Home > Analysis, human rights, politics > Hashimoto’s “Comfort Women” Statement – Is it Really So Bad? A Comment about Why Japan Needs to Give a Real Apology.

Hashimoto’s “Comfort Women” Statement – Is it Really So Bad? A Comment about Why Japan Needs to Give a Real Apology.

Recently, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, a prominent Japanese politician, raised a storm in Asia when he pronounced that the “comfort women” Japan enslaved during WWII as “necessary.”  According to this BBC report, Hashimoto said:

In the circumstances in which bullets are flying like rain and wind, the soldiers are running around at the risk of losing their lives….  If you want them to have a rest in such a situation, a comfort women system is necessary. Anyone can understand that.

The report continued:

Some 200,000 women in territories occupied by Japan during WWII are estimated to have been forced to become sex slaves for troops.

Many of the women came from China and South Korea, but also from the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan.

Japan’s treatment of its wartime role has been a frequent source of tension with its neighbours, and South Korea expressed “deep disappointment” at Mr Hashimoto’s words.

“There is a worldwide recognition… that the issue of comfort women amounts to a war-time rape committed by Japan during its past imperial period in a serious breach of human rights,” a South Korean foreign ministry spokesman told news agency AFP.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei expressed shock and indignation at the mayor’s comments.

“The conscription of sex slaves was a grave crime committed by the Japanese military,” he said. “We are shocked and indignant at the Japanese politician’s remarks, as they flagrantly challenge historical justice.”

Last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe angered China and South Korea when he suggested he may no longer stand by the wording of Japan’s 1995 apology, saying the definition of “aggression” was hard to establish.

Japanese ministers later sought to play down his remarks, amid anger across the region.

Japan’s neighbours also objected to visits in April by several cabinet members and 170 MPs to Japan’s Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead, including war criminals.

Many across Asia – including some in the West who are paying attention – have expressed dismay at Hashimoto’s statements, but are these statements really that bad?

In Asia, there appears to be two versions of narratives on Japan’s wartime activities at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  Most (China included) view Japan as a violent transgressor.  It inflicted unprecedented suffering to a large segment of population across a wide swath of area for an unprecedented extent of time.  Japan committed such violent, pervasive and cruel acts that many see as crimes against nations, if not against humanity.  For Japanese leaders or citizens to deny, whitewash this history is to be a revisionist in the most cruel – and dangerous – sense.

On the other hand, there appears to be another narrative, in Japan, on Japan’s wartime activities.  According to this narrative, while brutalities were no doubt committed, they were “routine” as far as war is concerned.   20th century is perhaps the most violent century in human history. And Japan – due to complex political and economic situations of the time – happened to become the first in Asia to industrialize and to become an expansionist power at the same time.  Modern warfare was bloody not just in Asia, but also in Europe, where the civilian population also became intimately involved in war efforts. According to this narrative, Japan is the the victim of revisionist propaganda from many Asian nations that disproportionately emphasize, even embellish, the bad that occurred in that turbulent and violent period.

I won’t make value judgement on the narratives because as narratives, you really can’t judge.  We can judge facts, understanding of course that narratives will color one’s perception of facts (as one weighs them differently, demands different standards of proofs, etc.).  But if you accept that two narratives exist, I think you can see where Hashimoto is coming from.

Consider the issue of “comfort women,” regardless of your current political or ethical stance, it is a fact that throughout history, women were often seen as spoils of wars.  For example, Genghis Khan is attributed to have said, “The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” Genghis Khan and his army terrified people throughout China – and to places as far as Russia. According to this website, “In 1237 the city of Riazan in Russia was conquered after a siege of five days. Before the citizens were slaughtered (by impaling and flaying), they were forced to watch how the Mongols raped systematically all young women, including nuns.”

According to this wiki entry,

The ancient Greeks considered war rape of women “socially acceptable behaviour well within the rules of warfare”, and warriors considered the conquered women “legitimate booty, useful as wives, concubines, slave labour or battle-camp trophy.

