Japanese officials have long dismissed the issue of comfort women as a distortion of history and part of Japan-bashing.
A recently erected statue of comfort women in San Francisco again dredged up the issue and provoked Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura into threatening to cut off his city’s six-decade ties with its sister city.
“The relationship of trust has completely been destroyed,” Yoshimura said of the statue that, according to its plaque, “bears witness to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of women and girls euphemistically called ‘comfort women,’ who were enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces in 13 countries before and after the war.”
But then Japanese officials have long hedged Japan’s accountability, saying it shouldn’t be singled out for crimes common during war. In 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even said there was “no evidence to prove that the women had been coerced into sex.”
The furor this week over the San Francisco statue titled “Women’s Column of Strength” by artist Steven Whyte shows the contentiousness of the issue.
“It may be 2017, but Japan is still fighting to deny and erase this egregious war crime and basically waiting for all the comfort women to die, so they don’t need to acknowledge the government’s responsibility,” Lillian Sing and Julie Tang, cochairs of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition that organized the installation of the statue, said in a statement.
The Osaka mayor’s reaction is not isolated. The Philippine government has refused to bring up the issue with its largest donor and trading partner, and has said that the compensation being demanded by Filipino comfort women was already covered by the 1956 Reparations Agreement.
The Philippine government also cites the Asian Women’s Fund that provides loans and compensation to “certified” comfort women, which, the women counter, doesn’t count, as the fund was created by private parties and not by the Japanese government.
Japanese Emperor Akihito issued an apology to the women on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. But critics deemed it a “non-apology” because he also allowed an amendment to the Japanese Constitution that would remove Article 9, which prohibits Japan from building up its military. Abe has also backed this charter change.
In the Philippines during the war, an estimated 1,000 female teenagers were forcibly seized by Japanese soldiers and held in military brothels. Of the 174 identified comfort women by the activist group Lila Pilipina, only 70 are still living.
Rosa Luna Henson was the first to publicly recount her ordeal in 1993. She was 14 and riding a carabao-drawn cart when stopped at a Japanese Army checkpoint in Angeles, Pampanga. Brought to a hospital turned barracks by the Japanese, she was raped repeatedly by the soldiers, sometimes by up to 30 men in a day.
“I lay on the bed with my knees up and my feet on the mat, as if I were giving birth. Whenever the soldiers did not feel satisfied, they vented their anger on me. When the soldiers raped me, I felt like a pig,” Henson said in her memoir. She died in 1997.
According to historian Ricardo Jose of the University of the Philippines, the military brothels were “planned.” Said Jose: “Each garrison had a comfort station, and ostensibly, this was to prevent the Japanese soldiers from raping the women [in the areas they occupied].”
Fragments of historical records also reveal how organized the operation was: “On fortnightly visits to one garrison in the city of Iloilo, Imperial Army doctors meticulously recorded the names, ages and sexual health of their captives: “21 … 16 … 17 … vaginal inflammation … vaginal erosion.”
Said Jose: “At their most extreme, the acts of violence would involve not just rape, but using almost anything to penetrate the women — bottles, sticks, blunt objects.”
The unresolved issue of comfort women has again surfaced at a time when Japan is preparing to tread the militarist path anew, and when the Rohingya crisis underscores how women are treated as war booty.
Said Julie Tang: “It’s not a geopolitical issue, but a human rights issue … The issue is women’s freedom from sexual violence, especially from rape and assault during wartime.”
The snowballing charges of rape and sexual assault against some of the most powerful men in the West also illustrate how such crimes are not so much about sex as about wielding power over the weak and vulnerable.
But as women are showing, whether in Hollywood and in San Francisco, finally speaking up could change all that.