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Condemnation attributed to ‘utter nonsense’

by Hiroaki Sato

In mid-July, in Sugar Loaf, an idyllic village northwest of Manhattan, during a group lunch, someone asked, “How about comfort women?”

I started saying, “If the question is whether or not the Japanese government forced women to prostitution for the military, probably it didn’t.” But when I saw a thin smile on the questioner’s face, I gave up.

Like “the Nanjing Massacre,” anything less than an outright admission by a Japanese — I am a Japanese-American — of the worst assessment of the wrongs that Japan committed during World War II merely raises eyebrows.

Then, on Aug. 5, the Asahi Shimbun announced that it had “judged the Jeju Island testimony to be false.”

In sum, the paper was finally rejecting the assertion by a man named Seiji Yoshida that, back in 1943, he had “hunted out 200 young Korean women on Jeju Island” to provide the Japanese armed forces with “comfort women.” By its own count, the Asahi had carried 16 articles on Yoshida’s words since Sept. 2, 1982, when it reported his speech in Osaka. The retraction raised a furor. (See “Asahi rivals pile on over sex slaves retraction,” Japan Times, Aug 8, 2014.) Why?

For one thing, Yoshida’s “testimony” had been known to be false since at least the early 1990s. In fact, in 1989, when his book, “My War Crimes” (1983) detailing his claims, was translated into Korean, a Korean reviewer for The Jeju Newspaper had stated Yoshida’s stories were “utter nonsense.”

The reviewer went to a small village on Korea’s largest island where Yoshida had written he rounded up 15 to 16 young women, brandishing a wood sword. But the villagers said that an abduction of so many girls in their village of 250 households would have been “a big event,” yet no one remembered anything of the sort.

A local historian, who said he’d been checking the matter since Yoshida’s book came out, dismissed the matter as “a product of commercial intent that shows Japanese evil-mindedness.”

The islanders had reasons to remember such an incident — if it had happened. Three years after Korea’s “liberation” from Japan in 1945, the residents of Korea’s largest island rebelled against the U.S. Occupation. As a result, 8,000 people were killed. Many islanders fled to Japan, mainly to Osaka.

Yoshida nevertheless continued to play an outsize role in the “comfort women” question, with the Asahi’s help.

On Jan. 11, 1992, the Asahi brought the matter front and center by splashing headlines suggesting, among other things, the government’s cover-up — that it had hidden documents on “comfort stations” (ianjo), when in fact the documents had been open to the public for three preceding decades.

The Asahi’s efforts almost derailed Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s impending visit to South Korea and quickly worsened Japan’s relations with Koreans. But the matter went far beyond that. First, it led to U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Radhika Coomaraswamy’s 1996 report on “military sexual slavery in wartime.”

Eleven years later, on July 30, 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that condemned “the ‘comfort women’ system of forced military prostitution by the Government of Japan” as “one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century.”

Since then, statues to memorialize comfort women have been built in the United States.

In the 1980s, Japan’s “mass media started to talk about the nation’s crimes during World War II,” as Daekyun Chung, the Korean-Japanese scholar on national identity questions, points out in “The Myth of Koreans Forcibly Brought to Japan” (2004). If Yoshida didn’t miss the bandwagon, you might say the Asahi was one of the chief musicians on it.

Actually “comfort woman” (ianfu) is a case where a Japanese attempt for euphemism misfired — spectacularly, many years later. A comparable English euphemism may be “daughter of joy.” A closer, more accurate term is likely to be “camp follower.” Faubion Bowers probably had this in mind in 1995 when he pooh-poohed the “comfort women” furor that was growing by the day by simply saying: “When Manila fell, in less than a day, 100 ‘comfort women’ showed up near my barracks.”

I had invited Bowers to my office to reminisce about his experience before, during and after the war to mark the 50th anniversary of Japan’s defeat. A Julliard graduate, he had taught in Japan before Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack, studied Japanese at the Military Intelligence Service Language School, and was a translator/interpreter during the war. The war over, he served Gen. Douglas MacArthur as an aide-de-camp.

