Japan said Monday, April 3, it would send its ambassador back to South Korea after a diplomatic row prompted his recall in January. A comfort women statue had been erected outside the Japanese consulate in Busan in late 2016—the latest in unlawful statues built across the Japanese embassy and other public buildings in South Korea.
But while the two countries differ sharply in their awareness of comfort women and their role during the second world war, they also acknowledge that they have to work closely together to counter threats from North Korea.
Will it be possible for the two countries to bridge the gulf in historical consciousness that now separates them?
Japan Forward editor in chief Yasuo Naito sought the views of Dr. Ikuhiko Hata, a historian of modern East Asia who has spent decades studying the comfort women issue.
Q: The “history war” between Japan and South Korea over the comfort women appears to be escalating.
There are people in postwar Japan who are positively allergic to the word “fight.” Therefore, the history wars give the impression of being somehow dark and foreboding. But history wars are supposed to be fought out in the open, in the sunshine. In history wars, one is able to have debates on a common topic with a wide variety of people, both Japanese and those from other countries, transcending national boundaries and going beyond considerations of what will be advantageous or disadvantageous for one’s own nation.
Seeking historical truth in concert with others is, at heart, an enjoyable process of exchanging different views. However, the debate over the comfort women is not one among historians who put facts before theory, but, instead, an ideological and political battle wherein theory can blind debaters to evidence and proof.
Q: Shouldn’t Japan and South Korea be working together to overcome the gaps in their historical understanding?
South Korea is Japan’s neighbor, but the reality is that neighbors do not always get along. Former South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan once said of South Korea-Japan relations that the two countries would know “a thousand years of friendship.” Fewer than twenty years later, President Park Geun-hye said that South Korea would harbor “a thousand years of resentment” towards Japan.
The comfort women issue is precisely this: South Korea using the history wars as a weapon for giving voice to that resentment. Even now, activists are saying that the comfort women were sex slaves of the former Japanese military, and that there were 200,000 such sex slaves.
What weapon does Japan have for countering these allegations? Facts. We have nothing on our side but facts. We must counter the false narratives with facts presented doggedly and consistently, and in a way that is easy to understand.
Q: Give us some examples of the facts you have in mind.
Apart from individual cases where crimes were committed in direct violation of orders from the Japanese military, there was no forced abduction of comfort women. Not only this, but the women who worked in the comfort stations did not live under the cruel conditions connoted by the term “sex slave.”
Let me provide some circumstantial evidence here to explain what I mean. First, advertisements appeared in newspapers in Seoul during the war announcing the “large-scale recruitment of comfort women.” The employers seeking such women were Koreans, not Japanese. The advertisements even listed the monthly salary that would be paid, as well as the “advance money” that women or their families received at the time of recruitment. At a time when the average Japanese soldier made around ten yen per month, the comfort women earned thirty times that: 300 yen in monthly salary.
This all begs the question: if women answered these advertisements and volunteered to work as comfort women, then would there be any need to kidnap them?
Q: What other evidence is there to support your claims?
In 1944, while the war was still raging, twenty Korean comfort women taken prisoner in northern Burma (present-day Myanmar) by the US military were interrogated by American officers. The interrogation records as well as the pictures taken during the interrogation are all public documents. According to the US military’s questioning of these comfort women, they went out shopping with Japanese soldiers, held sporting matches and other athletic events, and had no financial problems whatsoever.
Additionally, the order was given by the Japanese military that the comfort women were completely free to quit working in the comfort stations and return to their home countries. There were even some Japanese soldiers who proposed marriage to the comfort women.
There were occasionally unscrupulous brokers, and there were destitute parents who sold their daughters into prostitution. In the Japanese home islands as well as in Korea, the majority of comfort women were professional prostitutes. This is proof that they were not sex slaves.
The South Korean side claims that there were 200,000 comfort women. In fact, though, this number is the result of conflating comfort women with the women’s volunteer corps, comprising females who were mobilized to work in factories in order to alleviate the wartime labor shortage due to the conscription of the men.
This conflation has been spread around as though it were true, when the reality is that the comfort women and the women’s volunteer corps are two entirely separate things. In point of fact, it is believed that there were some 20,000 comfort women, of whom around 20% were Korean.
Q: Well then what explains the mendacious “fact” that the comfort women were sex slaves?
The first people to take up the comfort women issue, set it aflame, and then fan the flames into a conflagration were Japanese. This happened in 1991. Some shrewd Japanese lawyers formed the nucleus of a Japanese NGO which took the lead in mounting an attack over the comfort women issue. These left-wing Japanese lawyers are the ones who began calling the comfort women “sex slaves,” took their case to the United Nations committees on human rights, and turned the issue into the firestorm we have today.
The Asahi Shimbun then jumped on the comfort women bandwagon, brazenly debuting Seiji Yoshida (now deceased), who repeatedly lied in saying that he had gone “hunting” for comfort women. The Asahi Shimbun and other outlets thus helped spread the “fake news” that the Japanese lawyers created. This fake news rode a rising tide of global leftism and was thus drummed up into a truly worldwide issue. Forces acting out of anti-establishment motives, along with criminals who enjoy seeing the reactions provoked by their crimes, were the agents who disseminated the comfort women issue abroad.
For many years, the Japanese government was another source of misunderstanding, as it consistently gave the impression that it might at any time admit to having kidnapped women as sex slaves. The Japanese government’s ambiguous pronouncements on the issue only emboldened those who were lying for personal or political gain.
Q: What should Japan do going forward?
The United States has recently become a key battleground in the history wars. There are comfort women statues going up there, and the major textbook publisher McGraw-Hill has embroiled itself in the comfort women controversy. The McGraw-Hill textbook in question uses extremely harsh language when discussing WWII, such as this passage: “The Japanese army forcibly recruited, conscripted, and dragooned as many as two hundred thousand women age fourteen to twenty to serve in military brothels, called “comfort houses” or “consolation centers.” The army presented the women to the troops as a gift from the emperor…”
Nineteen intellectuals, including myself, publicly called for McGraw-Hill to correct the eight areas of clear factual error in the comfort women section of the textbook, but McGraw-Hill has so far done nothing to amend the false information. (See http://19historians.com/).
In South Korea, the political environment is now such that it is impossible even to say that the comfort women were not, in fact, sex slaves. As a result, the South Korean side stands in intense opposition to the Japanese side, as Japan holds, based on the facts, that there was no forced abduction of the comfort women.
It appears that the only option we have is to trust that the South Koreans will be able to sort this out amongst themselves and clear away the falsehoods from the facts. I don’t see how else the comfort women problem will be solved.