Last month, Japan marked the 70 years which have passed since its World War II surrender to Allied Powers in 1945. Less known is that twenty-four years have passed since former Japanese military “comfort women” came forward for the first time and sued the Japanese government.
The existence of “comfort women” had been known from diaries and non-fiction stories written by former Japanese soldiers soon after the end of World War II. However, it was only after the lawsuit was filed that the Japanese government started its investigation regarding the issue.
In 1993, based on its investigation, the government issued a public statement admitting that “comfort stations” were created at the request of Japanese military authorities, and that many women were made to serve as “comfort women” against their will.
After 1993, history scholars discovered additional documents including some that suggest forced abductions, and international law specialists joined the fray.
However, the Japanese government has consistently taken the position that the comfort women issue has been legally resolved. It does not officially recognize that providing “comfort women” was a sexual slavery system. And, it has refused to face justice, to apologize officially, and to offer the compensation that the victims seek.
Why doesn’t Japan respond to the victims’ demands even under the pressure of the international community? There are several religion-based reasons. In brief:
First, given the religious roots of the imperial state ideology that continues to prevail in post-World War II Japan, it is not possible to criticize the emperor’s orders as the head of the Japanese military during the war. When it comes to the emperor, democracy does not function properly.
Second, Japanese religious culture disdains the concept of “women’s human rights.”
Third, the Imperial system continues its efforts to instill, in the Japanese people, a sense of the Emperor’s special religious status. This system, propped up by taboos, is vulnerable to criticism from the outside and it is too easily inclined to adopt historical revisionism.
Of the nineteen cabinet ministers in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s current administration, all but one (the one from Komeito, a coalition Party) are members of “The Shinto Political Federation’s Parliamentarians Association.” This religious association, chaired by Abe, includes 289 national Diet representatives.
Also, fifteen out of nineteen cabinet ministers (including three Christians) are members of the national Diet representatives’ branch of an influential nationalistic political organization, “Nippon Kaigi” (‘Japan Conference’), which includes scholars, opinion leaders, and Shinto and Buddhist religious groups. All four female cabinet ministers are central leaders of this organization.
Both The Shinto Political Federation’s Parliamentarians Association and Nippon Kaigi are advocating for changes to the Constitution that would make the emperor head of the State, promote patriotism as a compulsory aspect of K-12 education, and adopt nationally the Yasukuni Shrine ritual that “deifies” Japan’s war-dead, including those killed in WW II.
After a Cabinet meeting held during Abe’s first term in 2007, the administration declared: “There is no document to prove the forceful taking of comfort women.” This is still the administration’s official stance, propagated in cooperation with the right-wing media.
Relevant documents exist, the government’s ownership of which has become known through the information disclosure requests of civil society organizations. But when the civil organizations request that the government disclose these materials, they are given the documents with the relevant parts blacked out.
In committee hearings of the Diet, government agencies engage in a game of passing the responsibility to each other. Decisions on issues regarding “comfort women” are made by members of Abe’s Cabinet while the parliament remains idle.
The controversy over Japanese military “comfort women” is not, of course, just about whether these women were procured by force.
Also important is the fact that in pre-war Japan there was a government licensed prostitution system. This human trafficking system was officially permitted.
The Meiji (pre-1912) government, with the aim of modernizing and controlling the rapid accumulation of wealth and military strength, changed the traditional culture of sex. The government tightly controlled female sexuality and institutionalized a double standard, drawing a clear demarcation between the “good wife and wise mother” and the “shameful woman” (prostitute) categories embedded in the family hierarchy of imperial State Shintoism.
All of Japan’s other religions accepted this demarcation and likewise categorized women as one or the other. Buddhist monks who, doctrinally, were supposed to have left their worldly affairs behind, were legally married, had families, and sometimes engaged in the buying of prostitutes in red-light zones.
While some of the Christian groups fought to abolish the licensed prostitution system, they did so mainly because they thought it was shameful for a modern state. Still, private prostitutes increased in the prefectures in which licensed prostitution was ostensibly abolished. Some of these licensed prostitutes were among those recruited to be “comfort women” to repay debts they owed.
The double standard for women in Japan still affects society. Even today, Christian churches are not able to face the issue of sexual violence properly.
One of the reasons why religious groups in Japan were silent on the “comfort women” issue during and after the war, and remain silent even after the victims have come forward, is that the cultural tradition of “buying a woman” has not fundamentally changed.
A postwar principle of separation of religion and state may also be providing an excuse for Japan’s religions not to criticize the government's policy. The same can be said of academic societies when they hide behind the term “neutrality.”
