The Japanese comfort women program has become a dominant symbol of an era encompassing the Asia-Pacific War. Koreans have aggressively highlighted the issue by having memorial statues erected in numerous nations, some with little or no connection to the program at all.
Most recently, in December 2019, Melbourne, Australia, was added to their list.
For many, cognizance of the program commenced in 1993 with accusations by South Korea women, soon to be followed by a response from the Japanese government—the Kono Statement—in August of the same year.
At that time, there was a sense of a secret having been unearthed. References to the sexual predation of that era, however, had previously been uncontroversially included in documentaries and television dramas produced within the nations of the West. Moreover, the legacy and historical implications of Asia-Pacific War-era sexual predation is broader and more significant than commonly known. The statues symbolize far more than most would think.
Western Views and Broadcasts Before the Kono Statement
In the early 1970s, Thames Television of the U.K. compiled the World at War, a 26-part documentary series which chronicled both theaters of the Second World War. In episode 14, “It’s a lovely day tomorrow: Burma (1942-1944)”, an unnamed Japanese veteran clearly outlines that, while officers had access to geisha parties, the enlisted men enjoyed the services of “what you might call the comfort girls”.
“Many were Korean”, he adds, who he respected “very much, because who else would come to the front line to give the last entertainment” that so many would “enjoy on this earth”.
Over in America in the 1970s and 80s, there was a popular television show named M*A*S*H, the acronym standing for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. The 11-year series was set in such a facility during the Korean War of 1950-1953.
Conceived as situation comedy, it would break new ground by addressing a multitude of war related issues and themes.
One first-year episode was titled “Moose”. As a term coined during the occupation of Japan, it is one with which Americans, British, Australians and other participant nations of the Japanese occupation (1945-1952) should be familiar. It is not because Moose is the kind of term they were never likely to commit to collective memory.
To ascertain what Moose refers to, consider that the Japanese word for girl is “musume,” then assume the worst. The Complete Book of M*A*S*H, published in 1984, defines them as “girlfriends and mistresses—or slaves”.
In that first year episode, a U.S. sergeant was in possession of a Moose who he had purchased from the girl’s family. The series hero, Hawkeye, was incensed, and resolved to set her free. He won her off the sergeant during a rigged poker game, but his ultimate aims were stymied by the reality that her family would promptly resell her.
The story ends improbably, given the prospects for a solitary young woman during 1950s wartime Korea, although the ending was era-appropriate for the American viewing audience.
When the Moose’s brother arrives to reclaim her, he is sent away. “I tell my brother most important words I learn from you,” she explains to Hawkeye. “Shove off!”
Emotions Unnaturally High
The production of these television programs in the present day is unimaginable. They would result in international incidents. The Koreans would be infuriated by the suggestion that they had sold their daughters or that acquiescence existed on the part of any Korean comfort woman.
Japanese occupation and Korean War combatant nations would be equally incensed that their servicemen had monetarily acquired the exclusive services of women and girls. In truth, it had all occurred.
With the passage of time, emotions ease, and historians are better able to tackle lamentable episodes of the past.
In the case of sexual predation around the time of the Asia-Pacific War, this has not been the case. The Koreans have sought to draw stark lines between Japanese conduct and that of all others, their own questionable actions during the postwar period included. They have been highly successful.
A significant part of their success has been the erection of the comfort woman statues. The statues have been made more generically marketable by portrayal as symbols of peace, despite being predominantly aimed at singling out Japan and calling for Japanese recompense.
A few other sentiments, however, would be additionally relevant—to that aforementioned statue within Melbourne, Australia, in particular.
Of Moose and (Australian) Men
The Australian contingent of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force was based in Kure, the port that served nuclear decimated Hiroshima. They are not fondly remembered in either Australia or Japan. Indeed, they are hardly remembered at all.
The policy determinants of the occupation were handled almost exclusively by America. The Japanese public were largely peaceful and compliant. The only firefight in which Australian occupation troops were engaged was against Indian allies (three injured, one killed). After disarmament had been completed, there was relatively little for the Australians to do.
A British Commonwealth Occupation Force intelligence report from early 1947 concludes that day-to-day energies were mostly directed towards black marketeering and enjoying the services of desperate and destitute women and girls. One former veteran concluded that the only Japanese words worth knowing pertained to “sex and the black market,” another that the force consisted predominantly of “whoremongers and syphilitics”.
While the charge of rampant sexual predation has always been strenuously denied by Australian veterans groups, rates of venereal disease were nonetheless sky-high. This led the men out of brothels and into “set ups” in Kure’s surrounding hills: a room or rough shack where one’s Moose awaited.
No matter how transactional relations between females and males begin, however, some will inevitably blossom into considerably more. Accordingly, significant numbers of the Australian occupational force sought to demobilize with newly married Japanese wives back to Australia.
These occupationnaires then came face to face with the prevailing ethos of the Australian nation: White Australia Policy, which was even more passionately asserted when it came to Japan.
“It would be the grossest act of public indecency to permit any Japanese of either sex to pollute Australia” stated Immigration Minister, Arthur Calwell. Australia was a land for white people, and the recently defeated Japanese, in particular, needed not apply.
In one tragic case, a Burma-Thailand Railway survivor, transferred to a mine on the Japanese homeland, sought out the woman who had procured him extra food through her brother, a prison camp guard. They fell in love and were married by Shinto rites. Upon learning the fact, his commander had him promptly sent home.
Callous disregard to the wishes of these Australian servicemen, however, could not be maintained indefinitely. In 1952, the ban against the repatriation of Japanese spouses was lifted. The war brides thus constituted the initial breach in the firewall of White Australia, which subsequently became a gaping void.
In the greatest of possible ironies, it occurred not because Australia had lost a war, but because it had won.
The humble Moose as despoiler of White Australia Policy and a key procreator of multicultural Australia. That is a notion which truly deserves being incorporated into that Melbourne-based statue of bronze.
Author: Paul de Vries