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. All of the foreign troops, except the Japanese, raped women. 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.” 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”.
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.