The existence of “comfort women” in wartime Japan was so utterly taken for granted that it remained a “nonissue” for several decades after the war until some people decided to turn it into a controversy.

Was the Japanese government involved in “comfort women”? The answer will depend on how you define “involvement.”If the Army Ministry’s acceptance of the establishments of brothels for the military in war zones was “involvement,” the Japanese government must plead guilty.

Yoshiaki Yoshimi, historian at Chuo University, who insists on the government’s culpability, cites in his 1995 book “Military Comfort Women” the notification issued to the chiefs of staff of the North China Area Army and Central China Expeditionary Force as “one of the most important documents showing the involvement of the Army Ministry.” Dated March 4, 1938, it has, among those who gave stamps of approval, Hitoshi Imamura, one of the few admired generals to come out of World War II.

But the notification was a stern warning not to allow activities among recruiters or brokers that might “hurt the dignity of the military” and “create social problems.” It asked that the Kempeitai and the police authorities especially look out for anything “resembling kidnapping.”

Again, if you say the Army Ministry’s acceptance of procurers of prostitutes proved “involvement,” the government was responsible.

Were comfort women “sex slaves”? If you recognize that prostitution is largely a form of physical bondage, they were. But forcibly rounding up women for the work, as Yoshida said he did, would be a different matter.

A 1944 U.S. report based on interviews with Korean-Japanese POWs quoted them as saying that “direct conscription” of Korean women for prostitution would have caused riots in Korea. Japanese police officers stationed in Korea made similar statements. They had to be careful in governing Korea.

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator in New York.

  • midnightbrewer

    The high school my wife (Japanese) went to regularly takes students to Korea to meet former comfort women and talk about what happened. Reading articles like this really ticks her off. Well-meaning official documents aren’t quite the same as talking to the people who were actually involved.

    • rossdorn

      I like the last paragraph best….

      “A 1944 U.S. report based on interviews with Korean-Japanese POWs quoted
      them as saying that “direct conscription” of Korean women for
      prostitution would have caused riots in Korea. Japanese police officers
      stationed in Korea made similar statements. They had to be careful in
      governing Korea.”

      Oh yes of course, in a war everybody has “to be careful in
      governing” a defeated, occupied country.
      Amazing what is printed nowadays….

  • 151E

    I’d be curious to hear the author’s response to the work of Dr. Hayashi Hirofumi, who has done extensive research on the topic and tracked down surviving documentation that would seem to implicate the military of the day.

    • KenjiAd

      I think Mr Sato would dismiss it as propaganda of the Japanese “left.” He will not believe anything contrary to his belief, which is along the line of Ianfus = voluntary prostitutes and that the Japanese government had nothing to do it.

      For example, Mr Sato wrote:

      Was the Japanese government involved in “comfort women”? The answer will
      depend on how you define “involvement.”If the Army Ministry’s
      acceptance of the establishments of brothels for the military in war
      zones was “involvement,” the Japanese government must plead guilty.

      Note that he is actually committing the fallacy of begging the question here. Mr Sato already has a firm conclusion that Japanese military’s involvement was only limited to the “acceptance of the establishments of brothels for the military in war

      He then rhetorically asks “if” this was the “involvement” (he already concludes that to be true), then Japan “must plead guilty.” Mr Sato even suggests “camp follower” would be a better term for Ianfus – I wonder how poor, illiterate teenage girls from Korea managed to follow Japanese soldiers to Burma, China, etc.

      The fact is that the Japanese military’s involvement went far beyond the mere acceptance of brothels as Mr Sato apparently believes. They procured it, maintained the facilities, transported and held the girls against their will.

      • 151E

        Sadly, I suspect you’re right that Mr. Sato would likely just dismiss it all out of hand. I don’t know what kind of “evidence” would satisfy such people. Sure, many records were destroyed under orders issued by the Ministry of War just prior to surrender, but first-hand testimony coupled with what documents that do survive (such as the one you linked to below), all point to military involvement and the use of deceitful and coercive techniques.

