The ‘Comfort Women’ Controversy: History and Testimony


[A] conference of historians, psychoanalysts, and artists, gathered to reflect on the relation of education to the Holocaust, watched the videotaped testimony of the woman in an attempt to better understand the era. A lively debate ensued. The testimony was not accurate, historians claimed. The number of chimneys was misrepresented. Historically, only one chimney was blown up, not all four. Since the memory of the testifying woman turned out to be, in this way, fallible, one could not accept–nor give credence to–her account of the events. It was utterly important to remain accurate, [lest] the revisionists in history discredit everything. A psychoanalyst . . . profoundly disagreed. “The woman was testifying,” he insisted, “not to the number of the chimneys blown up, but to something else, more radical, more crucial: the reality of an unimaginable occurrence.”


                                                                   – Dori Laub[1]




In recent years, women’s testimonies have provided crucial evidence for challenging normative views of history. Testimony as such has been “an act of memory situated in time,” “vital” to historical knowledge, as it “dislocate[d] established frameworks and shift[ed] paradigms” of the discipline.[2] The power of words has also been evident in current educational practices. Teachers working at different levels of education–from a classroom where twelfth grade students read I, Rigoberta Menchu[3] to a classroom at Yale where college students watched films of Holocaust survivors[4]– have reported that the testimonial narratives of previously marginalized voices have powerful transformative effects upon the consciousness and actions of students.


The use of testimony in history, however, often brings with it tension, uncertainty, and conflict–be it epistemological, methodological, ethical, or otherwise–with respect to research and teaching practices. As one critic observes, I, Rigoberta Menchu “played a conspicuous role in the ideological conflicts that burst out in the field of education in the United States” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.[5] Clearly, history involves social and cultural struggles over interpretations of the past. Feminist historian Joan Scott has called this the “politics of history,” as historical interpretations are “not fixed . . . but are rather dynamic, always in flux.” It is important that historians to attend to the “conflictual processes that establish meanings . . . [and] the play of force involved in any society’s construction and implementation of meanings.”[6]


This article examines the Japanese controversy over the “comfort women” (ianfu) system during Japan’s Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945) and attempts to include that history in school textbooks.[7] The testimonies given by former comfort women in the 1990s forever changed the paradigm of historical research on the subject and became the focus of charged debate among intellectuals of different disciplinary and ideological backgrounds, as well as the target of Japanese neonationalist attacks.[8]


The existence of comfort women was ubiquitous knowledge in Japan from the late 1930s, despite censorship. In the 1990s, feminist movements inside and outside Japan, and above all the victims who broke silence and gave testimonies,[9] showed the direct role of the Japanese state and military in creating and maintaining a system of forced prostitution and systematic rape of women from colonized and occupied territories. When the voices of victims were reinforced by the research findings of Japanese scholars who unearthed documents proving the role of the Japanese military in maintaining the system, official denials melted away. By examining the process, through which the challenges to the normative interpretation were posed and the ways they were countered, this article provides a comparative perspective for understanding contemporary controversies over women’s voices, testimony, and history generally.[10]


Challenges to the Meaning of Comfort Women in Postwar Japan


A number of reports, diaries, and memoirs published in Japan during and after World War II mentioned military comfort facilities on various war fronts and throughout territories occupied by Japanese imperial forces.[11] In these writings, the term ianfu (comfort women) was a euphemism for prostitutes who provided sex to men in service. Although the story had no place in Japan’s official war history, it was told and retold privately as a nostalgic (and sometimes romantic) episode in men’s memoirs and novels.


In the 1970s and 1980s, several publications appeared that took somewhat more critical views of the comfort women issue. One of the first was a book written by the non-fiction writer Senda Kako in 1973.[12] Senda, a former journalist, conducted extensive research and interviews, and from these he concluded that the women’s situations had been “pitiful.”[13] Senda’s work was based almost wholly on sources and recollections of Japanese men who had served in the war–only a few Japanese former comfort women spoke of their experiences, and the two Korean former comfort women he interviewed remained silent. Senda’s book became a best seller. The term he used for the women jugun-ianfu (comfort women serving in the war), would later become contentious, came to have a wide circulation.