Rape has accompanied warfare in virtually every known historical era. The Greek and Roman armies reportedly engaged in war rape, which is documented by ancient authors such as Homer, Herodotus, and Livy. Ancient sources held multiple, often contradictory attitudes to sexual violence in warfare. Rape in the course of war is mentioned multiple times in the Bible: “For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped…” Zechariah 14:2 “Their little children will be dashed to death before their eyes. Their homes will be sacked, and their wives will be raped.”Isaiah 13:16

The Vikings (Scandinavians who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the late 8th century to the early 11th century,) have acquired a reputation for “rape and pillage”.

Female slavery and war rapes were also common during the medieval Arab slave trade, where prisoners of war captured in battle from non-Arab lands often ended up as concubine slaves (who are considered free when their master dies) in the Arab World.

In German South-West Africa during Herero and Namaqua Genocide, German soldiers regularly engaged in gang rapes before killing Herero women or leaving them in the desert to die; a number of women from the rebelling Herero tribe were also forced into prostitution.

According to this commenter, “in all battles the great conquerors took women as spoils of war. … Even the Lord Krishna carried away the Princess Rukamani, after a fierce battle. He routed all the warriors as he made away with Rukamani. Prince Paris of Troy carried away the beautiful queen Helen, and launched a war.”

My point – to be clear – is not to say that rape during time of war should be accepted. Just because something has been done repeatedly throughout history does not per se render such acts moral for the modern times.  My point is to give context.  If rape is common throughout history as part of war, then should rape committed by the Japanese during war times in the 20th century be singled out as something uniquely bad that the Japanese must explicitly apologize?  Or should it be chaulked up as just another bad thing – among many many others bad things – that occur in times of war, where Japan needs only to apologize for being the aggressor (it having already legally accepted that characterization) but not for every bad things that occur incidental to war?

I found this interesting excerpt from the wikipedia (accidentally came upon it):

Western forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance went on a killing, looting, and raping rampage against Chinese civilians. Thousands of women were raped by the western forces on a massive scale.[70] All of the foreign troops, except the Japanese, raped women.[71] The Japanese officers had brought along Japanese prostitutes to stop their troops from raping Chinese civilians. A western Journalist, George Lynch, said “there are things that I must not write, and that may not be printed in England, which would seem to show that this Western civilization of ours is merely a veneer over savagery.”[72] All of the nationalities engaged in looting and rape. Luella Miner wrote that the Russian and French behavior was particularly appalling. Chinese women and girls committed suicide to avoid being raped. The French commander dismissed the rapes, attributing them to “gallantry of the French soldier”.[73]

During the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese Boxers regularly killed and mutilated foreigners, including women and children, but did not rape any foreigner.[68][69]

Isn’t that shocking???  Despite what the Japanese did to Asia in the 20th century, in the 19th century, it seemed to behave in a much more “civilized” manner – at least as compared to the Europeans. I think deep down, if Japan reviews its history and looks honestly to its Asian values, it must understand that there does seem to be something different, disturbing and uncivilized about what it committed throughout Asia in the 20th century.

Back to the specific issue of “comfort women,” some people may want to draw the line between state-sponsored rape (which Japanese government is accused of) vs. rape that occurs incidental to war (which Hashimoto may think is less offensive).  “There is a difference between free enterprise prostitution and state-organized sex slavery,” according to Mindy Kotler, director of the Washington-based Asia Policy Point and one of those involved in the drafting of a 2007 congressional comfort women resolution, for example.

Perhaps.  But to distinguish between the two is to discombobulate morality by technicality and to justify missing seeing the forest for the trees.

For example, Hashimoto recently came under fire for comments that suggested that U.S. military should make use of “comfort women” in Okinawa. According to the report,

Hashimoto said he recently visited Okinawa in southern Japan and told the U.S. commander there “to make better use of the sex industry” [to reduce the continual string of sexual violence predicated on the local populace there].

“[The commander] froze, and then with a wry smile said that is off-limits for the U.S. military,” [the commander] said.

