Sunday, October 27, 2013

Atonement: Remembering Japan's Comfort Women

Yesterday, the boys at Stuff You Should Know released a podcast covering revisionist history. A basic definition of historical revisionism is: the reconsidering of traditional historical narratives in light of new material, the rejection of false or subjective information, or the inclusion of forgotten/ marginalized perspectives. Listening to Josh and Chuck, I wondered how this subject affected women’s history. During a quick Google search, one issue that popped-up again and again was comfort women. I had a nebulous comprehension of the problem, and remembered glimpsing the occasional pertinent news story, but that was it. Researching the matter and its connection to revisionist history, I came to understand how it mutually exemplifies the contentious and imperative nature of reinterpreting conventional history.

During World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army set-up comfort stations, or military-supervised brothels, in foreign regions under their control. Their purpose was to 1) discourage armed forces employees from raping local women (and subsequently inviting resentment from citizens of these subjugated localities), and 2) reduce the spread of venereal diseases. Since prostitution in Japan was decriminalized and monitored by law enforcement, leadership determined the obvious solution was to continue the practice abroad. Originally, comfort women were Japanese prostitute volunteers, but rapidly their numbers were outstripped by demand. Subsequently, the military started exploiting local women for these positions.

Many coerced into sexual slavery were duped by promises of employment in factories or nursing; multitudes were out-and-out kidnapped. They originated chiefly from Korea, China, and the Philippines, but women from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and other regions captured by Japan were abducted, too. Considered throwaway diversions, Anne-Marie de Brouwer of Tilburg University believes approximately seventy-five percent died. Likewise, she argues most of those who survived were left infertile, either because of sexual trauma or venereal disease. Exposing the number of victims is problematic because, as World War II ended, the Japanese government instructed much of the formal records pertaining to comfort women be destroyed. Still, numerous historians estimate the number of comfort women as roughly 200,000; unsurprisingly, a few Japanese scholars quote much more conservative approximations.

In 1994, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s government established The Asian Women's Fund. Here’s the mission they set forth:

(i) the Fund will call for donations from a wide spectrum of Japanese society as a way to enact the Japanese people's atonement for the former comfort women

(ii) the Fund will support those conducting medical and welfare projects and other similar projects which are of service to former comfort women, through the use of government funding and other funds

(iii) when these projects are implemented, the Government will express the nation's feelings of sincere remorse and apology to the former comfort women

(iv) the Government will collate historical documents relating to the comfort women, to serve as a lesson of history 

Additionally, the Prime Minister delivered several remarks on the subject of comfort women, including this: “On the issue of wartime ‘comfort women,’ which seriously stained the honor and dignity of many women, I would like to take this opportunity once again to express my profound and sincere remorse and apologies.” Though it could seem the above-mentioned compensation and apology would settle the matter, for many the affair remains unresolved. Muddying the problem is the aspect that while individual prime ministers have made personal expressions of remorse, there’s yet to be a government-sanctioned apology.

Furthermore, some government leaders have cast doubt on comfort women’s allegations. Current Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has said, “There was no evidence to prove there was coercion as initially suggested,” ignoring previous verdicts by a formal Japanese committee. Shinzō’s assertion was echoed by Tōru Hashimoto who concurred, “There is no evidence that people called comfort women were taken away by violence or threat by the (Japanese) military. If there is such evidence, South Korea should provide it.” Luckily, he subsequently clarified that although victims “became comfort women against their will,” that “In the circumstances in which bullets are flying like rain and wind, the soldiers are running around at the risk of losing their lives. If you want them to have a rest in such a situation, a comfort women system is necessary. Anyone can understand that.” Gosh, now I just feel silly; comfort women were raped for a good cause. Thanks for mansplaining that! Should you require more vexing questions mansplainined for your feeble lady-brain, Hashimoto is presently the mayor of Osaka and co-head of the Japan Restoration Party.

Similarly, victims emphasize that instead of receiving compensation directly from the government, it’s come via private donations. Given the vacillating nature of leadership’s perspective on comfort women, it’s easy to comprehend why surviving comfort women and their champions feel betrayed. Consequently, the issue of comfort women has created further acrimony between Japan and South Korea. South Korean President Park Gyeun-hye summarized many people’s opinion when she admonished, “Japan has leveled insults at them rather than offering an apology.”

There’s also a sentiment time is running-out for the Japanese government to make amends; of the 239 women that have stepped forward to divulge their experiences, only 56 remain alive. Every Wednesday, protests drawing hundreds of supporters take place outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, Korea. In response, the embassy keeps its blinds defiantly shut. These demonstrations first began in 1992. 

The subject of comfort women didn't emerge in mainstream consciousness until the 1990s. This story demonstrates why it’s crucial to rethink long-held historical assessments of events in consideration of fresh data and perspectives. Following World War II, the Japanese government attempted to make reparations and forge onwards as swiftly as possible. Comfort women serve as uncomfortable and troublesome reminders that crimes perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II cannot, will not, be swept under the rug.

Comfort Women:

For more, check-out the Wikipedia entry on comfort women. It delivers a thorough overview of the subject and its legacy; likewise, the references, further reading, and external links it supplies are wide-ranging.

Here are some recent news stories regarding comfort women:

Korea to Japan: Time running out for 'comfort women' resolution (Christian Science Monitor)

Documents detail how Imperial military forced Dutch females to be ‘comfort women’ (The Japan Times)

Filipino ‘comfort woman’ still fighting for apology (Toronto Star)

Revisionist History:

How Revisionist History Works

Forgiving the Culprits: Japanese Historical Revisionism in a Post-Cold War Context

The Place of "Comfort Women" in the Japanese Historical Revisionism

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