I read with discomfort about a prominent Japanese politician who described the system during World War II in which women were forced to become prostitutes for troops as ‘necessary’. As reported in the BBC, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto acknowledged that women were acting against their will in working as prostitutes for World War II Japanese troops. Hashimoto further claimed that it was necessary as it gave soldiers who put their lives at risk a chance to ‘rest’, stating that ‘it is the result of the tragedy of war that they became comfort women against their will’ (for more on the BBC news story, please follow this link – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22519384).
During World War II it is estimated that between 80,000 to 200,000 women were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese military in what is often described as one of the world’s biggest cases of human trafficking (Amnesty International, n.d.). Many of the women came from Korea, Japan and the Dutch East Indies, obtained through abduction, deception or, in some cases, purchased. These women were taken to ‘comfort stations’ throughout the Pacific and were kept for months or years on end. Many of the women were under the age of twenty, with some being suggested in documents to have been as young as twelve. Women who were able to return home following the end of the war remained silent about their experience, through fear and shame of the horrific treatment that they had endured. Thus, in reading the comments of Toru Hashimoto, it seemed almost to sweep away the fact that the experiences that many women in these ‘comfort stations’ should never have happened. By saying that it was necessary to abduct, deceive and purchase women and treat them as though they were nothing more than objects to be used on a whim is nothing more than a trivial event of war.
Yet do we in the West have a leg to stand on in this issue. In discussions on the occurrence of the comfort women many Western books on the matter label the stations as ‘rape camps’ (McDougall, 1998) and ‘military sexual slavery’ (Coomaraswamy, 1996), as well they should considering that it was women forced into prostitution. However, while it is right to acknowledge the atrocities Japan committed during the war in forcing women to become prostitutes there seems to be a case of sweeping some events under the carpet. Namely the part that Western troops played in perpetuating the comfort women camps. When America arrived in Korea 18 days after the liberation from Japan they officially outlawed prostitution in response to the Japanese comfort women system. Unofficially however America transferred the comfort stations from Japanese to U.S. control. By 1953 there was an estimated 350,000 women working as prostitutes with 60% of these women working to help said soldiers relax and ‘rest’ (Cho, 2007: 163). Can we ourselves condemn what happened within the Japanese forces, as it seems many Western papers are doing, when we ourselves ‘unofficially’ perpetuated what they set up. The problem here is that, certainly in the sources I found, it is never made clear whether the women used for ‘comfort’ were there of their own free will or forced. The source simply leaves it up to the reader to assume for themselves.
While I cannot condone what happened in relation to the ‘comfort women’ in World War II, nor can I condone the comments made by Toru Hashimoto, I can at least praise Japan for acknowledging that the atrocities did happen within the Japanese forces. As Toru Hashimoto pointed out in his comments, the then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama did apologise in 1995 for its war time actions, as did Shinzō Abe, the current Prime Minsiter of Japan, in 2007, which is more than the West have done for their part in indulging in and perpetuating the ‘comfort women’ systems.
Amnesty International (n.d.) Stop Violence Against Women: “Comfort Women” <http://www.amnesty.org.nz/files/Comfort-Women-factsheet.pdf> (accessed 14 May 2013)
Cho, G.M. (2007) ‘Voices from the Teum: Synesthetic Trauma and the Ghosts of the Korean Diaspora’ in P.T. Clough and J. Halley (eds.) The Affective Turn: Theorizing The Social, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 151-169.
Coomaraswamy, R. (1996) Report on the mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the issue of military sexual slavery in wartime <http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/0/b6ad5f3990967f3e802566d600575fcb?Opendocument> (accessed 14 May 2013).
McDougall, G.J. (1998) Systematic ape, sexual slavery and slavery-like practices during armed conflict – final report <http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/demo/ContemporaryformsofSlavery_McDougall.pdf> (accessed 14 May 2013).