is a preposterous argument. If permission was necessary to go outside, it means that they were not free.

SK: Don’t they understand such a simple logic? I am dumbfounded.

Yoshimi: The third kind of freedom is whether those women were free to decline having sexual intercourse. It is quite obvious that the circumstances did not allow them to turn down soldiers waiting outside in line only because “I am too tired” or “I don’t like him.” The fourth is lack of freedom to quit. None of the regulations at the comfort station, drawn up by the Japanese Imperial Army, mentions the right to discontinue their work, despite the fact that the Shōgi torishimari kisoku [Female Entertainers and Prostitutes Control Law in effect from 1900-1946] gave women the right to leave their job.

In the past, I twice discussed the issue with Hata Ikuhiko, but he still argues that the women had the freedom to quit, just as women, who were sold and trafficked, could obtain freedom when they paid off their debts. However, freedom to leave one’s job is the right to stop working whenever one wishes to do so. According to Hata’s reasoning, one is confined until paying off her debts, which is nothing but the system of slavery. When one is deprived of so many kinds of freedom, it is undoubtedly wrong. Regardless of the falsity of Yoshida’s testimony, the fundamental structure of the comfort women system remains unchanged. The fact that Asahi’s retraction caused such a big turmoil is beyond my comprehension.

Judgment from the International Community

SK: Those women were indeed sex slaves. This is the concern of the UN and other nations. Yet, the Japanese government continues to insist that they were not.

Yoshimi: The current administration tries to appeal to the international community, but they should know what damage they will bring on themselves by doing so. Other nations will lose confidence in Japan, and Japan will sacrifice its national interest. As a result, Japan will end up in a dire situation. Thus, downplaying the gravity of, or denying the responsibility for, the comfort women, I believe, results in degrading Japan’s reputation.

SK: Despite that, the Asahi bashing was intense and still prevents us from having this sort of calm discussion.

Yoshimi: One reason why a firm relationship between Japan and China, and between Japan and Korea, has not yet been achieved, I think, is Japan’s lack of historical awareness. This is why we need to “overcome the past” scrupulously. For this, we must properly resolve the comfort women issue. By doing so, we will create a new tradition in Japan, one in which we can take pride. Otherwise, Japan will isolate itself not only regionally in Asia, but also internationally around the globe and no one will take us seriously.

While the Kono Statement provides a fundamental framework for this country, some in the LDP demand revision of it. Revising would be impossible, as it would bring about serious diplomatic consequences. Instead, the current administration, I am afraid, will pretend to honor the Kono Statement overseas, while domestically denying or ignoring it. If this sort of attitude continues, I don’t see any bright future.

Yoshimi Yoshiaki is an historian at Chūō University. His book Comfort Women was published in Japanese in 1995. Translated by Suzanne O’Brien, it was published in English by Columbia University Press in 2000.

This article was translated by Yuki Miyamoto from the October 31, 2014 issue of Shūkan Kin’yōbi.

Yuki Miyamoto is an associate professor, specializing in ethics, in the Department of Religious Studies at DePaul University. Since publishing her book,Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: Commemoration, Religion, and Responsibility after Hiroshima (Fordham University Press) in 2011, she has been studying Minamata disease and people’s involvement in this environmental disaster (“Violence and Atonement in the Postindustrial Age: Minamata Patients, Hongan no Kai, and the Carving of Jizo Statues”).

Satoko Norimatsu is Director of the Peace Philosophy Centre, a peace-education organization in Vancouver, Canada, with a widely-read Japanese-English blog peacephilosophy.com on topics such as peace and justice, war memory and education in East Asia, US-Japan relations, US military bases in Okinawa, nuclear issues, and media criticism (To view English-language posts only click HERE). She is co-author with Gavan McCormack of Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, Rowman & Littlefield, 2012, and an Asia-Pacific Journal editor.

Recommended citation: Yoshimi Yoshiaki with an introduction by Satoko Oka Norimatsu, "Reexamining the “Comfort Women” Issue 改めて慰安婦問題の本質を問う An Interview with Yoshimi Yoshiaki", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 1, No. 1, January 5, 2015.

