“Comfort Women” Won’t Let Japan’s Conservatives Rewrite History

Yong Soo LeeThe Asian Solidarity Conference, a meeting of international activists, recently announced that it has obtained over 500 documents that it claims directly implicate the Japanese government in the establishment of a system of sexual slavery during World War II. This revelation is the latest in a decades-long struggle to achieve authoritative historical acknowledgement of the survivors, many of whom came from Korea and China, who found themselves kidnapped, duped or otherwise forced to become “comfort women” by the Imperial Japanese Army during its occupation of much of Asia in the 1930s and 40s.

The history of these comfort women—the Japanese euphemism still used by many historians—remains the subject of fierce international debate and a divisive issue in East Asian politics today. Though some reports of comfort women emerged shortly after the war, it wasn’t until the 1990s that survivor testimonials finally entered the discussion of Japanese war memory. Prior to 1993, the Japanese government had always maintained that the comfort women system was run privately and with professional prostitutes.

This stance became indefensible in large part due to the efforts of Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi, who quietly discovered the first official evidence of the government’s hand in the establishment of “comfort stations.” Following this revelation, the Japanese government conducted a study of the comfort women system, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono concluded in the historic Kono Statement that the Japanese military was “directly or indirectly” involved with the system, and that some women were, in fact, sex slaves.

To be clear: Though some Japanese conservative nationalists cling to a revisionist delusion, the actual existence of sex slaves in the military’s comfort women system is no longer up for debate. It happened. Even before this latest development, there were verified internal Japanese historical government documents confirming as much. Dissenters point to other instances of misattributed or false evidence as proof that this entire issue is either too ambiguous to merit apology, or an outright fabrication, but this is little more than a revisionist minority’s smoke and mirrors. While it’s true that the regular emergence of new testimony and evidence means that  historians still disagree on some details, like the precise number of comfort women (the most frequently cited is 200,000), to suggest that these survivors are part of some vast anti-Japanese conspiracy is not just incorrect, it’s evil.

Despite broad recognition of the historical reality of comfort women, activists have faced regular backlash from conservative Japanese voices. In March 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ignited a renewed push to revise the history of comfort women by abruptly declaring that there was no evidence that women were coerced into becoming sex slaves—a complete reversal of the Kono Statement that eventually resulted in a Parliament-level apology. Perhaps unsurprisingly, conservatives have successfully infected Japanese history textbooks with a similar distaste for historical truth: Atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking and the comfort women system have been reduced to mere footnotes in some cases and completely omitted in others.

Now, once again, activists fear the worst, as the Japanese government prepares to deliver an updated report on the Kono Statement in the coming days. The Japan Times suggests that this report might emphasize undue South Korean pressure in the crafting of the original statement, effectively undermining its credibility as an official admission of guilt. Should conservative revisionists present another factually hollow historical rewrite, the South Korean government is prepared to release even more documents supporting the internationally accepted reality of Japan’s comfort women.

Sexual violence is too often an unpunished and forgotten part of war. In World War II, as the Red Army marched West, its soldiers enacted a campaign of rape of an estimated 2 million women. At Nanking, Japanese soldiers spent six weeks pillaging, murdering and raping as many as 300,000 civilians, including elderly women and little girls. Historians have also found evidence of rape by American GIs during the liberation of France.

For all of these women, the war won’t end until historical truth prevails.

Image of survivor and activist Lee Yong Soo courtesy of keithpr via Creative Commons 2.0.


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James Hildebrand is a senior at Amherst College and editor-in-chief of the independent student blog AC Voice. He is interning this summer at Ms. magazine.