Monday, 19 March 2007

The comfort of women

Japan has a bit of a pesky little irritant that just won’t go away. No, not Krazy Kim this time, or gone-bad politicos, or corrupt business persons or even a dodgy building industry (though it does have all of these things to worry about). No, the little itch that Japan just can’t scratch is the Second World War.

Now it might seem odd that I am writing about this a mere 62 years after the jaunt ended, but to use a clichéd Americanism, Japan just can’t get any closure. The problem is, however, self inflicted (unlike the war) because Japan just can’t or won’t accept that they really did anything wrong. It was a war, you see, so anything goes (as in, now for a second tired cliché one paragraph, ‘all’s fair in love and war’ (and as far as I can tell Japan loved being at war (well, in the beginning when they were winning (I digress (and have used too many brackets now (darn))))). Now I have written in the past about certain things that happened in the war (or perhaps didn’t) like the Rape of Nanking and also the aftermath, such as the ongoing issues with Japanese PMs visiting Yasukuni Shrine to honour class A war criminals. But another issue has also never gone away, that of the alleged, so called, unverified, supposed ‘Comfort Women’.

The basic premise of this is simple, during the war the Japanese army forced many thousands of women to work as prostitutes but specifically to provide ‘comfort’ for Japanese soldiers stationed overseas in places like China and the Philippines. Now the government finds it very hard to deny this since former Imperial Army soldiers have come forward and said they did this, the forcible rounding up, and also in 1992 a number of documents were declassified showing that the army did indeed run official brothels. So now, it seems, the official line is that Japan accepts moral responsibility for this treatment, but not legal responsibility, and even that’s pushing it a bit as Silent Shinzo recently declaimed that there is ‘no proof’ of any of this. However the official way they argue it is this:

1. Even if the women were held against their will there was no law against it at the time
2. If it was illegal to force women to be prostitutes (and we’re not saying it was, see point 1), then the international laws you might be referring to didn’t apply in military-occupied territories
3. Even if we are caught out by 1 and 2 above, everything was settled at the end of the war so we have no case to answer

And this is what the courts in Japan have been saying for the last 62 years, or at least since people have been trying to sue the government. For example in 2000 the Tokyo District court threw out a case by 46 former alleged sex slaves when it decided that ‘crimes against humanity’ (on which the case was brought) as a concept did not exist in the 1940s, whilst a court in Hiroshima in 2001 threw out a case stating that coerced sex wasn’t illegal in the 1940s! The courts obviously didn’t know their history because apparently the notion of crimes against humanity goes all the way back to 1904, whilst in the first half of the twentieth century Japan signed up to no less than 4 international treaties outlawing the white slave trade, trafficking in women and the abolition of forced labour. So you’d think that they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, but still the government won’t make any reparations or, really, admit that it happened and say they are sorry.

Of course because Japan is a sovereign state you can’t actually sue it from the outside, so you can’t bring a case against the Japanese government in, say, America, you can only do that in Japan (and fair enough on that score). But as noted above the judiciary in Japan don’t look like they are about to go as far as admitting to anything anytime soon, even when it is pointed out that the basis on which some courts make their decisions are fundamentally incorrect.

The third defense of the government, about things being sorted after the war, is also erroneous, or at least open to attack. Apparently after the end of the pacific war the country was in a bit of a state so when it came to war reparations, mindful of 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles, MacArthur or whoever it was who took these decisions said, effectively, “aw c’mon, these little guys are whacked so no, you can’t have any of their money because right now they haven’t got any”. The important thing here, say prosecutors, is the ‘right now’ bit because, they argue, in 1945 that may well have been the case but in 2007, or even more likely in 1988 before the bubble burst, Japan has money to burn (OK, that happens now with soon-to-be-discovered prefectoral slush funds) and some of it should be going to those who were wringed in the past.

