Toru Hashimoto, Mayor of Osaka, has infuriated Japan’s regional neighbours and caused his own country’s ministers to scramble for excuses after claiming the use of “comfort women” by Japan’s imperial army during WWII was “necessary”.
At least 200,000 women from across occupied East Asia are thought to have been coerced or forced into sexual slavery for the exclusive use of Japanese soldiers as they embarked on their quest of expansionism throughout the region. The issue remains sensitive today, not just for the immoral and brutal realities encompassed in the enslaving of “comfort women” but because the Japanese government has been loath both to acknowledge and properly apologise for the systematic recruitment of women for sex.
In 1995, after years of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) obstinacy, Tomiichi Murayama, short-reigning Prime Minister from the Japan Socialist Party, admitted Japan’s primary responsibility for bringing war to East Asia in the 1940s and, explicitly, for the deployment of “comfort women”.
Despite a genuinely sincere apology from Murayama, succeeding politicians, mainly from the conservative LDP, have distanced themselves from Japan’s wartime atrocities and refused to be imbued with the collective notion of “war guilt” that Japan’s neighbours believe the whole population should reel under. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even doubts whether the “comfort women” were coerced into their roles of subjection and is sceptical about the labelling of many Japanese war criminals interred at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which to China and South Korea symbolises Japan’s undying martial nationalism.
Given Abe’s stance it is not surprising that Hashimoto’s comments have been received with disgust. Although a member of the new Japan Restoration Party rather than the ruling LDP, Hashimoto is associated with the nationalist stance most of East Asia also attributes to Abe.
However, it has to be said that Hashimoto, despite his unwise comments, acknowledges Japan’s culpability for the war and for the use of “comfort women”, rather than seeking to deny such realities. Indeed, he is right to point out that Japan is by no means the only country to deploy such methods for raising the morale of troops or quenching the supposedly essential requirements of masculinity.
As can be seen in any ongoing conflict across the world today, the use of women as sex slaves or for casual rape is a tragic, yet common, phenomenon. What makes the Japanese actions in WWII worse, some argue, is the organised nature of it. This may have some warped logic to it, although the indiscriminate gang rapes committed by almost every army throughout history is hardly less disgusting and degraded.
Furthermore, other examples exist of organised sexual slavery to serve military needs. One instance is German South West Africa, when unwanted women from Germany (often living in orphanages or workhouses) were shipped to present day Namibia in the early twentieth century to offer “sustenance” to the young German colonial force. (Read Andre Brink’s The Other Side of Silence for a vivid description of the women’s experiences).
There is Vietnam, when countless thousands of native women committed their bodies to rampant US troops. Yes, many may have done so voluntarily, but how many? Plus, which were paid and which weren’t for “services rendered”? One can put the boot on the other foot and ask how many of Japan’s “comfort women” willingly surrendered themselves to soldiers as a final, desperate hope of survival?
Another argument, one used by the Imperial Japanese Army, is that providing “comfort centres” prevented the indiscriminate rapes that are a staple of warfare. Such an argument cannot justify the organised removal of women from their homes and families but it puts into perspective other acts of violence against women during conflicts.
The use of “comfort women” or sex slaves captured during bouts of warfare stretches back hundreds if not thousands of years. Arab slave raiders, Mongol conquerors, European colonialists; all have engaged in the plunder of women for succour. Perhaps they did not engage in such barbarities with the amount of forethought and calculation as the Japanese authorities did during WWII but the principles are always the same.
As the controversial Hashimoto himself remarks, “It is a result of the tragedy of war that they [women] become comfort women against their will”. War is degenerative. By nature it brings out the worst in humankind. Whilst the Japanese experiment can never be forgotten, nor must we allow them to become the scapegoats for a painful global and historical truth.