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Empirical historian aims to put comfort women issue on right track

Naoko Yamagishi/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ikuhiko Hata, the author of “Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone”

The Japan News Historian Ikuhiko Hata has been alarmed by the unbalanced availability of information on the thorny issue of wartime comfort women (see below) and is eager to reach more people with information that would help counter widespread misperceptions over the issue. That has led him to publish “Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone,” an English-language edition of his Japanese book originally released in 1999.

With the issue having taken on political and social dimensions, the belief that women were “forcibly recruited” to serve as “sex slaves” for the Imperial Japanese military before and during World War II has become pervasive. Hata believes the lack of strategic action by the Japanese government has allowed the issue to linger for more than a quarter of a century as assertions harming the nation’s interests have been dominant.

“Many people have been acutely aware that Japan significantly lacks outbound dissemination of information,” Hata said during a recent interview jointly conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun and The Japan News. “There have been no signs that what I wrote in Japanese had any impact overseas, so I was hoping my book would be translated into English.”

In an attempt to unearth historical facts, Hata considers accounts of those who were involved essential. He thus conducted extensive interviews with former comfort women, brothel operators, military police and doctors who supervised “comfort stations” and soldiers, while meticulously looking into primary documents and materials.

The 383-page book, published last month by Hamilton Books, is a compilation of his empirical research. It is rare for a book challenging mistaken perceptions on the issue to be published in English, while publications with the opposite view have been translated into foreign languages more often and quickly. Such major publications include “Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II” written by Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a Chuo University emeritus professor, the English edition of which was released in 2000.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A copy of “Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone”

The government initially proposed to Hata a plan to translate the book into English in 2013, but the plan fell through over differences on what to include and what to leave out for the English edition, he said. But Hata shunned self-publishing, placing priority on publishing his academic book on this highly controversial and emotional issue via a leading Western publisher to extend its reach to people abroad through a major commercial network.

2 key points

Hata, a Harvard- and Columbia-educated scholar who served as professor at Chiba University and other universities, said the comfort women issue is “straightforward” with two points in focus: Were they forcibly recruited, and were they sex slaves?

He argues that there was no forcible taking away of comfort women, citing the existence of newspaper advertisements seeking comfort women from the Korean Peninsula, which was under Japan’s colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. The advertisements, carried in newspapers including the Mainichi Shimpo, which had the largest circulation on the peninsula at that time, offered “exceptionally high” advance payments. His examination of the pay scale between soldiers and comfort women shows that soldiers earned from one-30th to one-10th of what comfort women earned, according to his book.

“Given that comfort women could have been recruited publicly through such advertisements, it can be assumed that forcible recruitment wouldn’t have been needed,” Hata said.

He also pointed out that living conditions of the comfort women were not harsh enough to describe them as “sex slaves.” This argument is based on an interrogation report of the U.S. Office of War Information on 20 Korean comfort women taken prisoner by the U.S. military in Burma in 1944. Hata said the report shows the women lived in “near-luxury” in which they were able to go shopping and participate in sports events, picnics and social dinners.

Hata’s research also examined the “battle zone sex” practices of the militaries of other countries, explaining that the use of such a comfort women system was not limited to the Imperial Japanese military. The English edition of his book carries updates on the issue, including a 2014 lawsuit filed by 122 former comfort women who sought compensation and an apology from the South Korean government for allegedly forcing them to cater to U.S. soldiers during the 1960s and ’70s. Hata points out that the suit, which was hardly covered by the South Korean media, indicates that the country’s aggressiveness on the comfort women issue is limited to when the “assailant” is the Japanese military or government and the “victims” are South Korean women.

Politics complicates issue

The allegation of forcible recruitment emerged with statements by the late Seiji Yoshida, the self-styled former head of the labor mobilization section of the Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, branch of an organization in charge of recruiting free laborers. He claimed to have forcibly taken away young Korean women from Jeju Island, south of the Korean Peninsula. The Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper, began publishing a series of articles based on his statements in 1980s, treating him like “a living witness to the hunt for comfort women.” The comfort women issue then “exploded” in the early 1990s.

In December 1991, a group of South Koreans filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court against the Japanese government, seeking an apology and compensation. For the first time, the plaintiffs included comfort women. That was followed by sensational reporting by the Asahi on Jan. 11, 1992, that official records were found to show the Japanese military’s involvement in the establishment of comfort women stations. The Asahi reporting created a dramatic setting for the issue as it was made five days before then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s visit to South Korea. It sparked a media frenzy and protests in South Korea, prompting Miyazawa to repeatedly apologize.

