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Approches critiques de la pensée japonaise du xxe siècle

Livia Monnet

Genre sexuel (gender), sexualité et la construction de l'histoire

Narratives of the Past

Against Historical Revisionism on “Comfort Women”

Ueno Chizuko

Texte intégral

  • 1 This paper is based in part on chapter 2 of my book Nashonanzumu to jendā (Engendering Nationalism(...)

1Changes in the story1 of the past refashion the history of that past. This is best in the case of the historical epitomized representation of military “comfort women,” a system of sexual slavery organized by the Japanese imperial army during the Asian-Pacific war. In this paper I focus on the shifts in postwar narratives concerning “comfort women”. I will show how these narratives construct the history, both of the victimized women and of the war. In this sense, history is a continuous construction of the past in the present. History does not belong to the past, but to the present. My attempt to historicize various accounts by and on the so-called “comfort women” also involves a contextualized critical examination of the discourse on historical revisionism in Japan in the late 1990s. This latter analysis represents a conscious effort to politicize existing historiography’s naive and misguided positivism – an unquestioning faith in material evidence considered neutral and objective – by showing that any historical evidence or representation is situated at the intersection of gender, class, race and national identity.

The Historical Background of “Comfort Women”

2“Comfort women” (jūgun ianfu) is a euphemism used by the Japanese imperial army during the war to designate the system of sexual slavery it created. What this term conceals is the reality of forced sexual labor performed by, or the systematic, continuous rape of vast numbers of Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese and even Dutch women recruited by Japanese military troops.

  • 2 This essay examines only the case of Korean “comfort women”, as a host of other factors must be co (...)

3Even though the wartime forced mobilization of women for sexual labor for the army was widely known and a wealth of historical material was available, the issue did not become a topic for debate until 1991, when one of the Korean victims, Kim Haksoon, sued the Japanese government for a formal apology and individual compensation.2 The diaries, documents and memoirs of former imperial army soldiers describe the men’s contacts with comfort women openly, without any sense of shame. Some of these authors even reminisce nostalgically, and with a certain fondness, about their interaction with those “poor” women at a critical moment in their lives.

4The “comfort women” issue constitutes a “crime without a victim,” since none of the surviving former sexual slaves has until recently had the courage to identify herself as a victim. Confucianist ethic has silenced them, attributing the shame to the victim, but not to the offender. This is a “complete crime” in which the offender can erase all of the crime evidence and suppress the voice of victims. It is a crime which sounds similar to the Nazi policy of extermination by gas chambers: since no victims returned alive from the gas chambers because it is so efficient and fatal, there are no witnesses to prove the crime. The soldiers who describe fondly the selfless “comfort women” in their diaries have never considered themselves criminals. However, when Kim came out of a long enforced silence to denounce the system, a radical paradigm shift took place.

  • 3 For historical information on “comfort women,” see Yoshimi (1995), Young et al. (1992) and others.

5Before analyzing this paradigm shift, which is the main focus of this paper, let me give a brief historical background of “comfort women.”3 After the Nanjing Massacre in 1937, “comfort stations” (ianjo) were established throughout China and subsequently on the battle front in Asia. The Japanese military force began to show concern with respect to the frequent reported rapes of local Chinese women by Japanese soldiers, which caused rage among the Chinese and made the occupation more difficult. Rape was illegal even under the military code, and a violator was supposed to be punished, but in practice, it remained mostly uncontrolled and unpunished. Working under the patriarchal assumption that male sexuality is uncontrollable and motivated by a concern about the hygiene of the military force, the Japanese government forbade soldiers to visit local brothels, introducing instead comfort stations under military control.

6The occupation administration had these reasons to establish this sexual institution:

  1. To prevent soldiers from raping local women.
  2. To protect soldiers from venereal diseases that could damage the military force.
  3. To prevent soldiers from making contact with “enemies” as the latter were susceptible of leaking military secrets.

