By Dr Dan Steinbock
Dr Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognised strategist of the multipolar world and the founder of the Difference Group.
In early December, a memorial was erected along the Roxas Boulevard facing the Manila Bay. It commemorates the Filipino “comfort women”, who were forced to work as sex slaves in the Japanese military brothels during World War II. Soon thereafter, a spokeswoman from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was “extremely regrettable” that statues commemorating the “comfort women” had been erected.
In reality, the extent of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery has been downplayed, until recently.
According to the conservative historian Ikuhiko Hata, there were barely 20,000 “comfort women” during the 1930s to 1940s and most of them were willing prostitutes, with no or minimal direct involvement from the Japanese military. However, the very notion of the “comfort women” is a euphemism for sex slaves and historical revisionism. In fact, even Hata’s initial estimate of the “comfort women” was 90,000 but he revised the figure following his political alignment with the Japanese conservatives in the late 1990s.
Today, the actual number of Japan’s wartime sex slaves is estimated at some 200,000 women. According to some Chinese scholars in Shanghai, where a “comfort station” was established in 1932, the actual number of “comfort women” may have been nearly 400,000.
Contrary to what Hata and the other Japanese historians would like to believe, these women were not prostitutes and the Japanese military was certainly involved. Most of these women were from the areas occupied by Imperial Japan, particularly from China and Korea, but also from the Philippines. Like Shanghai, “comfort stations” were also set up in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, East Timor and other such territories under Japan. Additionally, hundreds of women in the region were also from the Netherlands and Australia.
The international debate
Japan’s protest in the Philippines is a part of a regional debate. In December 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the South Korean President Park Geun-Hye reached an agreement to settle the “comfort women” dispute. Tokyo agreed to pay $8.3 million to a fund created for supporting the surviving victims and in exchange, South Korea would refrain from criticizing Japan regarding this issue and would also work to remove the memorial statue of the victims. However, this strange pact has been criticized by the current South Korean President.
Recently, Seoul has demanded more recognition for its victims. As the UN Committee on the ‘Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women’ said in 2016: “An unequivocal, official apology recognizing the full responsibility of the then-Japanese government and military, as well as adequate reparations would protect and uphold the victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation.” Yet, last fall, a UNESCO committee deferred its decision on the listing of the ”comfort women” archives on its Memory of the World Register, which preserves documentary heritages after Japan’s inability to pay its UNESCO dues.
Thereafter, the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) called on Japan to acknowledge its violation of the human rights of the “comfort women”, to take legal responsibility for the same and to punish the individuals responsible for the issue. The OHCHR also expressed its concerns regarding the Japanese government’s revisions of the history textbooks. As these debates continue, the remaining “comfort women” are passing away, amidst a painful struggle for recognition.
So why do Japan and its allies wish to do away with this pertinent issue? The simple answer is that the matter is intimate to Tokyo, and to Washington.
Imperial Japan’s sexual slavery in the 1930s and 40s
Unlike his predecessors, Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister and the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, has far-right views about history. He would like to restore the “honour” of his beloved grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, and the romanticized wartime generation.
That is why in the late 1990s, Abe led the Japanese history textbook reform, which downplays the Japanese war crimes. This is also why he had publicly questioned the history of the “comfort women” and had stated that the Class A war criminals were not criminals under Japan’s domestic law. For him, the two issues were intertwined.
In Japan, Abe comes from a family of significant political lineage. His grandfather Kan Abe and father Shintaro Abe were prominent politicians. His mother is the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi, Japan’s former Prime Minister and America’s key ally in the late 1950s.
However, starting in 1933, Kishi attacked the democracies and praised Nazi Germany as Japan’s model. As he spent time in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, he built ties with the Japanese “total war” militarists, statist “reform bureaucrats”, business leaders and was involved in the opium trade with the Yakuza which was used to keep the Chinese labour “in line.”
In 1937, Kishi signed a decree calling for the use of slave labour in Manchukuo and northern China. The enslavement of men paved the way for the exploitation of the Chinese and Korean women as sex slaves and the expansion of sexual slavery into the Japanese colonies in Asia. As a believer in the Yamato race theory, Kishi thought that the racially superior Japan was destined to rule Asia “eternally.” Due to Kishi’s brutal rule in Manchukuo and his participation in the Tojo War Cabinet during World War II, he was imprisoned for over three years as a Class A war crime suspect—until Washington’s Cold War architects intervened.
In the post-war era, prominent Nazis were prosecuted in the Nuremberg trials during the mid-1940s. In the 1950s, America was amid the Cold War. So in Japan, many war leaders were enlisted by the U.S. to suppress the Japanese communists and socialists. That’s how Kishi was released from the Sugamo Prison and came to be known as the “favourite war criminal of America.” He played a key role in the creation of the “1955 System”, which made the Liberal Democratic Party the dominant political force in Japan and America’s key ally – until today.
This is the history that Abe would prefer revising.
The present-day scenario
At the end of the day, wartime sex slaves are not “just history”. In Japan, the lingering imperial fantasies contribute to the economic decline. Abe’s economic reforms, though controversial, are undermined by his politics, which promotes divisive remilitarisation and US-style state secrecy laws that many Japanese oppose. Regionally, revisionist views continue to alienate Japan from its regional neighbours.
Economically, Japan is one of the world’s ten most competitive countries, according to World Economic Forum (WEF). Yet, it’s ranking in the WEF Global Gender Gap Report is deplorable. In gender equality, Japan is not among the top 10, not even among the top 100, but is at the 114th position; well behind Myanmar, India, Nepal and barely ahead of Ethiopia and Nigeria.
In Japan, the forced silence about wartime sexual slavery is a part of a broader legacy of sexual discrimination that casts a long shadow over the position of women, their development and their economic potential.
So, if one simple statue in Manila can remind us about Japan’s wartime sexual slavery and that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, this will ultimately unite us against all that is wrong everywhere.
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