'Comfort Women': The Uncomfortable Truth

During the Second World War, Japan committed countless of war crimes; of this, there is not much room for doubt. However, recent comments made by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, along with other prominent political figures such as Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto make us question whether Japan actually has acknowledged past wrongdoings.

Mayor Hashimoto was quoted saying that given the stress and dangers soldiers faced in battle: “anyone can understand that the comfort women system was necessary”. Mr. Hashimoto went on further to degrade his credibility by speaking of how the US soldiers on Okinawa Island should use the island’s “adult entertainment industry” in order to reduce incidences of sexual assault on local women.

Mayor Hashimoto’s statement was met by outcries from the victims and the wider global community who are still fighting for proper compensation and apologies from the Japanese government. This leads one to question what exactly happened with ‘comfort women’ that has caused this much controversy some 60 years on.

‘Comfort women’ is a term used to describe women and girls forced into prostitution and work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers within the Japanese Empire during World War II. It is estimated that the Japanese Imperial Army enslaved between 80,000 and 200,000 women and girls from 1932 to 1945. Most came from Korea, with many also from Japan and the Dutch East Indies. Women and girls were obtained through abduction or deception and, in some cases, purchased from destitute parents. They were brutally abused by Japanese soldiers. For these women, the war never ended.

Some of the advocates of Japanese military and its use of ‘comfort women’ make the argument that these women were voluntarily following Japanese troops to make money, and thus Japan has no reason to apologise for the treatment of ‘comfort women’ throughout the war. Proponents of this way of thinking misleadingly use the term ‘comfort women’ to say that they were voluntary prostitutes. Translation of the original Japanese term would prove this. The problem is that such rhetoric is now being utilised by Japanese ultranationalist critics to avoid any criticism of their wartime crimes and wrongdoing. The Japanese government did compensate for all of their wartime damage to Koreans, and included the issue of ‘comfort women’ as part of the compensation scheme. However, Japan refuses to assume any legal liability for what they have done to Japanese ‘comfort women’.

This problem has been getting worse since Abe’s government took control. Abe has adopted an ultranationalist approach, in which he argues for a reformulation of their peace constitution which has acted as a mechanism to enforce a demilitarised Japan. Abe has denied the war crimes which were committed and has advocated teaching a ‘false’ history to Japanese students for future change. As part of this effort, Japan has asked the US for removal of the statue of a girl who represents the ‘comfort women’ in an attempt to disparage the issue.

In order for Abe to gain legitimacy in the global political arena, he needs to realise that this ultranationalist rhetoric will put him in an isolated position. The Japanese government needs to move ahead with apologies and compensation for those victims who are still alive. As there are few living victims, they need to take proper responsibility and give these women the comfort they deserve.

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