7Because of these circumstances, it was mostly Korean women who were recruited for sexual service. Korean women also met the military requirements: first they were “imperial subjects” living in Japanese colonies (Korea was integrated into the Japanese empire in 1910); secondly they were young women who had no previous experience of prostitution, and therefore fitted the “hygienic” purpose. They were even referred to as “sanitary public toilets” in military slang. The sources consulted indicate a varying number of recruited women, somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000. Japanese women were also recruited but they were mostly experienced prostitutes who had worked in brothels, so that for “hygienic” purposes Korean women were preferred. Still there was a racial hierarchy between them: while Japanese comfort women served officers, Korean women were assigned to lower-ranking soldiers, and service charge was also required according to the category to which the women belonged.

8As Japan’s military conquered further territories in Southeast Asia, women from Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and even Dutch women living in Indonesia under Japanese occupation were recruited for sexual slavery.

9At the end of the war, these women were killed or simply abandoned on the battlefield. Most of them died, and even the survivors did not have the courage to go home, ashamed as they were of their past, and fearful that they would be rejected by their families. Some managed to return to their families, and found themselves sterile. The few former “comfort women” who married and had children never talked about their “shameful” past to their kin. Japanese aggressors had succeeded in silencing the victims.

A Paradigm Change

  • 4 There were about six hundred thousand Koreans living in Japan at the time of the San Francisco Tre (...)

10In 1991 Kim Haksoon, a survivor of military sexual slavery, broke the silence for the first time since the end of war, which caused a great shock in Japan. Support groups were immediately organized among Japanese women as well as Korean women living in Japan,4 which in turn encouraged another victim, So Shin Dok, a Korean woman who stayed in Japan after the war, to sue the Japanese government.

11The shock was twofold: it was on the one hand caused by the revelation of the horrible sexual crimes of the Japanese military and imperial army; on the other hand by the realization of the silence imposed upon the victims for nearly half a century. One might wonder why it took so long for the former “comfort women” to break the silence. In this respect, Korean and Japanese patriarchal societies, with their oppressive Confucianist ethic, bear a heavy responsibility. The crime does not belong to the past: it is a ongoing crime because the victims are still forced to keep silent. They have a hard time reconstructing their past with dignity, because recollection itself is prohibited, even though many of them are still traumatized by their painful experience.

12The claim for financial compensation put forward by the former “comfort women” has precedents. As in the case of Nazi Germany, labor was recruited by force from Japanese colonies and territories under Japanese occupation to compensate for the loss of labor force on the domestic market. After Japans defeat in World War II, Korean and Taiwanese citizens who were forced to do labor in Japan under the wartime system, began to sue the Japanese government for individual compensation. These lawsuits have continually failed, as the Japanese domestic legal system could not be applied to “foreigners.” When Japan was forced to give up its overseas colonies, in the wake of its defeat by the Allies, Japanese citizenship which had been imposed on the colonized people by the Japanese colonial administration, was immediately withdrawn. This of course allowed Japan to evade its responsibility toward Korea and Taiwan as former colonies. The forced military service and forced labor performed by former Japanese colonial subjects have never been compensated, resulting in a blatantly unfair treatment of those who sued the government. However, when three Korean former “comfort women”, including Kim Haksoon, joined to take a group lawsuit to the court, the existing paradigm was changed.

13Sexual labor requires a different story. If it is a matter of unpaid forced work for which a claim for adequate compensation is submitted, no stigma is attached to the type of labor in question. However, when it comes to sexual work, the “shame” is attributed to the victim. It was not until the 1990s that a paradigm shift took place, as an outcome of the feminist movement, which made it possible for victimized women to view themselves as victims.

14Interestingly, the paradigm shift preceded the first “coming out” of the victims of sexual slavery. In the late 1980s, a group of Korean women actively denounced the sexual crime of the Japanese imperial army, and called for former “comfort women” to testify on their experiences in public. Kim Haksoon responded to their request. Without the activities of these support groups as well as the changes in narratives of the war and war responsibility they brought about, the self-identification and speaking out of the former sexual slaves would not have been possible.