        Hell, former Prime Minister Nakasone even wrote in a 1978 memoir that, back when he was a lieutenant paymaster in the Imperial Navy, he worked hard to establish a comfort station in Balikpapan (Indonesia) because the soldiers were attacking local women and over indulging in gambling. Straight from the horse’s mouth! Of course, he later tried to back-peddle, telling reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club that his ianjo was just a club where the men could relax and play shoji. But who is kidding who? His original justification was to prevent Japanese soldiers raping local girl, and we’re to believe that a few card tables and shoji boards were all it took to bring the men back inline?

  • Steve van Dresser

    It is amazing how some people only consider Japanese witnesses and sources to be credible. The testimony of hundreds of Korean, Dutch, and other women forced into prostitution doesn’t seem to have any credibility with these people. Perhaps that attitude of perceiving non-Japanese as less than human beings, explains why it was so easy to use them in any way they wanted.

  • Roan Suda

    I’m amazed–and delighted–that the Japan Times has published this article, as it defies the politically correct line normally followed, according to which any claim demonizing Japanese must be gospel truth.

    • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

      Yes freedom of speech and the press is wonderful principle, which is why calls to bring the Asahi paper to testify in the diet, as well as the official secrets act, are so wrong.

      • Roan Suda

        I am all in favor of allowing the Asahi the same freedom that the left enjoys throughout the free world. Putting up with distortions and outright falsehoods is one of the prices of democracy, and the temptation to declare such “treason” should be resisted…The problem is that the left increasingly seeks to suppress freedom in other ways–by labeling the expression of politically incorrect views “hate speech.”

      • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

        The Asahi’s mistakes are real, and they are far too late in correcting them, so the criticism of “bad journalism” is factually correct.

        However, Saito’s seeming assertions that Asahi’s mistakes are the reason for bad relations with Korea and the U.S. House of Representatives condemnation are just a fantasy – serving no other purpose than to further polarize the issue. I am disappointed to hear Abe expressing essentially the same views.

        Regarding the 2007 USRep condemnation of comfort women, I feel very strongly that the organized comfort woman system used by US forces in Japan for 2 years after the invasion should also have been condemned, and furthermore investigated to document the stories of women who “ended up” in that system. It surely would have been painful and difficult for the US, but it might have breached the wall of Japanese defensiveness on the issue, not to mention provide some catharsis for Japanese women who have had to carry their ugly experiences in silence for many decades.

      • Tando

        It is hard to believe that somebody would confuse hate speech with freedom of speech. So lets confront Roan Suda with some of the free speech, that he advocates. We have just learned, that two universities received bomb threats, because they have teachers who worked for the Asahi Shinbun. Or is yelling at schoolchildren or any other person “to get lost or get killed” what he wants to be protected. A while ago there was a movie called Yasukuni, which inflamed the right wingers. So they positioned their black trucks in front of the movie theaters and blared at them with their big loud speakers until the movie was canceled. I have seen protest marches whose slogans were shouted down by those same black trucks.
        There is a fundamental principle in individual freedom: You are free to do (say) what you want, as long as you don´t infringe the freedom of others. In all cases the right wingers violated that principle and outright threatened others. Do you really want to sell us this as free speech, or do you want to drag us on this level of discours, if this can be called discourse at all, because it only disgorges onesided hate.

      • Roan Suda

        You miss the point, and the phrase “the free speech, (sic) that he advocates” constitutes weasel language. For the record, I loathe the rightwing thugs as much as anyone. They are, in fact, little different from the leftwing thugs whom I have personally experienced (through intimidation and outright assault), in that both are inherently totalitarian in outlook and goals…There should be zero tolerance for violence. But the concept of “hate speech” comes from the left, the American left, which tends to be all in favor of suppressing politically incorrect speech on college campuses in the name of “tolerance” and “diversity”–as it defines such in its topsy-turvy, Orwellian universe. I do not wish to see such replicated in Japan. If by “schoolchildren” you mean pupils at pro-North Korean schools that teach their own brand of ethnic hatred, I am in favor of arresting and punishing anyone who threatens them–and of finding legal means for closing down the schools.

