Sunday, May 6, 2007

Comfort Women: Casualties of Peace

History is more than a simple set of words on a page. It exists as a shared experience for the society it influences; a compilation of thoughts on a specific moment in time as one remembers it conveyed as unwavering truth. Despite this faithful reverence we are pressed to devote to the subject, there are moments that greatly alter its high status and that challenge us to question the stories that encourage us to view America with the same eyes.

A recent review of historical documents and records by the Associated Press provides just that sort of challenge. The documents, some of which had never translated into English, are from a post-World War II Japan and show evidence that the U.S. troops stationed in Japan after the war were provided full access to brothels that housed “comfort women,” many of whom had been tricked and forced into a life of slavery initially to serve the Japanese troops' sexual appetites. During the war, the women were tortured through repeated beatings and rapes, a deprivation of basic human needs, and psychological trauma that came with an inability to communicate, as they were often conscripted from China, Korea, and other Asian territories of Japan and did not speak Japanese, a lack of positive human interaction, and a complete loss of contact with their families.

To know that the American authorities permitted their soldiers to benefit from the enslavement of women most certainly distorts any image of the men as “peacemakers” and reveals that for some members of Japanese society, the war never ended. The brothels, also known as “comfort stations,” opened exclusively to the occupation troops on August 18, 1945, a few days after Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces and World War II came to an end. Much like before, the stations were packed “elbow to elbow” with customers, arguably rapists considering the original methods used to force a majority of the women into prostitution and the inhumane conditions under which they worked. According to official documents, one witness states that the women “had some resistance to selling themselves to men who just yesterday were the enemy, and because of differences in language and race, there were a great deal of apprehensions at first.”

And while the stations were established by Japanese police officials and businessmen with the help of the interim government at the time, they found it difficult to control their new patrons despite their previous law enforcement experience. The men had trouble keeping the 500 to 600 daily brothel customers on their best behavior as there were few women and such a high demand for sex. This eventually led to the hiring of more women to work in the stations, but even then, the women serviced up to 60 men a day and for a rate equivalent to a dollar per customer. However, considering the dire economic and social situation for women immediately following the war as a result of the loss of family, limited job opportunities, and the prospect of seeking education having been rendered temporarily null and void due to the government transitioning, there was little opportunity available besides prostitution for the “Women of New Japan.” Some of the women working in the brothels were Japanese citizens with no previous experience as prostitutes who had answered the ads in order to eke a life for themselves and their families from the pay they would receive, but others, it is noted with suspicion, may have also been women (both Japanese and non-Japanese) who had been coerced or misled into the profession after the war, mirroring the previous acquisition of the comfort women for Japanese troops. In a memorandum from Lieutenant Colonel Hugh McDonald, a senior officer with the Public Health and Welfare Division of the occupations General Headquarters wrote, “The girl is impressed into contracting by the desperate financial straits of her parents and their urging, occasionally supplemented by her willingness to make such a sacrifice to help the family. It is the belief of our informants, however, that in urban districts the practice of enslaving girls . . . still exists.”

Indeed, even women and girls who had not sought jobs as sex workers were subject to similar treatment, though without pay. Incidents of rape and general sexual misconduct during the war and immediately after were not uncommon and were actually motivating factors for the Japanese to agree to provide the American troops with access to the comfort stations. One Japanese police official notes that he and his fellow policemen felt compelled to set up the stations “to create a breakwater to project regular women and girls.” The temporary legalization of prostitution, however, did not put a permanent dent in sexual assault crimes, and despite the prevalence of easily accessible prostitution, such crimes continue in the present in areas near military bases that house American troops. On September 4, 1995, three American military servicemen kidnapped, bound and gagged, and repeatedly gang raped a 12 year old Okinawan girl on her way home. On October 28, 1992, Private Kenneth Markle beat, raped, and mutilated a woman named Kum-E Yoon near a military camptown in Seoul, Korea. According to Chalmers Johnson in his book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, what is most disturbing about the accounts of crimes such as these is that despite their being frequent in number, the actual legal recourse for the victims is limited and punishment for the perpetrators of the crime are few, sending a clear message to both parties that rape and violence toward women are excusable crimes. The post-war American occupation of many Asian countries and their respective territories (including Korea, Japan, and the Philippines) has signaled not only a literal dominance geographically speaking, but a psychological one as well that reduces Asian women to sexual objects. Camptowns, or areas surrounding military bases, are often full of strip clubs and brothels with the respective nation’s women as their primary employees. As this may be some troops’ first and only contact with Asian women or even women of color at all, the connection between sexual behavior and race is inevitable, and proves to have lasting effects on both a personal and social level.

Stereotypes of Asian women as sexually available and of Asian men as emasculated and weak were arguably introduced during wartime exchanges between American troops and their Asian counterparts, and were also evident in similar exchanges between Japan and their former imperial territories (i.e. Korea). What is unfortunate about the stereotypes that emerged with the relationships that resulted from the war, however, is that unlike the war, they never saw an end. They continue to thrive in the present, not only in popular culture, but also in legal battles and historical representations. The Japanese government has wavered between two extremes regarding their role in the acquisition, use, and treatment of comfort women, at times apologizing, yet often employing silence regarding the subject and sometimes complete denial that it ever happened. Japanese history books provide a similar message as only in the 1980s did Japan admit to its role during WWII as “aggressive” and include accounts of violence toward neighboring countries. In cases regarding comfort women either seeking public apology and/or reparations, the results have been disappointing, often resulting in either a denial of the use of comfort women, despite official documentation that provides evidence to the contrary, or rendering the case moot as the incidents in question fall outside of the statute of limitations due to the time that has elapsed. In addition, many of the war crimes committed by the Japanese, including the acts of Unit 731, the research group on biological warfare that tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of people, were pardoned by the United States following WWII, signaling a legal death to the prospect of prosecuting officials for heinous acts that were committed toward women during the war.

Such cases send a frightening message regarding the future of other women of color experiencing the horrors of war, particularly in African countries like Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the Sudan, where militaries are not necessarily funded and controlled by the government, the documentation of the crimes may not exist, and women’s rights are far from government priorities. Hopefully the intervention of NGOs and human rights advocates, many of whom document their findings on war crimes, will serve a beneficial function in the instance that any women affected by the war seek to petition for resources, official apology, and a hand in history in the future.

For more information on Comfort Women, check out

-Wendi Muse


Naree said...

hmmm. this is why all my chinese students say, "i hate japanese people. if i met one, i would kill him."

Wendi Muse said...

That's unfortunate, Naree. Many of my non-Japanese Asian American friends express similar sentiments towards the Japanese, though definitely not to such an extreme degree. I think a lot of it has to do not only with the acts committed, but also the representation of that history to the students. As I mention in the article, the Japanese on an institutional level have not done such a good job ackowledging past wrongs committed by imperial government, nor have they presented them to their students, as highlighted in this article about Japanese and Chinese youth and their feelings the "other" country:

There are many activists and members of academia in Japan who are fighting for a fairer representation of Asian history in schools, but the government unfortunately has been moving at a snail's pace. However, it's important to note that China and Japan are certainly not alone in this phenomenon of distorted history. Every other nation is guilty of the same. As the article points out, the United States likes to keep its citizens in the dark about their history as well...which is why so many other nations are known to "hate" us, and many Americans still have no idea why...