The article I have taken a lot of this from (from the Los Angeles Times section in the Yomiuri (it had to be a foreign newspaper as the Japanese press isn’t going to write anything balanced about this issue c.f. Yasukuni etc)) reckons that Japan will need to do something about this in the not too distant future as it is affecting relations with Asian neighbours and trading partners such as China, Korea and the Philippines, but personally I wouldn’t be holding my breath. Japan has far, far too much of a grip on the ‘Japan was the real victim’ stance with regard to WW2, mainly on account of the atomic bombings of the two cities. Whilst this was indeed a terrible and abhorrent thing, there is a collective, national blindness about what happened in the decade before August 1945 that led to the decision to drop the bombs. Therefore issues like Nanking, Yasukuni and Comfort women will run and run until there is no one left alive to champion them and then they’ll be quietly forgotten.

NB Anyone else feel that the government’s defense #2, the one about happening in occupied countries, is just a bit too close to Bush, extraordinary rendition and the hostages enemy combatants held in Guantanamo Bay for, ahem, comfort...?

But anyway...

Wouldn’t you just know it? Last week a letter arrived for me. It looked very plain and the envelope promised neither that I had won any yen nor that I was being asked to fork any out. And as no birthdays or anniversaries were due, so I was perplexed. On opening the envelope I was somewhat surprised to find an invitation to the Embassy to view cherry blossoms with the outgoing and newly arriving Consuls General (I think that’s the correct plural) on Tuesday 27th March. It was the proper thing, too, mostly printed but name handwritten. And this had come to the flat, not to the office, so it was obviously a personal, rather than a professional invitation (I think). Anyway the bugger is is that I will be flying to the UK on Monday 26th March and will therefore be unable to attend.

I RSVP’d as per the instructions and the women to whom I spoke seemed a little surprised. Then again I did say to her that, assuming that the reason Her Majesty’s government want to meet me was to recruit my services for a spot of cloak-and-dagger, I would be only too happy to visit the MI5 building in London next week instead of meeting my contact at the embassy. At that point she hung up, rather abruptly I thought, so I am still waiting for my ‘drop’ details in London, it will all be very hush-hush so I’ll probably have to wait a week or two until I can write about it, but rest assured I’ll keep everyone informed...


  1. It seems like the Asian community in the United States has no problem with Japan being portrayed heroically in World War II.

    Outstanding Film: Letters from Iwo Jima

    Nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima tells the untold story of the Japanese soldiers who defended their homeland against invading American forces during World War II. With little defense other than sheer will and the volcanic rock of Iwo Jima itself, the unprecedented tactics of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai) and his men transform what was predicted to be a swift defeat into nearly 40 days of heroic and resourceful combat. Their sacrifices, struggles, courage and compassion live on in the taut, gripping film Rolling Stone calls “unique and unforgettable.” It is the powerful companion to Flags of our Fathers.


    I am not one to hold a grudge but the Japanese used Chinese citizens for chemical warfare testing. The Chinese still haven’t forgiven them for that.

    And somehow American history has lost the stories of how the Japanese treated American Prisoners of War

    And how about the Rape of Nanking?

    But, no to Clint Eastwood (and I guess the American Asian Community who honored his film) the Japanese soldiers were merely defending their homeland against those mean olde invading American imperialists.

    Clint Eastwood is a traitor to America who has denigrated all those who fought in the Pacific as merely racist imperialists going after the yellow men instead of the liberators of Asia which they really were.

    I spit on Clint Eastwood! No wonder Hollyweird can’t distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in Iraq when they can’t even do that when it comes to the Japanese in World War II.

    By the way, on the Truth Serum video, of course I disagree with the whole part accusing Bush or America covering it up in order to get access to the scientific research that the Japanese inhumanly performed. That is just insane.

    But everything else on that Truth Serum video seems historically accurate. If that isn’t the case, I would really appreciate someone educating me to the inaccuracies in the video.

    I do wonder why we didn’t after World War II convict Japanese of War Crimes to the extent we did the Germans. They Japanese did terrible things to AMERICAN POWs. From my understanding the Japanese treated American POWs far worst by and large than the Germans did. And then of course there was the way they treated the Asian Civilian communities they invaded. They never seemed to be personally held accountable for it the way the Germans were the Holocaust.


Commenting is encouraged, just so I know that someone reads all this stuff