Related articles

•David McNeill and Matsumoto Masayoshi, “If we don’t face our past, we’re bound to repeat the same mistakes.” Japanese wartime medical orderly reports on army’s role in maintaining “comfort women” system
•Asia Pacific Journal and Hokusei University Support Group, Japan's Fundamental Freedoms Imperiled
•Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Addressing Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’ Issue From an Academic Standpoint
•Totsuka Etsuro, Proposals for Japan and the ROK to Resolve the “Comfort Women” Issue: Creating trust and peace in light of international law
•Okano Yayo, Toward Resolution of the Comfort Women Issue—The 1000th Wednesday Protest in Seoul and Japanese Intransigence
•Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Out With Human Rights, In With Government-Authored History: The Comfort Women and the Hashimoto Prescription for a ‘New Japan’
•Wada Haruki, The Comfort Women, the Asian Women’s Fund and the Digital Museum
•Hayashi Hirofumi, Government, the Military and Business in Japan’s Wartime Comfort Woman System


James Parris
Name: James Parris Email Address: james.parris31@yahoo.com.au
I am constantly concerned by this "comfort women" issue and the need for some to seek a further apology and compensation for these women. From what I have been able to research and then through careful thought, have become doubtful of these claims against Japan. When I read where some of these women married Japanese soldiers and some bought homes in Japan, after the war, from the money they earned as prostitutes, I begin to sense something is not quite right. If you were a tortured sex slave would you marry or buy property in the land of your oppressor? I think not. As for the amount of women being 200,000? No evidence has proven this and it is just the word of the Koreans who, along with the Chinese, are pushing this. If this issue came out of North Korea we would all dismiss it in a flash, yet are not the South Koreans of the same people? The only difference is a border and a political ideology. According to the Americans who interrogated captured comfort women they were nothing more than prostitutes. They were able to pick their own clients and had made a good living in doing so. Again, does not sound like a sex slave. Lets also mention the Treaty between the people of Korea and Japan of 1966 where apologies and compensation were made to individual Koreans who had grievances with Japan during Japan's annexation of Korea. At this Treaty no comfort woman came forward seeking compensation. In fact, the Korean President Park at the time said the comfort women did not qualify as they were prostitutes. You may also want seek further research and read "The Comfort Women" by C. Sarah Soh a Korean woman and Anthropologist who states that these women came to be employed as prostitutes via many ways. Some volunteered to escape domestic violence at home, some were already prostitutes chasing a higher wage, some to seek adventure, some sold by their own families to pay off debt. As you can see it is not as simple as just saying they were abducted. She also refers to the Koreans own involvement in providing these women. She finally concludes that the Koreans who are pushing this issue are merely doing so out of Nationalistic pride. Yet we hear nothing of all this from those in favour of pushing this issue and it concerns me, what are their motives? What is their agenda? They seem willing to want to believe these old women, who have been edged into lying and must forever purger themselves to save face. It does truly concern me. Link to article: http://japanfocus.org/site/view/4247