15Prior to this activism, another event paved the way for the paradigm shift in the perception of wartime sexual crimes. In the mid 1980s, a Korean female student activist was arrested, raped and sexually tortured by the police of the military regime at the time. With the support of her friends, she decided to make this crime public, which contributed a great deal to the fact that rape came to be regarded, not as the shame of the women who were victims of the sexual violation, but as a patriarchal crime. The rise of a new feminist consciousness in Korea in the 1980s made a difference.

The Patriarchal Paradigm

16In order to have a clear understanding of what the paradigm shift mentioned above consisted in, we have to examine the assumptions of and context for the earlier paradigms. There are several historical narratives on “comfort women,” each of which presents a totally different view of the realities of the wartime sexual slavery system.

17The first authoritative discourse I want to look at is what may be called the patriarchal paradigm. When Kim Haksoon identified herself as a former “comfort woman” and spoke out on the sexual labor she was forced to perform, some Korean men were embarrassed by her testimony, viewing it as a woman’s “shameful past” that amounted to a gross violation of Confucianist ethics. Some even critiqued the former “Comfort Women” for reopening the wound of Korea’s colonial history, during which Korean men were unable to defend their women from the violence of the Japanese imperial army. Some men were ashamed of themselves for losing control. Yamashita Yoengae has written that in the beginning the claims of the former Korean “comfort women” for individual compensation from Japan met with wide opposition as their lawsuit harmed the Korean national pride (Yamashita 1996: 43). In this sense Korean patriarchy is responsible for the ongoing crime of silencing most of the victims. It made them choose not to return to their homeland, because Korean society would not accept stigmatized women.

18The shame these women were made to feel derives from patriarchal ideologies, which define women’s sexuality as men’s property. Since Korean women’s sexuality belongs to Korean men, the fact that Korean “comfort women” were exploited as sex slaves was construed as Korean men’s failure to protect their women from violation by Japanese men. This serves to explain why rape caused great anger among occupied or colonized people, because they correctly interpreted it as the most serious humiliation of their community. Patriarchal discourse constructs the issue as a conflict between men over women’s sexuality, which is represented as a fetishized object. It is a game of honor with women as a reward.

19The Korean non-fiction writer, Kim Iruben (1976), wrote a history of comfort women in the early 1970s, in which he stressed the feminine virtues of virginity and chastity of the victimized Korean women. He attempts to construct a sharp contrast between the innocence and purity of the Korean victimized women on the one hand, and the nature of the service they had to provide on the other hand. Feminist critic Maruyama Yukiko, has called attention to the traditional patriarchal discourse in Kim’s writing.

The more Kim stresses the purity and virtue of Korean women, the more suspicious I am about the oppressive nature of Korean society. Women cannot be happy in a society that severely requires them to keep their chastity. Women’s subordination cannot and must not be made into a signifier of the respectability of that society (Maruyama 1977, 1995: 194).

20Feminist historiography has vigorously rejected the patriarchal values praised by Kim Iruben. The Japanese and Korean governments have agreed that the compensation issue was solved by the treaty between the two countries in 1965, yet feminists continue to support victims who claim individual compensation because this particular aspect has never been taken care of by the two governments. The claimants and their support groups activate a logic that challenges patriarchal discourse. The feminist activist, Yamazaki Hiromi, points out rhetorically that individual rights cannot be reduced to the state.

If a woman is raped and the offender proposes a compensation to her father and husband and they agree to receive it, is that acceptable? (Yamazaki 1995).

21Feminist discourse and activism have insisted that women’s sexuality belongs to women alone, that they must have the autonomy to own and control their own bodies.

The “Prostitution” Paradigm

22The concept of women’s autonomy becomes problematic when it is applied to an institution such as prostitution. The term “comfort women” was seldom questioned as it was taken for granted as a designation for women who earned their living as prostitutes.

