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Unspeakable Truths

The Continuing Shame and Indelible Stain of Japan's Imperial Past

COMFORT WOMEN Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II By Yoshimi Yoshiaki Translated from the Japanese by Suzanne O'Brien; Columbia University Press: 248 pp., $27.50

July 29, 2001|GEORGETTE FLEISCHER | Georgette Fleischer is completing a manuscript on "Genre Departures: Women Writers and the Crisis of Representing National Socialism and World War II."

Between 1932 and 1945, the Japanese military engaged in the traffic in women. It also engaged in the traffic in children, for many of the so-called comfort women--women pressed into sexual slavery to satisfy Japanese troops and officers--were as young as 14. Though they came from numerous countries in Asia and included Dutch women in Indonesia, most comfort women were Korean and the majority of those were poor, uneducated and inexperienced, sexually and in other ways. Most came from rural areas, and most had no idea what they were getting into when they were coerced away from their families with promises of legitimate employment or when they were sold by procurers. On their young bodies was enacted a history of national chauvinism that gave rise to 20th-century Japanese colonialism.

In 1910, Korea was annexed by Japan, and in 1932, Japan set up the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria. Koreans were treated as colonial subjects of the Japanese Empire and forbidden to use their own language. During the years that began with the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and ended with Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945, the Japanese military set up "comfort stations" in order to sexually service its militia.

Korean women in particular "endured the unendurable," in the words of documentary filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, as they were forced to satisfy scores of men each day and night (Japanese comfort women, by contrast, were generally used more lightly). Their bodies suffered from physical abuse, from sexually transmitted diseases and in some cases from forced hysterectomies designed to circumvent menstruation and pregnancy, which would have compromised their ability to work relentlessly. Dutch women endured lighter work loads (two or three men per night), and they were awarded monetary damages by Japan in 1956.

But this has not been the case with the sexual slavery of Asian women. In Kim-Gibson's film "Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women," professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki of Ch{umacronl}{omacronl} University in Tokyo blames first the Japanese government and then the Allied powers, especially the United States, for neglecting these breaches of international law, a neglect that continues to the present day.

Yoshiaki seeks to redress this neglect by setting forth its history in "Comfort Women," a work first published in 1995 in Japan. Yoshiaki's objectives dovetail with those of human rights activists who addressed the issues of comfort women at the Beijing Women's Conference of 1995. Although "Comfort Women's" command of documentary materials makes it a landmark for historians, human rights activists and general readers, in Yoshiaki's hands, the comfort women themselves slip from the center to the margins.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese government destroyed many military documents at the end of the war. Yoshiaki unearthed six that he published in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun in January 1992 and later found more that had fallen between the cracks. Although Yoshiaki admits he is working from only "the tip of the iceberg," he approximates that the first comfort stations were established in 1932 by the Japanese navy exclusively for military personnel. Ten "restaurants"--as they were called in order to sidestep a Chinese law against licensed prostitution--employed 102 Japanese and 29 Korean "serving women." The Japanese army also established comfort stations in order to prevent its militia from raping civilians and to deter the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (they were not especially effective on either count; in fact, evidence suggests that military comfort stations actually increased the spread of STDs); they were also thought to prevent the leaking of military secrets to civilian prostitutes. Military comfort women were sometimes referred to as the "girl army" (j{omacronl}shigun) and were considered "really a part of the army."

In November 1937, in the wake of the Nanking Massacre and in order to quell Chinese outrage over the rape of Chinese women, a large number of military comfort stations was established, staffed by Chinese women who had been coerced into service. Proceeding chronologically and geographically as Japan moved toward full-scale war with China, Yoshiaki establishes by amassing disparate records that the institution of comfort stations was a systematic operation, carried out by military elites and sanctioned by the Japanese Ministry of War.

Yoshiaki's synthesis of extant military documents is one of his most valuable contributions. He quotes liberally from these documents, some of which have appeared before in his work. A military physician stationed on the banks of the Yangtze River made the following entry on Aug. 11, 1940:

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