Unspeakable Truths

Georgette Fleischer is completing a manuscript on "Genre Departures: Women Writers and the Crisis of Representing National Socialism and World War II."

Between 1932 and 1945, the Japanese military engaged in the traffic in women. It also engaged in the traffic in children, for many of the so-called comfort women--women pressed into sexual slavery to satisfy Japanese troops and officers--were as young as 14. Though they came from numerous countries in Asia and included Dutch women in Indonesia, most comfort women were Korean and the majority of those were poor, uneducated and inexperienced, sexually and in other ways. Most came from rural areas, and most had no idea what they were getting into when they were coerced away from their families with promises of legitimate employment or when they were sold by procurers. On their young bodies was enacted a history of national chauvinism that gave rise to 20th-century Japanese colonialism.

In 1910, Korea was annexed by Japan, and in 1932, Japan set up the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria. Koreans were treated as colonial subjects of the Japanese Empire and forbidden to use their own language. During the years that began with the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and ended with Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945, the Japanese military set up "comfort stations" in order to sexually service its militia.

Korean women in particular "endured the unendurable," in the words of documentary filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, as they were forced to satisfy scores of men each day and night (Japanese comfort women, by contrast, were generally used more lightly). Their bodies suffered from physical abuse, from sexually transmitted diseases and in some cases from forced hysterectomies designed to circumvent menstruation and pregnancy, which would have compromised their ability to work relentlessly. Dutch women endured lighter work loads (two or three men per night), and they were awarded monetary damages by Japan in 1956.

But this has not been the case with the sexual slavery of Asian women. In Kim-Gibson's film "Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women," professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki of Ch{umacronl}{omacronl} University in Tokyo blames first the Japanese government and then the Allied powers, especially the United States, for neglecting these breaches of international law, a neglect that continues to the present day.

Yoshiaki seeks to redress this neglect by setting forth its history in "Comfort Women," a work first published in 1995 in Japan. Yoshiaki's objectives dovetail with those of human rights activists who addressed the issues of comfort women at the Beijing Women's Conference of 1995. Although "Comfort Women's" command of documentary materials makes it a landmark for historians, human rights activists and general readers, in Yoshiaki's hands, the comfort women themselves slip from the center to the margins.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese government destroyed many military documents at the end of the war. Yoshiaki unearthed six that he published in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun in January 1992 and later found more that had fallen between the cracks. Although Yoshiaki admits he is working from only "the tip of the iceberg," he approximates that the first comfort stations were established in 1932 by the Japanese navy exclusively for military personnel. Ten "restaurants"--as they were called in order to sidestep a Chinese law against licensed prostitution--employed 102 Japanese and 29 Korean "serving women." The Japanese army also established comfort stations in order to prevent its militia from raping civilians and to deter the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (they were not especially effective on either count; in fact, evidence suggests that military comfort stations actually increased the spread of STDs); they were also thought to prevent the leaking of military secrets to civilian prostitutes. Military comfort women were sometimes referred to as the "girl army" (j{omacronl}shigun) and were considered "really a part of the army."

In November 1937, in the wake of the Nanking Massacre and in order to quell Chinese outrage over the rape of Chinese women, a large number of military comfort stations was established, staffed by Chinese women who had been coerced into service. Proceeding chronologically and geographically as Japan moved toward full-scale war with China, Yoshiaki establishes by amassing disparate records that the institution of comfort stations was a systematic operation, carried out by military elites and sanctioned by the Japanese Ministry of War.

Yoshiaki's synthesis of extant military documents is one of his most valuable contributions. He quotes liberally from these documents, some of which have appeared before in his work. A military physician stationed on the banks of the Yangtze River made the following entry on Aug. 11, 1940:

"Well, when it came time for her internal examination, she became more and more embarrassed and wouldn't take off her pants.... When I had her lie down on the bed and began conducting a pelvic exam, she frantically scratched at my hand. When I looked up, she was crying. It seems that she cried for a long time after leaving the room.