23In this respect, the use of language plays a crucial role: not only did the Japanese terms “comfort station” (ianjo) and “comfort women” (ianfu) obscure the reality of the recruited women’s forced sexual labor, but the English translation of these words – “military brothels” and “prostitutes”, respectively – was just as misleading and problematic. It is only recently that these terms have been replaced with the much more adequate concept of military sexual slavery. Grounded in a conservative, male-centered Victorian construction of sexuality that positioned male sexual desire as uncontrollable, wartime discourses made allowances for military prostitution as an inevitable evil accompanying the war, and which was more tolerable than rape.

24There is ample evidence that the Japanese military attempted to disguise the “comfort stations” in China and Southeast Asia as military brothels. Each soldier paid a fixed price for the “services” of “comfort women” who received a certain amount of military notes that turned out to be valueless after the war.

25Out of a sense of “shame”, the military had brokers and pimps run the stations on their behalf; a direct involvement by the occupation authorities was considered damaging to the dignity and authority of the imperial army. The traffic in women was carried out in secret, as the navy boats were not supposed to transport anything but military goods and soldiers. Women sent to “comfort stations” were classified as “military goods” without attached lists of names. Insofar as the assigning of Japanese women to such stations was concerned, the Japanese government had considered it a “shame” to export “prostitutes” abroad, and banned the issuing of visas for those women. Nevertheless many women were sent to the battle front through illegal routes.

26Like the patriarchal paradigm, the prostitution paradigm seriously misrepresents the reality of military sexual slavery. To begin with, in spite of the precautions taken by the military, the forced nature of the sexual service was evident, as we can gather from the testimonies of both offenders and victims. Secondly, this paradigm divides women again into “good women” and “bad women.” If there is even the slightest agreement on the woman’s side and if she doesn’t turn down the reward proposed to her for her sexual service, she is considered a person with an autonomous agency, she has no one else to blame but herself. She will have to endure society’s condemnation as a “whore”. This paradigm had kept most of the “comfort women” silent, and has made it especially difficult for Japanese victims to speak out in public.

27The prostitution paradigm also blurs the continuity between military prostitution and rape. Military prostitution is a common sight in all military bases with the UN Peace Keeping Force constituting no exception; in these cases, women are likely to be recruited by force and deception for sexual slavery as Korean women during the Greater East Asian War. Moreover, it has been proven that military prostitution does not automatically reduce the risk of rape, as shown in the case of the rape of a twelve-year old girl in Okinawa by American GI’s in 1995. Yet the media representation of this girl as an innocent victim was done in such a way as to allow for two earlier cases of gang rape, one of a 23 year-old woman and another of a 19 year-old woman, to be exonerated. In each case the victim in question was portrayed as consenting on the strength of the assumption that she was a mature adult that could decide for herself. The assumed pure innocence of rape victims is a patriarchal requirement.

  • 5 Tanaka Toshiyuki (1996), a Japanese historian teaching in Australia, points out that the Tōkyō Int (...)

28In the fourth place, the prostitution paradigm as it has been formulated so far does not allow for one of the most serious and ubiquitous crimes against women – their sexual violation in its various forms from rape to torture to prostitution – to emerge in all its complexity and universality. In fact, a number of studies have shown that all parties involved in World War II, including the allied forces, organized a system of military prostitution similar to that of Japan. The military, who had learned from the experience of World War I, were bent on protecting soldiers from venereal diseases. The hygienic regulation of prostitutes shows striking similarities among the belligerent countries. In the Japanese case, “comfort women” were called, in a characteristic degrading way, “sanitary public toilets.” Soldiers were prohibited from visiting local brothels and ordered to use the comfort stations exclusively, which enabled the military authorities to exercise a strict control on their bodies and sexuality. The occupation army in Japan, which benefited from a similar service provided by Japanese women and hastily set up by the Japanese government after the defeat, may be said to have shared the view of the former Japanese imperial army’s headquarters, as there never was any consideration of the women’s position (Tanaka 1996).5 In addition (and again symptomatically), the existence of so-called “recreation facilities” for occupation soldiers did not stop them from raping local women.