However, the reality of countless victims who were allowed to suffer sexual enslavement and who were physically and mentally tortured by officers and soldiers in Japan's former colonies, occupied areas and combat territories, cannot be treated simply as a matter of “licensed human trafficking.”
It is a matter of government and military sanctioned sexual violence against women and girls.
The “comfort women” issue has been targeted by historical revisionism orchestrated chiefly by the Nippon Kaigi from the mid-1990s onward, most notably during the first Abe administration (2006-2007) and the current, second Abe administration (December 2012-present).
Since 2006, hate speech on the internet and in the streets by right-wing organizations against aged Korean “comfort women” has been blatant and continues without any official intervention. These organizations are trying to trivialize the issue by painting it as a Korea-Japan “problem.” (The majority of “comfort women” were Korean).
Additionally, ‘patriotic’ new religions such as “Kofuku no Kagaku” (‘Science of Happiness’) and some Christian sects in favor of the unification of religion and state have engaged in a campaign at home and abroad, collecting massive numbers of signatures from Japanese people who deny the “comfort women” problem altogether, claiming that it is a post-war fabrication by leftists. Ironically, many of these groups’ leaders are women.
According to the World Economic Forum, the status of Japanese women is among the lowest on the gender gap index of 135 countries in the world. Their status is especially low in the political and academic arena.
Unlike Korean and other Asian and Dutch “comfort women,” Japanese “comfort women” (many of whom came from Okinawa and Buraku minority communities) have not come forward. Their silence can be explained by Japan’s resistance to acknowledging its system of sexual slavery.
Due to the Japan’s still prevalent imperial mind-set, the issue of the military’s sexual slavery system has not become a point of coalition for feminist and women's movements in Japan, not even as an issue of women's human rights and of sexual violence against women.
These facts point to major obstacles inside Japan which continue to impede frank discussions about the “comfort women” issue.
Yamashita, Akiko. “Doing Feminist Theology of Japan's Military ‘Comfort Women’ Issue.” Asian Christian Review 4:1 (2010): 55-66.
Yamashita, Akiko. “Belief in the Atonement and Gender Issues in the Church under the Tenno System in Japan.” In Breaking Silence: Theology from Asian Women, edited by Meehyun Chung, 62-73. Delhi: ISPCK/EATWOT, 2006.
“Right side up: A powerful if little-reported group claims it can restore the pre-war order.” The Economist, June 6, 2015, Politics in Japan. http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21653676-powerful-if-little-reported-group-claims-it-can-restore-pre-war-order-right-side-up.
Kotler, Mindy. “The Comfort Women and Japan’s War on Truth.” New York Times, November 14, 2014, The Opinion Pages. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/opinion/comfort-women-and-japans-war-on-truth.html.
Fingleton, Eamonn. “Dissing Comfort Women and Other War Victims, Boehner Panders to Japan’s Most Toxic Prime Minister.” Forbes, April 19, 2015, Forbes Asia. http://www.forbes.com/sites/eamonnfingleton/2015/04/19/dissing-comfort-women-and-other-war-victims-boehner-panders-to-japans-most-toxic-prime-minister/.
“Call to Deny Inscription of the ‘Comfort Women’ and the ‘Nanjing Massacre’ to the UNESCO Memory of the World Program.” TheLibertyWeb: True insight into world affairs, June 5, 2015, History. http://eng.the-liberty.com/2015/5846/.
“Interview with Michael Yon: The Truth Behind the Comfort Women.” TheLibertyWeb: True insight into world affairs, December 25, 2014, History. http://eng.the-liberty.com/2014/5641/.
Photograph: Remedios Tecson, 85, a Filipino “comfort woman” during World War II, displays a placard as she joins a rally outside the Japanese Embassy in Manila ahead of the statement by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marking the 70th annivesary of Japan's surrender, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, in suburban Pasay city east of Manila, Philippines. The Filipino demonstrators said “after three generations, we are still fighting and demanding apology” from the Japanese government. Credit: Bullit Marquez / AP Photo.
Author, Akiko Yamashita, (Master of Theology, Doshisha University, Japan) is a part-time lecturer at Nara University. She is also a researcher for the Kyoto Human Right Research Institute and a former researcher for NCC Japan’s Study Center of Japanese Religions. Yamashita has written many books and articles in her fields of interest: Asian women and religions, Gender studies, Religious studies, and Christian studies. She is the Coordinator of the Team of “Comfort Women” Issue for Amnesty International Japan.
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