“I told him that there are problems because of such formalities,” Hashimoto said, explaining that he was not referring to illegal prostitution but to places operating within the law. “If you don’t make use of those places you cannot properly control the sexual energy of those tough guys.”

Place your foot in the shoe of a local Okinawan who has fought to get rid of foreign occupation of their land. In Okinawa, many view their lands as being occupied since late 19th century – first by the Japanese, then U.S. and then now (since 1972) jointly by U.S. and Japan. Whether the U.S. conscripts local populace for the sexual pleasures or buys them off, the acts will appear equally predatory.

Many in Japan actually do seem to agree.  Yet many in Japan  (Abe included) also think that Japan is getting an unfair bad rap on the “comfort women” issue. There is no proof that all of the “comfort women” Japan employed during the early 20th century were all “forced” into sex slavery, they argue. This appears to be a popular narrative despite the existence of extensive facts surrounding the existence of “comfort women” and the facts that many women killed themselves to avoid being conscripted into the system.

But even if Abe were right, it would seem very strange to me to see how legions and legions of women would suddenly turn to prostitution to serve the hated Japanese army…  and to pronounce everything is normal.

I don’t doubt that in China and Korea during Japanese occupation, some women probably did “choose” to become “comfort women” – without being forcefully pulled by a soldier from their home to join the military brothel camp.  But when they destroy your homeland, kill your families, take away your means of living, and constantly threaten to kill and rape you, does everyone have a choice?

Many in the Japan have retorted to all this: what does China (and rest of Asia) want?  Japanese leaders have allegedly apologized several times to victims throughout Asia, and in some cases even paid some compensation.  But Hashimoto’s comments – together with Abe’s suggestion to revisit the Kono Statements – are examples why it’s not enough.  Whereas the German apology and remorse over its wartime acts comes across sincere – without qualifications – from its leaders, and transcends through all segments of its society – the apology and remorse from Japanese leaders is always limited and ephemeral – and shielded from its society.  The continual acts to whitewash history in Japanese society is the exact result one would expect of half-baked apologies.

Many in Japan may feel we should let history be history. But as philosopher Santayana has remarked, “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”  And as author Crichton has observed, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ” Japan does not exist in a vacuum just as the rest of Asia don’t exist in a vacuum. For there to be a prosperous and peaceful Asia, and for Japan to be part of that Asia, there must be a shared understanding of history. It is for this reason that Japan must own up to its past.

I am not interested in a moral crusade against Japan.  As I hoped I illustrated above, history is indeed full of brutal acts – and we should not be forever hung up on them.  And truth be told, had Japan won WWII, we might today all see the barbarism of the times as necessary evils needed to forge together a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” led by Japan.

But history didn’t turn out that way.  Japan does not have an honorary title in Asia.  And the people of Asia will remember the moral depravity from that era regardless of what Japan does.  The issue is whether Japan will shed its silver mantle and come to join the rest of Asia – by embracing a common understanding of history – and through it, a peaceful future.

After all these years, the answer to that question is still not settled. It’s still your move, Japan.

  1. N.M.Cheung
    May 27th, 2013 at 06:20 | #1

    It’s true rape and pillage have been with us since time immemorial, but it has also been condemned by religions and philosophers around the world. For Japan it’s quite different. Look at her history and geography; lacking natural resources it was always a pirate nation. She may have been influenced in language, culture, and philosophy by China, but in actual behavior she’s very much Darwinian martial patriarchy, women were very much treated as chattels. Since around 15th century, Japanese pirates had been raiding coastal Chinese villages for women and wealth. It’s not surprising those statements by Japanese politicians today, for they reflected Japanese attitude toward women. they offered their women for sexual use without any shame which a true Confucian would not. The fact that pornography was considered natural in Japan as a business attest to that. For the rest of Asia which Confucian values are dominant there are general horror to this attitude.