The Sexual Slavery Paradigm

29Frustrated by the Japanese government’s hesitant, ineffectual attitude and reluctance to assume the responsibility for the “comfort women” issue, Korean and Japanese activists took the case to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. A small research committee, chaired by Ms. Kmaraswami, was formed. Kmaraswami issued a report based on interviews with the victims, in which she defined “comfort women” as sexual slavery. Since then, the term, “sexual slavery” has been widely used among activists and supporters, as it seems to capture well the reality of the victims’ experiences. The concept also helps to bridge the historical past with contemporary issues such as “ethnic cleansing camps” in Bosnia-Herzegovina, successfully reminding the world that the brutality of sexual assault accompanying all wars does not belong to the past. The issue of “Violence against women under armed conflict” became one of the major topics of debate at the Beijing Womens Conference in 1995.

30The difference in the narratives subtending the “prostitution” and the “sexual slavery” paradigms points to the enormous gap between the lived realities of offenders and victims. The use of the word “comfort women” has been sharply criticized by supporters who asked emphatically, “comfort for whom?”. The parties involved by no means shared the “same experience.” What was experienced as comfort by the offenders was felt as excruciating pain by the victims. Though “comfort women” is a historical term employed by the Japanese military, it does not represent the reality of victims, but rather conceals the crime behind the façade of its euphemism.

31“Sexual slavery” has become common vocabulary among activists involved in the movement of support of the former “comfort women”. This type of sexual labor is now defined as a case of human rights violation of women, which clearly situates this particular historical issue in a universal context. Here again, note that the creation of the concept of “sexual slavery” predated the actual tackling of the “comfort women” issue by the UN Commission of Human Rights. The paradigm is invented first, and the particular issue fitting the latter is “discovered” subsequently.

32Notwithstanding its undeniable contribution to the promotion of the victims’ cause, the seemingly universal model of sexual-slavery-as-human-rights-violation has its own flaws. First, it does not capture the diversity of experiences of the victims. In some cases the concept aptly represents the forced nature of the sexual labor, but in other cases it denies the reality of poor women who were recruited with the deceptive enticement of making a profit to help out their families. Though poverty undoubtedly works as a socially coercive power, a type of violence systematically enforced on women, the “sexual slavery” paradigm seems to reintroduce and reinforce the distinction between victims and “collaborators.”

33Secondly, as a result, it fails to adequately conceptualize and question military prostitution, and accordingly divides women again into “pure victims” and “impure victims.”

34The sexual slavery paradigm tends to favor the representation of the “pure victim”; the story it usually proposes is that of an innocent maiden who was kidnapped one day by an armed military agent and who, needless to say, was completely unaware of what was going to happen. She was raped and forced to do sexual labor against her will. She tried to commit suicide or to run away, but failed, was brutally punished, and somehow survived the living hell of the sexual slavery...

35There is no denying the fact that in some cases this scenario really happened, and I greatly admire the courage of the survivors, who showed considerable strength in their determination to live and to tell their story. However, there is a risk of privileging one type of “model victim” which will result in excluding “impure victims” from the category of sexually victimized women. It goes without saying that this type of representation of victims oppresses some women, as they will hesitate to self-identify as former sexual slaves if they think that their experience does not fit the narrative.

The “Racism” Paradigm: Ethnic Termination

36Various accounts of the “comfort women” issue have attempted to portray it as a catastrophic event at the intersection of racism and sexism. Some Korean women have condemned the military institution of “comfort women” as a Japanese colonial policy of ethnic termination, by claiming that it aimed at destroying the reproductive potential of Korean women, thus putting an end to the Korean people. Such claims are based on the evidence of returnee “comfort women” who were unable to bear children because of the exploitation of their bodies under the Japanese military sexual slavery system.

37This paradigm derives from associations with the Final Solution in Nazi Germany as well as with the brutalization of women in “ethnic cleansing camps” in Bosnia, and aims at constructing the “comfort women” issue as a Japanese counterpart of the Holocaust.

