Japan’s Feminism Stumbles Over ‘Comfort Women’

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Comfort woman memorial statue, Seoul, South Korea

Credit: Tessa Morris-Suzuki

Comfort woman memorial statue, Seoul, South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea, (WOMENSENEWS)–In his U.N. General Assembly address last week Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to make Japan a society where women shine. He also said Japan would help lead the international community in eliminating sexual violence during armed conflict.

His Sept. 25 remarks were just the latest in a number of high-profile "pro-women" moves by Abe. Earlier in September he was praised by UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka for taking such steps such as increasing the number of female cabinet ministers to five from two (out of 19).

However, just weeks before Abe’s pledge, Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, claimed in a Sept. 5 press conference that none of the tens of thousands of women taken into the Japanese military’s wartime brothels–the so-called comfort women–was forcibly recruited by the Japanese military or police.

Japan’s ability to fill the fulfill the role in reducing violence against in in armed conflict as it denies its past prompted questions from journalists at the conference where Suga spoke.

Journalists at the conference raised the question of Dutch women (including wartime internees) who were made to serve as "comfort women." One reporter referred to the careful study of this issue commissioned by the Dutch parliament and completed in 1994, which found that about 65 women had "most certainly" been forcibly recruited by the Japanese military or police for prostitution.

Suga appeared at first to avoid answering this question, but was then handed a piece of paper from which he read the following statement: "The government’s position is that in the government’s examination [of the issue], it was not possible to find descriptions showing so-called forcible recruitment in which the military and related bodies were involved."

Later in the same conference Suga reiterated: "It is the view of the government that the projects in Indonesia have already been settled and that materials showing forcible recruitment could not be found."

Minimizing Responsibility

Abe and his political allies have long sought to minimize responsibility for this history by trying to make a distinction between women seized directly in their homes, neighborhoods or workplaces by the military, and those who were first tricked by brokers and then handed over to the military. The latter, they have always said, were not "forcibly recruited."

Now they are denying all reports of forced recruitment everywhere.

This can only mean that they now also reject the findings of the 1994 Dutch report, as well as many testimonies of forced recruitment of women in other places throughout Japan’s wartime empire.

This denial comes as Japanese journalists, historians, publishers and others who have tried to tell the story of the "comfort women" find themselves under fierce attack from right wing groups.

The liberal Asahi newspaper, which has attempted to provide relatively balanced coverage of the topic, has been bitterly criticized by its rivals and by leading politicians. The main trigger for this attack was a recent acknowledgment by the Asahi’s editor that his paper had made an error some 25 years ago, when it published a statement by a former Japanese wartime labor recruiter who claimed personally to have led Japanese soldiers in raids to round up Korean women for forced prostitution. A few years later, this man publicly retracted his claim.

Other newspapers also published stories on this testimony at the time. Now, even though the testimony has had no influence on serious debate about the "comfort women" issue for years, the Asahi is being publicly pilloried, and there have been threats to call its chief editor before parliament for questioning. Both Abe and Suga have recently condemned the Asahi for "bringing shame on Japan."

In an extraordinary campaign of coordinated public hostility, Japanese universities employing former Asahi journalists who have written on the "comfort women" issue now find themselves bombarded by emails and phone calls demanding that they sack the academics concerned. This has led in at least one case to the sudden "early retirement" of the academic under attack.

Other academics have been attacked in the mass media for including material referring in their classes to the forced recruitment of comfort women. Concerned public commentators on this and related issues also have become the target of vitriolic attacks by weekly magazines. Now, only one or two small and brave journals still dare to look critically at the government’s denials or to publish the stories of former "comfort women" who speak of being forcibly recruited.

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