The entire Japanese government, not just the military, was involved in the decision to provide sex slaves, euphemistically called “comfort women,” for soldiers before and during World War II, Japanese researchers said Thursday at an international conference in Los Angeles on Japan’s war crimes.
“The establishment and development of the military ‘comfort women’ system . . . was not only carried out by the total involvement of every section of the military but also by administrative machinery at every level of the Japanese state,” historian Hirofumi Hayashi of Kanto-Gakuin University in Yokohama told the conference on “Japanese Crimes Against Humanity: Sexual Slavery and Forced Labor.” “In addition, we should not overlook that Japanese companies were their accomplices.”
The Japanese military’s use of sex slaves was rumored after the end of the war but did not become widely known to the public until 1991. The research disclosed at the conference provided new, higher estimates of the number of women who were exploited as well as details not previously released in the United States about involvement of broad sectors of the Japanese government and private businesses in the system.
For example, scholars from the Center for Research and Documentation of Japan’s War Responsibilities in Yokohama presented research showing that major rubber companies were enlisted by the Japanese government to supply 20 million condoms a year to the armed forces once the decision had been made to provide women to the soldiers.
Because of the military’s demand for condoms, the supply for civilians became “almost nil,” researcher Rumiko Nishino wrote. The distribution of condoms within the military was implemented by “high-ranking adjutants” commissioned by Cabinet- and sub-Cabinet-level officials, she wrote.
The research center, established in 1993, is the first nongovernmental organization dedicated to research into war victimization by Japan in Asia.
After Japan invaded Manchuria in 1937, the government created the Imperial Conference, composed of the emperor, the military and the leading Cabinet ministers. This body made all important decisions for the state, including approving the policy on comfort women, Hayashi said.
Because so many sensitive documents were destroyed by the Japanese government, Hayashi said he cannot ascertain whether Emperor Hirohito personally signed off on the sex slave system.
But as the head of state, the emperor was the “supreme commander” of the government, Hayashi said. “He certainly had the power to stop it.”
Other research presented at the conference indicates that the actual number of sex slaves may have been closer to 400,000 than the 200,000 previously estimated by a United Nations human rights agency.
Su Zhi Liang, a history professor from Shanghai Teachers University, noted that the U.N. estimate did not take into account China, because China came into the research picture much later than some of its Asian neighbors.
In Shanghai alone, the Japanese military set up 90 sex stations, with about 500 women serving soldiers at each station, Su said.
Based on his research, Su believes Chinese women constituted the largest number conscripted by the Japanese, followed by Koreans, then other Asian and Dutch women from countries that Japan occupied during the war.
"[The comfort women system] was one of the greatest crimes committed against humanity during World War II,” he said. “It is a chapter . . . that should not be allowed to be forgotten.”
As scholars presented their research papers, Ok-Seon Lee, a 75-year-old former sex slave who traveled from Seoul to attend the conference, said she was grateful for their work.
“I cannot thank them enough,” she said.
Lee, who was abducted in 1942 at age 16 by agents of the Japanese government, said she was taken to China, where she was forced to serve Japanese soldiers until the end of the war.
“I am filled with han,” she said, using a Korean word that translates approximately as “unrequited woe.” “Nothing--not even the deaths of every Japanese soldier--can bring back my lost life.”
Most of the sex slaves died during the war, many at the hands of soldiers. Survivors and human rights activists have demanded that Japan provide compensation and a formal apology. The Japanese government has resisted, arranging only for a privately funded organization to pay limited sums to the surviving women to avoid admitting official responsibility. Many of the women have refused to take money from the private group.
Ken Arimitsu, coordinator for the International Campaign for Redress, said nothing less than international pressure--especially from the United States--can change the government’s position.
“We [advocates] are a minority of Japanese society, so we need strong support from outside Japan,” Arimitsu said.
Edward T. Chang, professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside and organizer of the conference, said he hopes the international gathering, which concludes today, will help inform the American public and create an international network of researchers and scholars to do joint research.
“Americans know much about the Nazi atrocities against the Jews, but they know very little of the atrocities committed against Asians by the Japanese military,” he said.