  2. Zack
    May 27th, 2013 at 08:08 | #2

    question remains as well, will the Western nations allow Japan hide its crimes from the rest of the world for the sake of perpetuating Western hegemony at the expense of subverting the inevitable ascendancy of China?
    Already we’ve seen the mouthpieces of the Western press make sympathetic noises at the Abe government even as they sit uncomfortably over the far right ramblings of Tokyo.

    The other thing one must take into account is the Japanese superiority complex far, far too many Japanese often display which the western press dismisses as ‘far rightists’ when in fact, much of Japanese society subscribes to notions of Japanese superiority. Unfortunately, too many Taiwanese of the elderly generation also display some sense of Japanese superiority given the legacy of Japanese colonization of Taiwan.

  3. May 27th, 2013 at 15:58 | #3

    Personally am quite sympathetic to some popular viewpoints in Japan. For instance, the post-WW2 justice as stated by Abe, was no more than victors’ justice. He compared the Yasukuni Shrine to Arlington National Cemetery, with the latter hosting those who supported slavery. Actually you can go one step further questioning also those who fought the Indian Wars… During the WW2, a part of the Japanese propaganda was that the Native Americans were Mongoloids who were by and large exterminated, and they were fighting to bring those murdering nations to justice. Had Japan won the war, the American history, even written by the contemporary Americans as quite checkered, could’ve easily provided plenty of fodder for moralistic posturing the other way around. Equally if the Third Reich had defeated Britain, in that parallel universe, the current Brits could’ve easily been raised to loathe their forefathers.

    Sure in the post-WW2 justice, some of them were called war criminals, yet you can hardly make a case that their criminality against humanity was any more horrific than some of those buried or revered in others’ national cemeteries or shrines or whatever. Moreover, what did they do specifically more deplorable between Tojo and Ito, or even between Tojo and Toyotomi. All of them tried to advance Japan’s interest, which was the point why they were in the shrine. The only meaningful difference seems to be some failed and some succeeded.

    If you look at it from China’s (and probably Korea’s) angle, in the past some 500 years, Japan is this nation to the east that can inflict tremendous damage on you at your moment of weakness. Well, Japan’s gripes are even longer: 1500 years, apparently before it learned its initial written language, its earliest legal code, etc. from China.

    If as a Chinese person, I can put myself in a Japanese’s shoes and see their rationale of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, a Japanese person equally should be able to see from a Chinese nationalist’s viewpoint, a sunken Japan, or a post-apocalyptic glowing Japan to China, is the best Japan. In the era of a rising China, is Japan committing the same geopolitical miscalculation of bombing the Pearl Harbor, only the payback this time can be more deadly?

    Einstein famously once said that the WW4 would be fought with sticks and stones. Quite possibly he was an optimist — there is a chance that the WW4 would be fought by roaches. The post-WW2 arrangements might not be perfect, but to tear them down, the alternatives can be unthinkable.

  4. Zack
    May 27th, 2013 at 16:44 | #4

    it’s even more bizarre that the chief demolisher of the world war 2 arrangements happens to be one of the chief victors itself: the United States.

  5. May 27th, 2013 at 17:04 | #5

    I think the bombshell started when former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama declared Japan should embrace an East Asia Community and that the U.S.-lead globalization may not be the right path. That immediately drew condemnation in all U.S. media. That gravely alarmed the U.S. That was the turning point which lead to the U.S.’s Asia Pivot policy. If you really think about it: how long must Japan be an occupied country?

    Following suit, think about the joint exercises against North Korea, and even against China in the Yellow Sea. Russia even interrupted a Japan-U.S. exercises up north near the Kuriles.

    We saw the Japanese coast guard harassing Chinese fishing trawlers and even arresting one. We saw the Tokyo mayor ‘nationalizing’ the Diaoyu islands to agitate tension with China. This Hashimoto idiot then comes out to assert the “comfort women” were justified.

    The trend is certainly not good – as if Japan is suddenly gripped by ultra-nationalistic pms.

  6. May 28th, 2013 at 02:44 | #6

    Excellent article. There are indeed plenty of double standards both ways. Japan does have some justifications in seeing itself as being “unfairly” vilified by Western allies who started out as raping and looting buddies, before Europe caught fire.

