Japan: The Uncomfortable “Comfort Women” Issue

The Women’s Active Museum, WAM, Japan’s only visual testimony of its World War II sexual slavery system practiced by the former Imperial Army but denied later by officials for decades, occupies most of the first floor in a building in downtown Tokyo. The Museum, containing photographs, books and video documentation, tells the stories of the thousands of young Asian women who were called “comfort women” and forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers stationed in their countries in the 1930s till the war ended in 1945.

WAM, opened in 2005, is the work of a few brave Japanese women led by the now deceased journalist and feminist, Yayori Matsui, who, horrified and stricken by guilt after she heard the stories of rape and abuse from the Asian female survivors, began her campaign for justice after setting up VAWW-NET Japan (Violence Against Women in War-Network Japan), in 1998.

Matsui took the step at a time when Japan was basking in confidence as the world’s second richest postwar economy, and denied “comfort women” issue, a backdrop that underscores her courage and commitment to their cause. Naturally, she was up against powerful conservative groups including the government that had, till then tried hard to white-wash the terrible injustice caused to young women whose lives were destroyed under sexual slavery system.

On the other hand, VAWW-NET earned the support of local and international women activists who threw their weight behind the fight. VAWW-NET continues to work today to bring to the aging survivors a long overdue state apology and compensation from the Japanese government.

During the past few years WAM activities also include being the centre for the collection and recording of testimonies from women who have suffered violence in other parts of the world. Moreover, encouraged by Matsui, several countries including South Korea, China and East Timor, have also launched similar museums that collect testimony and conduct public awareness campaigns on sexual and other violence against women during war.

Japan’s sexual slavery system was developed by Japanese military commanders and government officials in the first half of the twentieth century as part of its aggression into the Asia-Pacific region. Japan annexed the Korean peninsula officially in 1910 and later entered Manchuria, northern China, in 1934. Japan’s aggression into the Asian region continued with troops capturing Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines and also included shorter capture periods in East Timor.

Records of mass rapes and brutality against civilians conducted by Japanese soldiers are available. According to Japanese researcher, Yoshimi Yoshiaki, who collected detailed data on the darker side of Japan’s colonial history, recollections from the then military commanders indicated the army set-up the first so-called “comfort station” in Shanghai, China, in 1932. Thousands of women in Asian colonies were taken in trains and settled in these homes. Documentation has shown the army described the comfort station as a means to “resolve the troops’ sexual problems.”

Under this slogan, the system was to recruit local brokers who approached the women, some as young as 12 years old, from villages. They were promised jobs as nurses or waitresses countries when they were recruited but later taken to houses run by the Japanese military and raped. They were then forced to provide sex, servicing sometimes almost 30 soldiers a day.

Beaten regularly, they rarely had access to medical treatment or proper food. Many died or committed suicide. When Japan was defeated by Allied Troops in 1945, the women returned home and some married but they led miserable lives in silence, too ashamed of their past to call for justice.

Five decades, later, VAWW-NET under Matsui, decided to take up their case. Mina Watanabe, spokesperson for WAM and the organization explains: “The decision was an absolutely crucial one at that time for not only the former ‘comfort women’ but for all women who sought justice. The uphill struggle we faced in work in Japan, led by conservative political parties, was obvious.”

Indeed, the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, that was conducted on December 4 and 5 in 2000, represented the biggest landmark towards justice for the women.

Firstly, many of them in their sixties and seventies at that time were given an unprecedented opportunity to speak out after suffering in silence. The people’s tribunal that brought top-class judges from international human rights Courts, academics and researchers, activists and former Japanese soldiers together to talk about that time, created huge waves in Japan.

The event shook the Japanese government that had till then stubbornly refused to accept responsibility. Political leaders at first denied there was such a system, but then later, confronted with evidence, tried hard to paint the women as former prostitutes who were seeking money now in the name of compensation.

The Tribunal was also a huge landmark in Japan’s war responsibility campaign also because it was the first time testimony presented by former Japanese soldiers who gave evidence on the comfort stations they had patronized. Yasuji Kaneko, who was soldier in Manchuria in 1943, admitted to the panel of Tribunal judges that he had been forced to go to the “comfort stations” as was the regulation in the army at that time. He described the system as “free rape” and told the lawyer who questioned him, that the description in the army that comfort women prevented civilian rape “was just not true”.

The highlight of the Tribunal was the large number of former comfort women who gave evidence, many of them were speaking in public for the first time and recalling the cruelty they faced. For example, Ha Sang-Suk, a Korean woman, said she was taken in 1944 when she was 16 years old by a Korean man who was recruited by the army as a broker. She described in detail how she was kept as a slave in the house where soldiers visited. She was not paid any money and was beaten when she refused to have sex. When Japan lost the war she wandered around alone in China and then later married there.

The Tribunal ended with the judges passing guilty verdicts on the State and the Japanese Emperor that led the Imperial Army. In their judgment, they also pointed out Japan had failed to take measures to protect the integrity, well-being and dignity of the human person by abandoning the women at the end of the Japan. Continued denials of coercion by the Japanese government, when the sex slave system was unveiled in public in 1994, was also noted and criticized.

Now, nearly one decade since the Tribunal ended, Watanabe of WAM says the long campaign for justice in the form of a State apology and compensation for the aging survivors has not been what they had hoped. In 1993, after intense pressure from VAWW-NET, then Chief Cabinet spokesman, Yohei Kono, finally acknowledged the army’s role in sexual servitude and apologized to the victims but there was no commitment to individual compensation.

Japanese revisionists lobbied hard and in 2007, the prime minister at that time, Shinzo Abe, declared there was “no evidence” to prove the women were coerced in the “strict sense of the term.”

In 1995 Japan started the Asian Women’s Fund that was an atonement fund established by private donations. Medical expenses for the survivors plus payment of around U.S. 20,000 dollars was extended to 285 women. Many of the former comfort women refused the funds and asked for individual apologies by the State.

Various individual lawsuits brought against the government by the women demanding apology and compensation have also not been successful. The Japanese government continues to maintain that war compensation has been settled with its former colonies in peace treaties signed after the end of World War ll.

Professor Hiroshi Hayashi, historian at Kanto Gakuin University, describes the “comfort women” issue as a thorn in Japan. “The fact that the Imperial Army used innocent women to provide sex for its soldiers represents one of the hardest aspects of war crime and remains a difficult to face in Japan. The typical attitude is to ignore the dark side of Japan’s colonial period which nationalists want to maintain as a war that Japan fought for Asia,” he explained.

Watanabe from WAM agrees. Proponents for Japan to accept and apologize and put to rest simmering anger and distrust in Asia, which sees State reluctance to face evidence with responsibility, are facing an even bleaker prospect for a breakthrough against rising nationalism in the country as new issues such as territorial disputes with China over the Senkaku Islands in the Japan Sea become diplomatic hurdles.

“Support in Japan is weakening while we are witnessing more deaths among aging survivors. But we will continue with our fight for justice,” explained Watanabe.

* Suvendrini Kakuchi is a Sri Lankan journalist reporting from Japan for international media. She is also a regular commentator on Asian issues for Japanese publications.

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