Feminist approaches began to appear after the Japanese journalist and feminist Matsui Yayori (1934-2003) took up the issue. In 1984, Matsui published a short article in Asahi Shinbun, which marked the first time for any major newspaper to address the issue. Matsui’s interviewee, a former comfort woman whose name was not disclosed, was a Korean living in Thailand. She spoke of her experience this way:


The life of comfort women was this–during the day doing laundry of soldiers’ clothes, cleaning the barracks, and some heavy labor such as carrying ammunition, and at night being the plaything for the soldiers. There were days when I was made to serve scores of men beginning in the morning. When I resisted–even just a little–I was beaten by the supervisor, pulled by my hair, and dragged around half-naked. It was a subhuman life.[14]


Matsui’s article triggered no significant public reaction. It was only after the successes of South Korean democratic and feminist movements in the late 1980s, freeing former comfort women to speak of their experiences for the first time, that the issue became international, forcing the Japanese government to recognize the comfort women as a significant part of Japan’s unresolved war issues. Yun Chung-ok, a professor at Korea’s Ewha Womans University, was an important catalyst in this development. In the late 1980′s she met with Matsui to exchange information about the comfort women, and in 1990 she wrote a series of reports on the issue for a Korean newspaper.[15] Yun’s reports ignited and enraged the South Korean public, prompting calls for redress from the Japanese government. They also catalyzed Japanese women’s groups and political parties, many of which began to call for a governmental inquiry into the issue as a war atrocity.


In a Diet session in June 1991, the Japanese government denied the involvement of the wartime state and its military in the matter–further enraging South Koreans. Former comfort woman Kim Hak-soon was so angry that she decided to “come out” as a way of forcing the Japanese government to confront the issue. She was the first Korean woman residing in South Korea to reveal herself in public as a former comfort woman.[16] In the fall of 1991, Kim testified before the Japanese public. Her testimony, translated, recorded, and later published, began with her half century of silence and the decision eventually to break that silence:


For these fifty years, I have lived, by bearing and again bearing [the unbearable]. For fifty years, I have had a heavy, painful feeling, but kept thinking in my heart about telling my experience some day. . . As I try to speak now, my heart pounds against my chest, because what happened in the past was something extremely unconscionable . . . Why does [the Japanese government] tell such a lie [to deny its knowledge of comfort women system]? Actually, I was made into a comfort woman, and I’m here alive.[17]


Kim’s testimony was the most significant event in establishing a new interpretation of the comfort women system. Hearing her story on Japanese television, historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki went straight to the archives of the Self-Defense Agency (Boeicho), where he found evidence that conclusively demonstrated the involvement of the Japanese Imperial Army in organizing the comfort women system for its soldiers (though the nature of the comfort women system and the state/military involvement, including the use of force and coercion, still required further study). In 1992, he published his findings in major Japanese newspapers. Faced with documentary evidence from its own archives, the Japanese government had no choice but to acknowledge military involvement, and Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi officially apologized to South Korea.


In 1993, a Japanese government hearing for fifteen former comfort women in Seoul revealed that many women had been made to serve as comfort women involuntarily. Later that year, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei made an official statement (danwa), essentially admitting that the Japanese Imperial Army had been directly and indirectly involved in the establishment and administration of comfort facilities. The government also acknowledged that coercion had been used in the recruitment and retention of the women, and called for historical research and education aimed at remembering the fact. The Kono statement became the basis for addressing the issue of comfort women in education, and by 1997 almost all school history textbooks and those in related subjects included a brief reference to comfort women.[18] One history textbook for junior high school read, “[M]any women, such as Korean women, were sent to the front as comfort women serving in the war.”[19] Such statements, however bland, served as a legitimate window through which teachers and students could address the issue in classrooms.


Subsequent historical research has uncovered more disturbing details about the comfort women system.[20] Scholars estimate that between fifty thousand and two hundred thousand women were enslaved to provide sexual service to Japanese officers and soldiers. The majority of these women were Korean and Chinese (there were also some Japanese), but they included women from many other countries, including Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor, Malaya, and Holland. Many non-Japanese women were minors, rounded up by deception or under conditions of debt slavery, and some were violently abducted.[21]


Prostitution for military personnel in war zones and occupied territories was widely practiced during and prior to World War II,[22] but Japan’s comfort women system was unusual in the extreme forms of coercion and oppression imposed on women, including teenage girls brought from Korea and Taiwan. The evidence reveals that state and military authorities at the highest levels were extensively involved in the policymaking, establishment, and maintenance of the system, and in recruiting and transporting women across international borders.[23]


One result of both the Japanese government’s apologies and of recent scholarship on comfort women was backlash from neonationalist groups. In particular, neonationalists objected strongly to both the government’s admission of state involvement in the matter and to the inclusion of the issue in school textbooks. They have attacked politicians who support the government’s apologies as well as historians’ findings about comfort women. They have also targeted contradictions in the testimonies of comfort women in an effort to discredit their accounts.


