Historical baggage

Print edition : April 06, 2007

A former South Korean "comfort woman" at an anti-Japanese rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on March 14.-JUNG YEON-JE/AFP

THE saga of Imperial Japan's resort to sexual slavery in order to provide for the "gratification" of its soldiers during the Second World War, which came to be known euphemistically as the "comfort women" system, was not easy to unravel.

Post-War democrats were aware of the details of this pernicious practice. Yet, the sexual enslavement of Asian women, mostly of non-Japanese stock, was not treated as a particularly urgent political issue in the immediate aftermath of the War, which ended on a horrific note with the United States dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Later-day investigations, including those under official auspices, inspired by experts such as Yoshimi Yoshiaki, brought to light a grim story of savagery that the enslaved women, many of them in their early teens, suffered at the hands of Japan's military officers and troops. Following this, Japan issued a statement in 1993 acknowledging that such a system had existed.

It also expressed its apologies to all those who suffered as a result. Subsequently, a fund, with a significant government contribution, was set up to compensate the victims. Japanese officials recall that several Prime Ministers, including Junichiro Koizumi who retired last September, wrote signed letters to many victims.

Estimates vary about how many women were actually enslaved. One estimate is of the order of 200,000. About 80 per cent of them were Koreans, the Korean peninsula then being Imperial Japan's "prize colony". Chinese were believed to have formed the second largest group. Others included Filipinos and some Japanese and Australians.

Some surviving "comfort women", making heart-rending statements in poignant circumstances that they had been enslaved and abused, sought damages. More recently, a U.S. congressional panel recorded the testimony of some victims.

A new controversy has now been fuelled by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's expression of doubt whether coercion, in a narrow sense, had been exercised by the imperial authorities to recruit "comfort women".

Studies by scholars, including those from Japan, have shown how a broad pattern was followed. It is widely believed that "comfort stations" were set up, although it has been difficult to establish whether, and if so how many, such "stations" were located within military barracks.

Another finding is that civilian labour-recruitment contractors were widely employed to recruit women with promises of honourable jobs. The Japanese government recently asserted that there was no forcible recruitment of women by the civilian or military authorities of the imperial era.

Studies by human rights activists have established four reasons for the establishment of the "comfort women" network. First, Imperial Japan wanted to prevent its military personnel from seeking pleasures on their own and provoking a civilian uprising in the occupied territories.

Secondly, the absence of a system of periodic leave and pre-determined duty tours for military personnel necessitated "comfort stations". Another reason was the need to ensure the health of soldiers through a strictly controlled system of satisfying their "basic instincts". No less a "strategic" reason was the need to prevent the leakage of military secrets. Strictly monitored "comfort stations" were designed to prevent soldiers from meeting spies who might be planted by the "enemy" through the latter's own "sex industry".

Regardless of the efficacy and morality of these objectives, the systems of "comfort women" and "comfort stations" have left democratic Japan with a historical baggage it wants none of. However, with many countries wanting to share good relations with Japan, the country can hope to ride out the latest crisis.

P.S. Suryanarayana

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