Norma Field
Mr. Parris's comment touches on several key, interrelated questions that have long fueled contention over the "comfort woman" issue. He suggests that some of the women went on to marry Japanese soldiers, settling in Japan and living comfortably from their prior earnings as prostitutes. He reinforces their status as “nothing more than” prostitutes, according to US interrogators. Perhaps some former “comfort women” did go on to lives of relative security in postwar Japan, but if so, they are the exceptions. More important is Mr. Parris’s emphasis on their purported status as prostitutes as justification for dismissing their claims. This line of thinking is frequently taken a step further by Japanese neo-nationalists, who argue that “comfort women” were already prostitutes, or were on their way to becoming prostitutes, before they arrived on battlegrounds to service Japanese soldiers. The continued vitality of this position is demonstrated in the attacks currently being leveled with new ferocity at Mr. Uemura Takashi, the former Asahi Newspaper journalist who first reported on a former Korean "comfort woman," the first to tell her story in public. (The translation of Uemura's rebuttal, "Labeled 'the reporter who fabricated' the comfort woman issue" appears on this site.) Even if we put aside, for the moment, the many pathways—involving varying combinations of volition and coercion, including economic—by which women might arrive at supporting themselves through sex work, the assumption that being forced into sexual servitude to the Japanese military would not constitute grievous injury reveals a pervasive, deep-seated failure to recognize women's fundamental dignity as human beings. Mr. Parris invokes the work of C. Sarah Soh as putting forth the view that "these women came to be employed as prostitutes via many ways." The word choice of “employed” is problematic, to say the least, given that (1) many of the women were altogether unpaid, and those who were paid did not receive nearly what they had been promised and (2) the women were confined, utterly deprived of their freedom of movement. We can grant that women (and girls) became "military comfort women" through a variety of pathways, in which trickery was common, and that those pathways were likely to involve their compatriots—Korean, Chinese, and other local profiteers—but this in no way lessens their grievance or the responsibility of the Japanese military. Prime Minister Abe notoriously has asserted that there is "no evidence" that comfort women were recruited "forcibly, in the narrow sense of the word" (see Tessa Morris-Suzuki's "Japan's 'comfort women': It's time for the truth (in the ordinary, everyday sense of the word"). While Sarah Soh does contest the homogenized image of the "comfort woman" created through both nationalistic and human rights discourses, she is unequivocal in her view of the institution: as she presents "memories [that] reveal undeniably human dimensions to the hidden institution of military comfort facilities," she also states, "I must once again strongly emphasize that my intent is not to deny the dominant image of depersonalized sex slaves and violent rapists that have routinely been evoked in the activists' discourses and reported in the world mass media" (emphasis in the original; The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, p. 186). Mr. Parris believes that the fact that it was decades before former "comfort women" came forward with their experiences is evidence that their stories are unfounded. He ignores the powerful social and psychological pressures to remain silent, as well as the fact that the 1965 treaty normalizing relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea offered no incentive for former "comfort women" to come forward had they wished to do so. The ROK, under the military regime of President Park Chung-hee, accepted a lump sum payment from Japan as compensation for Japan’s colonial rule. But that money went into government coffers and none was allocated to relief for the “comfort women” or other victims. As for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE, also known as the "Tokyo Trials") conducted by the victorious Allied powers, the comfort woman issue was off the table, with a single telling exception: in Batavia (present-day Jakarta), the tribunal conducted by the Dutch, the former colonial power of the region, meted out severe punishments, including one execution, to those Japanese officers found to have forced Dutch women into sexual servitude. (Jan Ruff O'Herne, perhaps the best-known Dutch "comfort woman" who subsequently became a citizen of Australia, has written a book, 50 Years of Silence.) No one was punished for subjecting Asian women of various nationalities to the same fate. The "comfort woman" issue, in other words, for decades was distorted and obscured by being embedded in power structures shaped by colonialism and patriarchy and reinforced by Cold War calculations. It was precisely to address the resulting wrongs that the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery was convened in Tokyo in December 2000. It was meant to take up where the IMTFE had left off. The tribunal, conducted by an international panel of distinguished jurists, made broadly available an invaluable body of evidence based on archival data and testimony, including that by former Japanese soldiers. It is often said that reliable evidence about the “comfort woman” system is hard to come by because the Japanese military and government sought to destroy any such evidence at the end of the war. Such efforts, together with the socio-psychological aspects of the “comfort woman” problem, have indeed made it difficult to produce a firm figure about the numbers of women involved. This is a favorite issue for deniers to seize upon, as if 20,000 rather than 200,000 were to lessen the gravity of the problem. In any case, not all evidence was destroyed, and a breakthrough came, reported early in 1992, when historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki, whose interview elicited Mr. Parris's response, found records in the Self-Defense Agency (now Ministry) archives attesting to the role of the military in establishing and maintaining the institution. Such research by Yoshimi as well as historian Hayashi Hirofumi (see, for instance, "Government, the military, and business in Japan's wartime comfort woman system"; also see Yuki Tanaka’s Japan’s Comfort Women for comprehensive treatment of this issue, extending to the postwar role of the US) had a powerful impact on the proceedings of the Tribunal, corroborating the testimonies by witnesses as to both the fact and coercive nature of the role of the Japanese military. The other incalculably valuable role of the Tribunal was that it gave dignified public hearing to the former "comfort women" who had, precisely, been denied such an opportunity. With women and jurists from the two Koreas presenting a joint case, the Tokyo Tribunal of 2000 offered a glimpse of a possible post-Cold War northeast Asia, one made possible by the maturation of regional civil society, most especially, in the form of global feminism. If we return to the question of why former "comfort women" hadn't appeared in public earlier, we would surely recognize how difficult that would have been until there was sufficient recovery from wartime devastation, but most importantly, evidence of an environment able to give respectful hearing to their experience of the devastation wreaked upon them in their youth. Testimony at the Tokyo Tribunal of 2000 repeatedly revealed the doubled injury these women experienced, first by living as sexual slaves of the Japanese military and, in the postwar, by being rejected by their own families as sullied goods—or, fearing such a fate, forced to live out their lives far from home. Whom could Ms. Kim Hak-sun, the subject of Mr. Uemura's first reporting on "comfort women" for which his own life has been derailed, thanks to the harm inflicted by Japanese deniers, have come out to, before the existence of Professor Yun Chung-ok and her partners at the Korean Council became known? Mr. Parris wonders about the motives of "those in favour of pushing this issue." We must not forget the long, hard work by Japanese citizens in various walks of life who have sought reconciliation with their Asian neighbors and all possible restitution for a harm that cannot be undone. It is they, too, who are hurt in international eyes when the largest circulation daily, the Yomiuri, decides to apologize for its earlier reporting in which the term "sex slaves" appeared, thereby misleading readers into thinking that coercion had been involved (see "The Yomiuri Shinbun takes pride in its shame: Expurgating Japan's 'sex slaves'").