Historical Debates:


Neonationalists vs. Progressive and Feminist Historians


Making and keeping the issue of comfort women controversial has been one of the most effective strategies pursued by neonationalists. In particular, they have focused on minor or technical details of the facts presented by women’s testimonies and historical research, pointing out errors and the impossibility of verification.[24] For example, in the early 1990s, some school textbooks referred to the women in question as jugun-ianfu (comfort women serving in the war). Neonationalists, however, argued that jugun-ianfu was not the “historical term,” meaning that it was not the term that was used officially (and unofficially) during the war. Therefore, they have insisted, the term must be deleted from school textbooks.[25]


There is a modicum of truth in the nationalist claim: the term jugun-ianfu was a postwar invention, gaining a wide currency with Senda’s work. During the war, the military officially called the comfort facilities ianjo or ianshisetsu (ian means “comfort”), designating for the most part the military comfort facilities but sometimes referring to private brothels. For example, one of the key documents Yoshimi discovered in 1991 (one that led to Prime Minister Miyazawa’s official apology in 1992) was subject indexed as “Gun Ianjo Jugyofu-to Boshu ni kansuru Ken” (Matters concerning the recruitment of women to work in military comfort stations).[26] The women were variously called as ianfu (comfort women), shugyofu (women of indecent occupation), shakufu (women serving sake), and tokushu-ianfu (special kind of comfort women), but not jugun-ianfu.[27]


Semantic issues aside, however, neonationalist efforts to undermine the history of the comfort women–and to erase it from school textbooks–seem manipulative at best. They argue, for example, that the term jugun, as part of a compound noun (e.g., jugun-kisha, the term for war correspondents; and jugun-kangofu, the term for war nurses), indicates the status of gunzoku, or civilian war workers (those officially on the payroll of the army and/or navy). The comfort women, they argue, were not in that category. Historians such as Yoshimi have refuted this argument by pointing out that the term jugun was (and is) commonly used to mean “going to the front,” or “serving in the war,” and as such it was not used in the same way as gunzoku. For example, most war correspondents were not employed by the Japanese military (the army only came to have its own correspondents after 1942), but regardless of their employment status, they were (and are) usually called jugun-kisha.


Moreover, Yoshimi and others have pointed out the obvious fact that terms used in historical research (and education) are not necessarily the precise terms that were used during the period under study. (For example, people in the medieval period never called their time medieval.) In their view, the real problem with the use of the term jugun-ianfu in school textbooks is not that it was not officially used in wartime since the term became commonplace in recent years. Rather it that it is euphemistic. “Comfort” (ian) hardly convey a situation of the women that was, in fact, enslavement. The point is well taken. Although many scholars at present prefer using the term gun-ianfu (military comfort women) or Nihongun-ianfu (Japanese military comfort women) for its preciseness, what is critical, whatever term is used, is that explanation be provided.[28]


Another point of dispute has been over the types, agents, and extent of coercion. Neonationalists have made an issue of the term kyosei-renko (taking by force), a compound noun commonly used to refer to the Korean and Chinese men brought to Japan to labor in places such as coalmines and factories during the war. Neonationlists has made an issue of it since attacking the 1997 edition junior high school textbooks for their use of the term kyosei-renko in relation to the comfort women. By defining the term as an act of “something like slave hunting by the military and /or government authorities” (a narrower definition than most historians’ usage signifying the involuntary nature on the part of the workers), they argue that no (documentary) evidence has been found to suggest that kyosei-renko took place in recruiting comfort women. They also argue that official documents indicate that the military and police instructed traffickers to follow the law and regulations in their recruitment of comfort women (procuring women for prostitution was legal, but regulated), and that the testimony of Yoshida Seiji, the only person who publicly acknowledged the violent means he and his co-workers used to recruit comfort women, lacks credibility in several key issues such as dates and places.[29]


The neonationalist arguments were (and are) misleading. First, no 1997 edition junior high history textbooks used the term kyosei-renko in describing the comfort women. The term kyoseiteki (forcibly) appeared in one text and the term renkoshite (took) appeared in another, but not kyosei-renko.[30]


Second, it is a illogical to suggest that no state or military force was used because no written official order has been discovered. While admitting that they have found no official documents that ordered the use of military or police force for the recruitment of women–in particular, in colonized regions such as Korea and Taiwan–Yoshimi and others emphasize the fact that many wartime official records were destroyed by the military at Japan’s surrender. Besides, the state and its military had no need to use so explicit a language as “use force to round up women and send them to comfort facilities” to achieve its goals.[31]


In the absence of official document(s) sanctioning the use of force, progressive and feminist historians have presented other evidence to document the fact that the military and government authorities were directly involved in the procurement, shipping, and management of the comfort women, and were aware of traffickers’ use of violence and deceptive tactics. Overwhelmng evidence shows that colonial authorities in essence condoned such traffickers’ behavior as well as their trading very young girls in Korea and Taiwan.


In addition, detailed testimonies by former comfort women document cases in occupied territories, such as China and Southeast Asia, where government and military authorities themselves took women by force. Finally, coercion was widespread not only in the recruitment of women, but also in forcing them to stay and work in the comfort facilities.[32

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