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History

New Trends in Fighting Lies in the Comfort Women Issue

Take a look at the popular “comfort women” theory, and the contrary evidence which, despite attacks on academic freedom, has come forth through research in South Korean and elsewhere.

Tsutomu Nishioka

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Before the war, Japan had a system of licensed prostitution. When this system was brought to war, it took the form of comfort women. 

The women who became comfort women were victims of poverty. Both the Japanese and the Koreans understood this. However, in the early 1990s, some anti-Japanese factions in Japan widely circulated the preposterous lie that under the National Mobilization Law, the Japanese military had forced Korean women to serve as comfort women, hunting them down and making them into slaves.

Korean Scholars Fight Against Lies

Following a fierce debate, the understanding that comfort women were part of a licensed prostitution system rather than subjected to forced labor imposed by those in power came to be the dominant view in Japan. Likewise, from 2019, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs finally began to speak out and refute the three main lies: forced labor, sexual slavery, and an estimated 200,000 Korean victims. 

However, the false image of 200,000 young Korean girls being forcibly taken by the Japanese military and made into sex slaves still prevails both in Korea and the international community. The issue for our country must focus on how to dispel these lies.

Finally, courageous scholars and activists have emerged in Korea and to fight these falsehoods head-on. I call them “counter-anti-Japanese” rather than “pro-Japanese because they are not defending Japan, but instead fighting lies told by anti-Japanese Korean factions.

In July 2007, former Seoul National University professor Lee Young-hoon published the book, Anti-Japan Tribalism, (later published in Japanese by Bungeishunju) in which he cited a multitude of academic grounds to conclude that comfort women were licensed prostitutes managed by the military, not sex slaves. The book became a bestseller in Korea.

Every Wednesday from December of the same year 2007, counter-anti-Japanese demonstrations have been organized and held on the street in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul by the “Joint Action Committee on Discovering the Truth about Anti-Japanese Statues” (Joint Action Committee). This group has demanded the removal of comfort women statues and the suspension of Wednesday anti-Japan demonstrations by the comfort women movement. 

Since the early 1990s, anti-Japan rallies, dubbed Wednesday demonstrations, have been held in front of the Japanese Embassy. Statues falsely depicting a young girl as a comfort woman have been placed there in violation of international law, with anti-Japan demonstrations held right next to the statue.

The Joint Action Committee has interacted and collaborated with a group of Japanese scholars to work on issues of historical awareness. When a Seoul District Court violated international law and ordered Japan to pay compensation to former comfort women in its ruling on January 8 of this year, the Joint Action Committee issued a “Japan-Korea Joint Statement Protesting the Comfort Women Ruling,” joined by supporting Japanese scholars and lawyers, including myself. 

In December of last year, Lee Wooyoun, an up and coming Korean historian who serves as co-chair of the committee, published a Korean translation of my book entitled, The Trumped-Up Conscription Issue (Soshisha publisher, 2019). He is also preparing to publish a translation of another book, Behind the Comfort Women Controversy: How Lies Became Truth (Soshisha publisher, 2012).

U.S. Professor Contributes an Academic Paper

As a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently acknowledged, the only “evidence” for the forced labor theory is the testimony of former comfort women and allegations out of UN groups such as the Coomaraswamy Report. However, the testimony of these comfort women has already been demonstrated to be unreliable by researchers including myself due to contradictory testimony by these same individuals and inconsistency with the history of the times. 

As the South Korean Foreign Ministry has recently admitted, critical examination of the testimony of former comfort women has also begun in earnest in South Korea. In April 2018, the courageous journalist Hwang Yi-won wrote a lengthy article examining changes in the testimony of former comfort women (Japanese translation published in the August 2020 issue of Seiron magazine).

Recently, Kim Byung-heon, Director of the Korean History Textbook Research Institute, has been working vigorously on a campaign demanding the South Korean government rescind the “comfort women victims” designation. According to the campaign’s research, for example, one former comfort woman who has actively criticized Japan, originally testified, “a private contractor gave me a red dress and leather shoes, and I was so happy that I went along with him,” when she first came forward. However, she later changed her testimony when speaking in front of the U.S. Congress, saying instead, “I was threatened by Japanese soldiers and taken away.”

Professor John Mark Ramseyer of the prestigious Harvard University contributed an academic paper to a scholarly journal that analyzed contracts between employers and comfort women from the premise of a licensed relationship based on  decriminalized sex. The Sankei Shimbun published a summary of this paper, triggering intense criticism in South Korea. 

In response, Lee Young-hoon, Lee Wooyoun, Hwang Yi-won and Kim Byung-heon issued a joint statement criticizing South Korea’s condemnation of the paper, calling it a witch hunt aimed at suppressing academic debate. The statement argued that, “the comfort women sex slave theory must not be treated as infallible or sacrosanct.” 

Consider Bringing the Case before the ICJ

In response to fierce protest from South Korea, the president of Harvard declared that the paper was within the scope of academic freedom. The journal’s editorial department, however, tentatively withheld the paper from online publication, noting that it was investigating claims disputing the evidence. The incident demonstrates the tenuous sensitivity of academic freedom in the United States when it comes to refuting the sex slave fallacy.

Under these circumstances, some former comfort women held a press conference. They did not respond to domestic criticism of their contradictory testimony, saying it “wasn’t worth dealing with,” but instead called on the South Korean government to take the comfort women issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). 

Now, though, criticism of the comfort women theory has been raised both within South Korea and outside it in the international community. Under these circumstances, Japan should likewise seriously consider filing a complaint with the ICJ as a means of dispelling the falsehoods surrounding comfort women. 

If the public and private sectors were to join forces before the ICJ to thoroughly refute the falsehoods with historical facts, we would have a good opportunity to debunk the UN reports that perpetuate these fallacies in the international community. 

(Find access to the original Seiron article in Japanese at this link and articles specifically related to this debate on our website at this link.)

Author: Tsutomu Nishioka

Tsutomu Nishioka is a professor at The Institute of Moralogy and visiting professor at Reitaku University. Find other articles in English by Professor Nishioka here, on JAPAN Forward.

Tsutomu Nishioka is a senior fellow and a planning committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He covers South and North Korea.