Can Japan Lay it's 'Comfort Women' Ghosts to Rest?

In Japan this week, a sense of urgency pervades as past and present come together in unexpected ways. The week before Donald Trump becomes leader of Tokyo’s most important military ally is also the week that the continuing issue of the “comfort women” came back to haunt Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

A few days ago, South Korean protestors placed a statue of a teenage girl in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan. It symbolised the tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of Koreans who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the second world war, of whom barely forty are still alive.

In December 2015, the governments of Japan and South Korea agreed what was supposed to be a full settlement of the issue, with statements of atonement by Japan along with a fund to support the surviving women. Most of the women did accept the agreement, but many protestors in South Korea did not, maintaining their vigil opposite the Japanese embassy in Seoul, and now adding a further protest in Busan. China has also demanded recognition from Japan for the fate of its own “comfort women”, as has Taiwan.

The row over the Busan statue comes at a difficult time for Japanese policy. Conversations with thinkers involved with foreign affairs keep returning one central question: What will be the effect of a Trump presidency on Japan’s role in Asia? The morning after the president-elect’s rumbustious press conference, which was mostly consumed by proposals on a blind trust and a blow-up with a CNN reporter, Tokyo newspapers reported some disappointment that policy towards Japan didn’t get a mention. Here, by contrast, there is lively discussion on what the new president may mean: experienced hands range from the idea that Trump will be the greatest opportunity Japan has had for decades to the more pessimistic sense that the US-Japan alliance is heading for the rocks. The one thing everyone admits is that nobody really knows.

But the rest of the region will not stand still while the US makes up its mind. Chinese ships regularly cross into the waters around the disputed Diaoyu islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku islands), testing how far Japan will push back. Beijing has sent a warship into the Taiwan Strait, testing the limits of another agreement with the US, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. Japan may have to take more of its fate into its own hands, and make more explicit alliances while doing it, taking the initiative in a way it has not done since 1945.

Yet the legacy of Japan’s brutal war in Asia continues to resist all attempts to clear it away. The current dispute over the statue in Busan may well be resolved, but Japan’s history still remains an obstacle with nominal ally South Korea, and implicit rival China. Why is this? In China, you often hear the answer: “Because Japan hasn’t admitted its war guilt.” But this explanation doesn’t hold up. A string of Japanese prime ministers have expressed horror at Japan’s wartime actions, and Japanese historians and journalists have been at the forefront of exposing and condemning Japan’s violence during the war for decades, the most famous example perhaps being journalist Honda Katsuichi’s reports in the Asahi Shimbun on the Nanking massacre as early as the 1970s. Japan’s public sphere has space for many different views, as befits a lively democracy.

But some aspects of that public sphere showcase views that those outside Japan usually find problematic. The Yushukan, the privately-run museum attached to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, contains a display on Japan’s wars from the samurai era up to the second world war.

Its gallery on the wartime period refers to the “China Incident” (in China and the West, this would be a rather weak term to define the first four years of the undeclared but very real Sino-Japanese War, which led to millions of military and civilian deaths). One of several causes given for the conflict is “communist terrorism”. Not listed, in contrast, is the increasingly aggressive Japanese occupation of north China in the 1930s.

Historically unproblematic, and more moving by far, is the officially-supported museum a short walk away, the Showa Memorial, which documents the increasing harshness of life for civilians in wartime Japan. Yet even here, there is relatively little discussion of the militaristic policies that led Japan into what was later termed the “valley of darkness” in the 1930s. Of course, in a free society, museums must be free to portray history as they see fit. But the absence of a museum that portrays the causes, as well as the consequences, of Japan’s war more explicitly, ironically ends up leaving that job to the unsympathetic museums in China, such as Beijing’s Museum of the War of Resistance against Japan. A Japanese museum that addresses sex slavery along with the other dark aspects of Japan’s wartime empire, would go a long way to quieten critics and address the complaint that the context for Japan’s war is still too minimally addressed.

It is unfortunate that the “comfort women” issue has on occasion seemed to produce a legalistic attempt by Japan to draw lines driven by a kind of pragmatism perhaps more suited to a trade deal. The agreement with South Korea in late 2015 led to differing responses within the region. China denounced the deal, suggesting it did not go nearly far enough, but since the death of the last of the Chinese women prepared to sue the Japanese government, Beijing has instead concentrated on actions such as the building of a “comfort women” memorial in Nanjing ( 南京 ).

In China, the lack of living victims actually gives the state more leeway to decide when – or if – it is prepared to draw a line under the issue. However, Taiwan’s outgoing government was surprised last year to find that Japan’s cabinet secretary was not prepared to offer the same deal given to Korean women to the few living Taiwanese “comfort women”. The reason given was that the circumstances were different – perhaps a reference to the general perception that the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan was less brutal than in Korea – but it sounded an odd note at a time when Japan was seeking to show its willingness to right old wrongs.

Resolution of the issue might also bring about a change of focus and a new concentration on understanding the issue as a politics of gender and violence, rather than competing nationalisms. Although women activists have been central to bringing the issue to the fore, there is still scope for more work to examine wartime sexual violence in a comparative context. This approach is now a mainstream one for historians examining conflicts as far apart as the second world war and civil wars in Latin America and Africa. But public discourse on the “comfort women” issue in East Asia still tends to stress the country-specific elements of the tragedy, rather than the gendered one.

Japan has been a responsible, indeed essential, actor in shaping order in Asia for seven decades. If the US becomes an uncertain partner in Asia, Tokyo’s decisions may matter more.

Encouraging its public sphere to do more to address the responsibility for Japan’s wartime past head-on might be the act of supreme confidence that allows the country to take a truly leading role in shaping Asia.

Source: Rana Mitter, 2017, This Week in Asia, January 14th,

tim winter