"It was the same with the next young woman, and I got so upset I wanted to cry as well .... This kind of work doesn't appeal to me, and the awareness that I am trampling on their humanity is never far from my mind."

In contrast to this and other fairly lengthy first-person narratives of professional Japanese men who share a keen sensitivity to comfort women, we get one substantial paragraph that represents a perpetrator, yet it is a perpetrator of the most guileless sort, the ordinary Japanese soldier:

"When we arrived at the rooms where the women were quartered, the soldiers would line up with numbers in hand. They all wanted to be free from the stress of the singular experience of having walked the line between life and death. They stood there waiting, with their pants unbuttoned, fumbling with loincloths long since turned a dingy gray and fidgeting--is it my turn yet? is it my turn yet? ... We thought there was no sense of fulfillment that burned so intensely as this."

Yoshiaki refers to this scene as "tragic," characterizing these Japanese soldiers as trying to "grasp a fleeting sense of fulfillment and to release the stress of the battlefield." But in counterpoint to Yoshiaki's sympathetic presentation of a number of male positions, we hear little directly from the comfort women themselves.

Yoshiaki acknowledges this shortcoming in Chapter 3 of "Comfort Women." He claims that many Korean and Philippine women's lack of education perhaps accounts for the confusion and contradictions in their statements. Yet Yoshiaki defends the importance of direct testimony because it provides material unavailable through official documents. However, one cannot help but notice that in contrast to several first-person male narratives, with a fair preponderance of those being testimony of men in the helping professions, the comfort women themselves are frequently presented only indirectly. Even for the stories of comfort women Yoshiaki interviewed himself, he converts their testimony from the first person to the third, so that their voices are filtered through his voice. Thus, after a brief introductory paragraph, the section titled "Seizing Women by Force in the Philippines" reads:

"Maria Rosa Luna Henson's father was a landowner in Angeles on the island of Luzon. Her mother was his maid. In 1942, after the Japanese invasion, when Maria was gathering firewood in an evacuated village, she was raped by a Japanese soldier. She was fourteen years old at the time. The following year, she was riding in a cart pulled by a water buffalo with some members of a guerrilla group resisting the Japanese occupation when they were stopped at a Japanese army checkpoint in the city of Angeles. She was the only one in the group taken away. She was imprisoned in a hospital used as a barracks by the Japanese army. Then she was moved to a building that had once been a rice mill and forced to have intercourse with Japanese soldiers. Since she was subjected to examinations for sexually transmitted diseases once a week, it is probably safe to consider this set-up a military comfort station."

One other case history, shorter than Henson's and written by Yoshiaki in a similarly colorless, utilitarian prose, completes the brief section, except for the statement at the end that incidents like those just described were one cause of "guerrilla activity against the Japanese army." Could we not have more on this? One cannot help but wonder what Henson was doing riding with members of a guerrilla group that resisted the Japanese occupation. Was she a resistance fighter? We don't know. The comfort women themselves simply do not achieve that level of agency in Yoshiaki's hands.

This is equally the case with women scholars and advocates of the comfort women. One is surprised that Kim-Gibson, in whose PBS documentary film Yoshiaki makes two substantial appearances, never appears in Yoshiaki's book, not even in a note or in his bibliography.

Ultimately, "Comfort Women" is limited by the very facticity and neutrality it seeks to achieve. A number of important questions are not addressed. For example, Yoshiaki is careful to trace the changes in the Japanese military's apparatus for comfort women as the "15-Year War" against China evolved. But Yoshiaki does not provide any real analysis of these developments or how the practices that grew out of them affected the women, nor does he reflect on the meaning of the comfort women as part of Japan's colonial policies. Korea remained a colony of Japan until 1945, a date that one of the women filmed by Kim-Gibson refers to as the liberation of her country. This was why Japan preferred Korean and Taiwanese comfort women: It sidestepped the problem of international trafficking in women by trafficking in women who were its colonial subjects.

Yoshiaki never explores the particularities and differences among the various comfort women's experiences. And in the end, his well-constructed institutional history of military comfort women does not unfold into the political, social or cultural analysis that the material clearly demands.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°