On September 8, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology gave five textbook publishers permission to revise the language describing women the Imperial Japan forced into sexual slavery before and during the Second World War, as well as those forced to work as laborers
The publishers will be allowed to use the phrase “comfort women” instead of “military comfort women” and drop the phrase “forced conscription” for those compelled to work against their will.
Asked on September 13 about the changes, Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called them “Japan’s latest attempt to meddle with textbooks and play with words to blur the historical facts.”
“The forced recruitment of ‘comfort women’ is a grave crime against humanity committed by the Japanese militarism. It is a historical fact with iron-clad and undeniable evidence,” Zhao said.
He added that “Japan should honestly face up to and reflect on its history of aggression,” and “properly handle the ‘comfort women’ issue in an honest and responsible manner.”
Although documentation is incomplete, records have surfaced showing the Japanese military played a direct role in forcing women to work in frontline brothels.
According to the Asian Women's Fund, which Japan’s government established in 1994 to provide compensation to “comfort women,” “wartime comfort women” were taken to so-called “comfort stations … established at the request of the Japanese military authorities.”
Citing military documents, the fund said private agents set up brothels for Japanese servicemen in China around the time the Japanese seized Mukden (modern day Shengyang) in 1931. The number of such comfort stations grew rapidly when the Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937.
Scholars have directly linked the establishment of comfort stations to the damage done to Japan’s international image after the Rape of Nanjing or Nanjing Massacre, a six-week period of mass murders and rapes committed by Imperial Japanese troops in China’s former capital of Nanjing.
Carmen Argiba, a former member of Argentina’s supreme court and a judge in the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery, wrote:
“By confining rape and sexual abuse to military-controlled facilities, the Japanese government hoped to prevent atrocities like the Rape of Nanking or, if such atrocities did occur, to conceal them from the international press.”
Comfort women were forced into sexual slavery throughout Asia, including Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam.
Korean writer Kim Il Myon has claimed that perhaps 90 percent of comfort women were Korean. That figure is unsubstantiated, although a large number of the victims of forced sexual labor were Korean.
The Asian Women's Fund noted that “there are no documents with comprehensive data one could use to determine the total number,” and that it is unlikely such documents were ever compiled. It added that estimates vary depending on the “basic assumptions” of the research and methodology applied.
Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a professor of Japanese modern history at Chuo University in Tokyo, who first found evidence that the Imperial Japanese Army set up and ran “comfort stations,” estimates there were 50,000 to 200,000 comfort women.
Erin Blakemore wrote on History.com that there are few records of the women’s subjugation. Citing "War and Public Health", by Barry Levy and Victor Sidel, Bakemore wrote “there are very few survivors and an estimated 90 percent of ‘comfort women’ did not survive the war.”
As The Japan Times newspaper wrote in 2007, Japanese politicians have claimed there was no evidence proving the Japanese military played a direct role “in ‘forcibly taking’ women to military brothels.”
However, documents that the Dutch, French and Chinese governments submitted to the 1946 International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal) showed otherwise.
In 2007, a group of historians discovered seven trial documents, which, according to The Japan Times, “suggest[ed] the Japanese military directly forced women to work at some of their frontline brothels in Indonesia, China, East Timor and Vietnam.”
Prosecution Document No. 5330 read:
“The Special Naval Police (Tokei Tai) had ordered to keep the brothels supplied with women; to this end they arrested women on the streets and after enforced medical examination placed them in the brothels.”
Another document noted the brothels were “surrounded by barbed wire” and the women were only allowed to leave “with special permission.”
Apart from China, South Korea’s foreign ministry called the approved textbook changes “regrettable,” saying it is an “undeniable fact” the military comfort women were forced into sexual slavery.
In 1991, Kim Hak-soon was the first South Korean to testify about her experiences as a sexual slave, bringing international attention to demands for reparations and a full apology from the Japanese government.
In December of that year, 35 members of the Association of Korean Victims, including three victims of sexual slavery, sued the Japanese government in Tokyo District Court over those rights violations during the Second World War.
That court denied their demand for compensation, a decision which Japan’s Supreme Court upheld in 2004. U.S. courts have rejected similar cases, with a court of appeals finding “the courts of the United States simply are not authorized to hear their case.”
Other lawsuits followed.
In 2015, Japan and Korea reached an agreement in which Japan apologized to former comfort women and agreed to provide 1 billion yen (currently $9.1 million) to a fund to help them. In return, Japan said the “issue is resolved finally and irreversibly.”
But in 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called the agreement flawed, adding, “It cannot solve the comfort women issue.”
This past April, Seoul Central District Court found against former comfort women, arguing Japan could not be subject to civil lawsuits filed in another country under international law. The following month, the plaintiffs said they would appeal.
The 2015 agreement notwithstanding, the Japanese government has maintained that claims related to its colonial rule in Korea (1910-1945) were settled by the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea.
In 1996, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights advocated Korea’s position that the bilateral agreement only covered property, and not personal, damages.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women recommended that Japan acknowledge the Imperial Army’s creation of those comfort stations violated international law “and accept legal responsibility for that violation.”
The special rapporteur further recommended that Japan’s government compensate the victims of sexual slavery, release all documents and materials related to the comfort stations, apologize to the survivors and, when possible, punish the surviving perpetrators.