    But there are other duplicities which favour Japan. Difficult as it may be to define who were indeed “war criminals”, the disturbed souls resting in turbulence at the Yasukuni shrines are undoubtedly in the same category as Hitler et al, according to the SAME Western judgement. But it is impossible to imagine the West accepting German politicians paying annual visits to a cenotaph dedicated to Hitler and Hess with the same graciousness and understanding they have shown Japan.

  7. Black Pheonix
    May 28th, 2013 at 06:44 | #7

    Whether others forgive Japan is not the question.

    How quickly/easily Japan forgive/forget itself is the REAL question, and that question of fact would show Japan’s true nature.

    As some say, Japan is not an excuse for China. But the reverse is also true. China is not an excuse for Japan.

    We are all victims of history of violence, we are all descendants of vengeful warmongers.

    We can only apologize by being mindful and vigilant against the repeat of mistakes.

    The Germans demonstrate that by their resolute stand against Neo-Nazis. We do not see the Germans using the violent 20th century as an excuse.

    The Chinese demonstrate that by rebuilding and reforming their national economy and defense. We do not see the Chinese using the historical humiliations as an excuse for demanding hand-outs.

    Japan cannot demonstrate that by pretending and demanding that others forgive it and respect it.

    The problem is precisely that Japan is using others as excuses, LOTS and lots of excuses. Its Nationalists still whine about US nuking it.

    By Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s logic, US would have been perfectly justified in nuking 2 Japanese cities.

    Yeah, war is hell, right? He would also buy into the cold war calculus of US’s justification for incinerating civilians.

    To save lives, to end the war quickly.

    Collateral damage.

    To maintain military discipline.

    Break a few eggs to make an omelet.

    And other pointless excuses.

    All of it ONLY demonstrates the mindset adopted by the Japanese Nationalists, now mimicking the Militant tendencies of the West, which Japan denounces just as loudly.

    Japan may ask what others want from it.

    I have a starting suggestion: STOP justifying mistakes like those who nuked you!

    Nobody can take you seriously when you justify your past violence with the same BS excuses that Americans used to justify NUKING you.

    I sympathize with the Japanese Civilians who died from the atomic bombs, and even from the entire WWII in general. And I would not stand for any one using War generally as justification for enslaving Japanese women into any kind of service.

    That’s how I demonstrate that I have learned my history lessons, given that there probably was a few murderers and warmongers in my family tree.

  8. Sigmar
    June 6th, 2013 at 10:04 | #8

    It’s telling how some commenters who are so vocal in saying there should be “no excuse” for China’s ills, perceived or otherwise, are so silent when it comes to the ills of “civilised” countries like Japan. Why, no takers to decry the nihilism of Japan’s elected governmental officials? No call for them to hold an annual memorial for their victims in World War 2 and to stop their Yasukuni trips? Their selective outrage and narrow agendas are clear for all to see. Here’s the thing, Japan represents an existential threat to China, and even Korea. Her rising nationalism will inadvertently become militant and conforntational in nature. China is correct in beefing up her security, educating her young on history to increase vigilance and be more resolute in upholding her sovereignity. If other “civil” countries choose to paint her as “nationalistic”, then so be it. China’s government is obligated to safeguard her people, and that’s the bottomline.

  9. pug_ster
    June 6th, 2013 at 10:23 | #9


    It seems that wacko Abe is seeking to be in its imperial Japan days using North Korea and China as an excuse for ‘pre-emptive’ strike. Hashimoto is already on the deep end and Abe is not far behind. The problem is that China and North Korea are not weak unlike what happened 100 years ago.

  10. Sigmar
    June 6th, 2013 at 11:45 | #10

    He’s not a (or at least the only) wacko if he can secure America’s support.

  11. pug_ster
    August 1st, 2013 at 03:32 | #11


    It seems that Hashimoto is not the only nut in Japan glorifying the days of WWII. Now the deputy PM says that they should follow Nazi Germany’s lead to rewrite their constitution.

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