A statement made by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993 put Japan in a more difficult position. In the statement, the government expressed “sincere apologies and remorse” to former comfort women. Asked whether the government acknowledged the “forcible taking away of the comfort women,” Kono said at a press conference, “We accept that to be the case.” This and the statement’s description consequently led to creating the misperception both at home and abroad.

Although Japan has declared the issue resolved under the 1965 agreement on the settlement of problems with South Korea, the publicly and privately financed Asian Women’s Fund was set up in 1995 through which Tokyo provided “atonement money” to former comfort women while delivering a letter of apology from the prime minister.

However, the issue began to evolve in the international community. In 1996, the U.N. Human Rights Commission adopted a report by Radhika Coomaraswamy, a special rapporteur on violence against women for the commission, that used the phrase “military sexual slavery” to refer to comfort women and cited Yoshida’s remarks.

Asahi admits fault in reporting

The government was lukewarm in countering such moves. Hata, meanwhile, harbored doubts about the credibility of Yoshida’s claims and conducted research on Jeju Island in 1992 where he found accounts and documents that disproved the claims. However, it was not until August 2014 that the Asahi concluded that Yoshida’s remarks were false and retracted 16 articles based on them. Two more Asahi articles were retracted in December that year.

Hata cites remarks by former South Korean President Roh Tae Woo that indicate who initially ignited the issue. “Actually, it was the organs of public opinion in Japan that brought up [the comfort women issue], inflaming anti-Japan sentiment among the people of South Korea and provoking their fury,” Roh said during a discussion with Japanese stage director Keita Asari in the March 1993 edition of the Japanese monthly magazine Bungeishunju.

Hata also blamed the flare-up of the issue on Japanese activists, pointing to a “complex mix of aspirations and political agendas” pursued by antiestablishment activists including feminists. A Japanese lawyer is said to have first used the term “sex slave” at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 1992, pushing to spread the term. “The activists tend to instantly demand apologies and compensation before thorough investigations and debates are made. Their tactic of politicizing issues is questionable,” he said.

Book for future debate

Despite the revelation that Yoshida’s testimony, which provided the basis for accusing Japan, was a fabrication, the misperceptions show no signs of fading away, with statues symbolizing comfort women set up one after another in various parts of the world. This issue has continued to sour the relationship between Japan and South Korea. In 2015, the two countries confirmed that the issue had been “finally and irreversibly resolved” with an agreement to establish a fund into which Tokyo pledged to pay ¥1 billion (about $8.84 million). However, the current administration of South Korean President Moon Jae In has criticized the 2015 deal as being “flawed” and is said to have informed Japan recently of its plan to scrap the fund within this year.

Hata wrote in the book, “If a feverish mood or the pursuit of political convenience prevails over the establishment of facts, the situation degenerates into a witch hunt, most likely blocking reasoned debate or comparative analysis.”

Meanwhile, Hata’s concern has grown over a development in which UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register system has been utilized for anti-Japan propaganda. Fourteen civic groups from eight countries and regions, including Japan, China and South Korea, have submitted an application to register materials related to the comfort women. Last October, UNESCO made the registration “pending” and called for dialogue between concerned parties.

Hata speculates the talks are highly likely to be broken off. In light of this, he has advocated a reform on the memory heritage system by making items after the 19th century not subject to the registration to prevent “dirty fights” in which the international body is used for political purposes in the name of protection of cultural properties.

Hata hopes people, especially those related to UNESCO, will read his book to see the issue from different perspectives.

“In the long run, the time to settle this issue might come. It could take another 30 years or 50 years,” Hata said. “If I leave something that can help examine the issue for such an occasion, it could become useful. It’s not desirable if one-sided information dominates.”

“As a historian, I can present what happened and explain the causal relationship of the events, but I’ll leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions,” he added.

The interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Haruki Sasamori and Japan News Staff Writer Ayako Hirayama.

■ Comfort women

The term generally refers to women who provided sex to Japanese military officers and soldiers before and during World War II at so-called comfort stations in battle zones and other locations. According to a 1993 investigation report released by the Japanese government, the comfort stations were run mainly by private operators at the request of the military. The establishment of such facilities was aimed at preventing sex crimes by military personnel and the spread of venereal diseases. In addition to Japan, the women were from the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan, both then under Japanese colonial rule, as well as China, the Philippines and other countries. The total number of comfort women is a point of contention. A 1996 report by Radhika Coomaraswamy of the U.N. Human Rights Commission cited the number of 200,000 from the Korean Peninsula alone, while Hata has estimated the total figure at about 20,000 based on the number of Japanese soldiers and other factors.Speech

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