Keeping Tabs on Revisionist Groups Active on the ‘Comfort Women’ Issue

Gaining even a cursory familiarity with the statements and logic of some right-wing revisionists groups in Japan is a salutary experience. While most Japanese people (judging from polling data) find such groups to be embarrassing, and they surely do not represent the mainstream, these groups are, nevertheless, comparatively loud. More recently, they also have a kind of harmonization of rhetoric with the state which itself is being more vocal and “aggressive” (i.e. “pro-active”) with respect to the global discourse on the problem than ever before.

At an Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan event this past July, Yumiko Yamamoto, an organizer of the brilliantly-titled group “Japanese Women for Justice and Peace,” expressed her alarm at the success with which the Korean point of view on the comfort women issue had been successful in the United States, calling it an issue that was leading to nothing less than anti-Japanese discrimination in the United States (and Canada).

Gaimusho (Japanese Foreign Ministry) diplomats have also picked up on this line of thinking, expressing to an author on his university office hour, Herbert Ziegler, their views that Japanese children in the US were, in a sense, the real victims of the comfort women controversy.

As the logic stated at the FCCJ appears to go (and I am paraphrasing here): “We don’t deny that they existed, we are simply saying they were voluntary prostitutes. Why else would Korean women end up in Burma in 1942, except for the fact that they were making good money?”

Most revisionists do not necessarily have an allergy to evidence itself, but, like the North Korean state, they do seem to have a very peculiar and solipsistic way of interpreting the documents. In other words, the evidence proves whatever they want it to prove; nothing more and nothing less. Yamamoto (who is not a historian, an academic, or a journalist) actually ran through the logic this way: The Coomaraswamy report was based on Yoshida Seiji and George Hicks, and Yoshida was a liar, and Hicks was based on Yoshida, and the Coomaraswamy report did not use my favorite 1944 US archives report, therefore it is all false. The fact that Yamamoto distributed a document which described how comfort women in Burma were bombed and died near the front lines of the Second World War as evidence that their life was damn near luxurious was a bit of an eye-opener.

It is no secret that the Coomaraswamy report has been the target of revisionist anger.  But what revisionists are now asserting amounts to this (and again I am paraphrasing): If you publish anything having to do with Japanese war crimes, you are responsible for updating it and issuing corrections about your publication until the end of time. If this is a genuine request, it betrays an astonishing ignorance of the way that bureaucracies work. Perhaps North Korea try to throw out the UN Commission of Inquiry Report along similar lines: “Eight footnotes in 372 pages came from a defector who has now changed important elements in his story; therefore the entire report must be put in the bin.”

Naturally some more thoughtful scholars in Japan and Korea are indeed truing to broaden things out and take  more holistic look at the problem, including Lisa Yoneyama at the University of Toronto. Other scholars and activists are looking at the role of shame in small communities impacted by abduction for ‘comfort women’ slavery in the war’s long aftermath, as in a March 20 FT piece on communities and shaming in Shanxi. And the full abstract of a project being led by Hiroki Matsubara follows:

This talk is drawn from the newly published book, Thinking about/from “Comfort Women” Histories: Structure of Ordinary Lives beyond Military Violence (Tokyo: Iwanami, 2014). The volume is a series of attempts by historians in Japan and Korea to break through current debates. The experiences of women who were forced to serve in the military brothels of Japan during WWII require scholars to look beyond war time. The authors of the book study broader fields: Korean rural socio-economy in the pre-war period, military brothels in the post-war Korean Army, the daily lives and decisions of Imperial Japanese licensed sex workers, and the history of sexual discipline in the American military. Instead of a revisionist history of bare sexual desire at a time of emergency, this lecture proposes an understanding of the event set in the longer and broader context of colonialism. The audience is invited to review these recent studies in politically charged East Asian settings.

Such efforts serve undercut some of the revisionist discussion in so far as there is little understanding in those quarters for why Koreans (or Chinese) might have been systemically prone to volunteer for any particular duties in the wartime empire.

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