      • Tando

        If you want a fundamental discussion on “hate speech” you shouldn´t take part in this forum. The left you are talking about hardly exists here, but hate speech is a real phenomenon as described in my post above. Satos article just pures fuel on this flame because it simplifies complex historical issues and as soon as you eliminate this issue it does not exist anymore. No wonder that nobody but the japanese right wingers believe it.

      • Roan Suda

        Your reasoning is as shaky as your command of English spelling conventions and grammar. And spare me your claims about the existence or non-existence of the Japanese left. I obviously know it a lot better than you do. The “simplification” of historical issues begins with an ahistorical view of prostitution and attitudes towards it.

      • 実事求是

        >The left you are talking about hardly exists here

        Tando, you obviously have no idea what you are talking about. 60% of Japan’s public school teachers union(日教組)members belong to Revolutionary Marxist Faction(革命マル派) and they are trying very hard to suppress politically incorrect speech.

        Hate speech is done by a few hundred idiots. It is not a real phenomenon at all. The left’s paranoia & suppression of freedom of speech in the name of political correctness is far more dangerous.

    • rossdorn

      Are you aware of how many Japanese can read english?

  • tiger

    come on pal. you know what you did.

  • Suzanne Kim

    I can only wonder what Sato means by writing Korea’s “liberation” from Japan. Actually, I’m not wondering at all: revisionist history seems rampant whenever Japanese Imperialism and wartime horrors are described.

  • shonangreg

    Thank you for the counter-points/clarifications, but if I may ask. Did the other powers in WWII do anything similar to Japan regarding setting up, condoning, or maintaining brothels for their militaries? This information is missing in every single article I’ve read on this topic (recently). Some Japanese politicians assert this. No one else is even mentioning it.

  • 実事求是


    >It was one former Ianfu who finally came forward with her real name

    Her name is 金学順 and she changed her testimonies a few times and were found to be untrustworthy.

    >He is misrepresenting Prof Yoshimi’s discovery

    Mr. Sato is not misrepresenting Professor Yoshimi’s discovery. You are the one misrepresenting his discovery. The source you are using “Fight For Justice” is run by anti-Japan far left scholar Hirofumi Hayashi, and you are relying on Mr. Hayashi’s misrepresentation.

  • NYT

    I think the most important view point in this article is the human rights of women especially in battlefields. So, not only Japan and also Korea, UN and US should be blamed for the use of comfort women.

    A NYTimes article in 2009 reported that US and Korean army enforced them to prostitute in the decades after the Korean War. Very recently, WSJ also reported that 122 of them sued Korean government. They claimed that the systems of forced prostitute were made by U.S. forces and the South Korean government.

    I can’t believe that such a horrible system existed. This is exactly human trafficking and prostitution, because many of them were sold by their parents because of poverty.

    In the Vietnam War, US and Korean army used over one million of comfort women. (JPN used a few thousands of non-Japanese comfort women in WWII.)

    I think all these countries should face the facts.

  • shonangreg

    Thanks for the follow-up, Kenji. That was my impression of the Allies during the war. There are brothel-like areas near many military bases in America now.

    I’m not very familiar with what Germany did, though if you are an autocratic power willing to conquer other peoples, killing all their men, for the land and your own lebenraum, why would you not also enslave their women? The story I keep hearing is that Imperial Japan was unique in its position on forcing women into brothels for its soldiers, but your saying Germany did something similar.

    Why does the Japan Times just repeat the assertion that Japan is accused of an historical precedent when Germany was doing something likewise? This is just bad journalism.

    I’ll follow up on this more myself, but that is exactly what Hiroaki Sato should have done in writing this article. The journalism is incomplete without this context.