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The Japanese State’s New Assault on the Victims of Wartime Sexual Slavery

A strategy to denigrate and discredit women who survived comfort station internment is underway in Japan.

Translation by Rumi Sakamoto and Matthew Allen, introduction by Caroline Norma

Denigrating women who survived comfort station internment is critical to protecting the historical record of the Japanese military and the contemporary reputation of the Japanese government, as Nishino Rumiko and Nogawa Motokazu make clear in these two articles. They describe recent efforts from a range of quarters to ‘injure the victims all over again, rubbing salt in their wounds and violating their human rights’. Recent attacks on survivors include Japanese newspaper companies retracting and publicly disavowing reportage that uses the term ‘sexual slavery’, Japanese politicians equating the fabricated writings of a man (Yoshida Seiji) with the actual historical experience of female victims and the documentary record, and the prime minister tacitly suggesting that claims lodged by survivors in the international sphere hurt the feelings of the Japanese populous and damage its pride.

Advertisement for public information session denying the wartime history of military sexual slavery that uses the artwork of a Korean comfort station survivor
A further strategy to discredit and disparage survivors was launched by Chief Cabinet Secretary SugaYoshihide; he defines the terms of historical violation so narrowly (i.e., as ‘kidnapping’) so as to preclude recognition of any individual’s actual experience of military sexual enslavement. Nishino sees this strategy as targeting survivors in that ‘it is the victims who were made into “comfort women” by the Japanese military who are being ignored in the campaigns that deny “coercion”‘. It is a strategy that historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki critiqued in 2013 in the following terms:

The comfort women system of the Japanese military has been defined as problematic only to the extent that any individual woman might have been forced into a comfort station. But regardless of the means by which women entered; for example, whether they sailed on a luxury liner and then boarded a limousine to arrive at a comfort station, and all the while fully consenting to this travel, the military cannot evade culpability if it forced a woman to enter into sexual relations with military men in a comfort station…and if we say that the comfort women system was a system of sexual slavery then we cannot concurrently say that women could have been exercising any choice in entering into sexual relations with the military men.1

“Facts about the so-called comfort women: The facts about modern history that every Japanese person living in the here and now needs to know”

Comfort station survivors and their public testimony documenting historical crimes of military sexual slavery pose an enduring problem for Japanese men. These women represent the sex crimes of men in the past, and serve as a reminder of what Japanese men continue to be capable of today. As Nishino writes of these men: ‘they want to fight another war’. They apparently can’t wait: even in these final years before we see the remaining survivors pass away, they are eager to discredit victim testimony as ‘unfounded defamation’, Nogawa notes. Not only survivors and their testimony; any trace of their existence is being erased. As Nogawa writes, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs website appeal for donations for survivors has been deleted, and the prime minister and his diplomats criticise the building of public monuments to the commemoration of victims anywhere in the world they arise. There are other examples of erasure efforts: moves are currently afoot to bring a petition to the Kyoto prefectural assembly that will overturn a resolution passed in 2013 that supports the ‘urgent redress of the history of the comfort women’. Notably, the original resolution was passed as a result of efforts by a cross-party group of women. Their joint achievement in advocating for survivors, too, is now under attack.

The stage is not well set for Prime Minster Abe’s upcoming obligations in 2015 to make public statements commemorating fifty years since the normalisation of Japan-South Korea relations and seventy years since the end of the Pacific War. He is unlikely to allow his statements to dwell on the past. This past features the pain and suffering of women and girls at the hands of the Japanese military, but also includes the achievements of feminists and other advocates in bringing international scrutiny and opprobrium to these men. Today, Prime Minister Abe and his supporters are banding together to erase not just the historical record of wrongdoing but the survivors and their supporters who continue to insist upon this record.

The current situation prompts Nishino to make the appeal that, ‘more than anything else we need to listen to the voices of the women victims, to find out what happened, to face their evidence’.The evidence we must face from survivors is damning of Japanese men who dominate the state and the military, both in the past and the present. With women pushed aside and victims done away with, a major obstacle to war-making is removed, and militarized activities of male bonding can proceed apace. If this masculinist-militarist agenda is to be derailed, the voices of survivors need to be amplified and elevated to the international sphere where Japanese efforts to silence their voices might be challenged by those without a shared interest in the contemporary project. The English translation of Nishino and Nogawa’s critiques provides a timely contribution to awareness raising among those outside Japan who might draw attention to continuing injustices perpetrated against comfort station victims and the responsibilities of the Japanese state toward them.


1. Yoshimi, 2013, p. 3「慰安婦」バッシングを越えて : 「河野談話」と日本の責任「戦争と女性への暴力」リサーチ・アクションセンター編,西野瑠美子, 金富子, 小野沢あかね責任編集「河野談話」をどう考えるか / 吉見義明