Photo - Finbar O'Mallon

Comfort women? What comfort women?

by Brendan Wrigley | @chewy980

The Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces, 70 years ago this August.  After years of conquering vast parts of Asia – including China, Korea, Myanmar and Thailand – the Japanese Imperial Army would fall. Soon after this the Tokyo War Crimes tribunal would begin and uncover one of the great atrocities committed: the coercion of those who became known as the ‘Comfort Women’. However, revisionist historians, the Japanese Government and Japanese cultural groups are questioning – not only the number and treatment of these women – but also how they should be commemorated in 2015.

The difference in accounts between some in the Japanese government and many academics is astounding. Some American historians place the number of comfort women at around 200,000.
Tesshu Yamaoka, the President of the Australia-Japan Community Network, says these claims are outrageous: “This is simply impossible and there is no tangible evidence to prove it,” he says. Pro-Japan organisations like the AJCN say the number is as low as 20,000.

Equally important is the differing views on the treatment and coercion of Comfort Women. Again, foreign academics say many were forced into sexual slavery and killed at the end of the war. Revisionist accounts suggest many were volunteers.

Dr. Nicola Henry from La Trobe University says while the numbers and means of recruitment are important, they distract from the heart of the issue. “It doesn’t matter if a person was tricked or kidnapped”, Henry said.  “As long as they didn’t have freedom to leave that is sexual enslavement.”

“As long as they didn’t have freedom to leave that is sexual enslavement.”

Some conservative bodies like the Japan Coalition of Legislators Against Fabricated History deny the very existence of Comfort Women. While the AJCN acknowledge their existence, they told Catalyst “the South Korean Government is clearly using the comfort women issue as a political card and attack against Japan”.

The Japanese Government’s account of the Comfort Women extends beyond simply providing a revisionist account.

In December 2014 they attempted to censor a textbook by American publisher McGraw-Hill. Tradition & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past contained reports about the number of comfort women, which starkly contrasted accounts given by the Japanese Government.

Despite these attempts, the author of the ‘Comfort Women’ section, Dr. Herbert Ziegler, has rigorously defended his writing and was backed by 20 fellow American academics in denouncing the attempts by the Japanese Government. On the 17th of March the Japanese Government hit back, with 19 of their own academics publically supporting their argument.

Domestically groups like the AJCN are also butting heads with members of the other community groups over Comfort Women. Earlier this year Korean and Chinese community groups in Sydney planned to erect a monument in Strathfield in recognition of the Comfort Women of the Second World War.

“For those women surviving to this day, the denial of what happened to them…must be adding salt to the wounds.”

The AJCN said there are “no benefits by (sic.) importing overseas conflicts to our local communities”. They suggested similar monuments in the U.S. had created social disharmony and led to bullying of Japanese students. An appeal to have one such statue in California removed had been dismissed in February 2014.

In early 2013, members of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet suggested a review of the 1993 Kono Statement, which recognised the existence of Comfort Women (although it gave no specific numbers) and the errors that were made by the Japanese military and government. “Comfort Women haven’t as yet received a full and frank apology”, Dr. Henry said. “For those women surviving to this day, the denial of what happened to them…must be adding salt to the wounds.”

While the suggestion was soon struck down by Abe, this aggravated tensions with Japan’s already hostile neighbours, whom Abe had upset by visiting the controversial Yasukuni War Shine in 2013. In October 2014 three of his cabinet ministers also visited the shrine, which pays tribute to a number of wartime leaders who were found guilty of committing war crimes.

With the ramifications of the Imperial Japanese Army still present in the minds of the many who suffered, Mr Abe’s speech marking the 70th anniversary since the war’s end will be highly anticipated. Its tone will no doubt play a big part in Japan’s cultural relations with its neighbours in the years to come

Photo by Finbar O’Mallon

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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