38Though understandable as a reaction of rage and frustration toward the Japanese government and the Japanese nation, which have been reluctant to take responsibility, this discourse easily gets trapped in the premises of a long tradition of anti-Japanese nationalism in Korea. By reducing the “comfort women” issue to a conflict over national interests, it will end up colluding with the aims of patriarchal nationalism. In this sense the racism paradigm is similar to the nationalist one, as it identifies women’s experience with the national experience as a purely emotional issue, which of course depoliticizes the gender difference.

The Feminist Paradigm: Violence Against Women

39On the other hand, there is the risk in feminist discourses on the “comfort women” issue to construe all women as – at least potential – victims of violence. The concept of “woman” has been challenged by postmodern feminists as well as by ethnic minority women and lesbians. The slogan “Sisterhood is global”, which rested on the assumption of an “imagined community” of all women across cultures and which served as the motto of radical feminist and women’s movements in the 1970s, is no longer defendable, as it obscures the diversity in women’s experiences and fails to recognize conflicts among them.

40Violence against women was a central topic of discussion at the 1995 UN Women’s Conference in Beijing. It designates various forms of violence, from domestic violence to military sexual slavery, and has been used as a paradigm for questioning the violent nature of patriarchy. On the other hand, by representing women as passive victims of patriarchal oppression, this discourse has failed to provide them with agency, which in some cases works to reinforce patriarchy.

41The universal paradigm of violence against women serves feminists as a seductive trap. At the workshop I organized together with other women at the ngo site at the Beijing Conference, I elaborated on the necessity to transcend national boundaries in order to establish transnational networks of solidarity and cooperation. This appeal met with bitter criticism from a Korean woman, who pointed out that “National borders do matter with the oppressed nation, even though the oppressor may deny them.”

  • 6 It is symptomatic that a minimal number of Japanese former “Comfort Women” have come forward so fa (...)

42What is implicitly addressed here, is the complicity in Japanese women’s positionality. Japanese women were accomplices of the system of sexual slavery established by the Japanese military during the war. Kawada Fumiko (1987) has reported the case of a comfort station in Okinawa which employed mobilized Korean women. As the station was about to be opened, a local women’s group protested on moral grounds, but was finally persuaded by the authorities to accept the station in order to protect the chastity of the local women at the cost of Korean women. The case showed that wartime discourses and practices established a clear distinction between Japanese women, who were regarded as mothers and wives of imperial subjects (including Okinawan women) and whose chastity had to be protected from all violation; and Korean women, who performed the dirty job of sexual service to imperial soldiers. This hierarchy was based on the sexual double standard that divides women into mothers and whores. Most Japanese women have internalized this patriarchal ethic, which in turn has made them less sympathetic to the predicament of Japanese “comfort women”;6 these women, so goes the story, had no excuse for their “choice” (of sexual slavery), while Korean women could at least invoke the forced nature of their service.

43The same logic is found in the anti-prostitution law of 1958, which made prostitution illegal. Recent examinations of the anti-prostitution law in light of the new women’s history (Fujime 1996) have shown that, in the process of making the law, congress women and lobbyists imposed their moral code on sex workers who were castigated as morally polluted or as incapable of preserving their own chastity. The law banned prostitution by casting sex workers and their pimps as criminals, while customers remained of course unquestioned.

44The sexual double standard that divides women into mothers and whores is even more obvious in the case of military nurses. On the battle front “comfort women” were also required to serve as nurses due to the lack of sufficient supply of medical staff. The memoirs and diaries of Japanese soldiers describe in detail the selfless contribution of these women, showing great appreciation of their dedication on the battle fields. As a colonized nation, Koreans were regarded as Japanese imperial subjects and even told they would be killed by enemies if Japan lost the war, sharing the destiny of their oppressors.

  • 7 In many memoirs of former military nurses, the narrator s self-representation tends to be desexual (...)

45But the medical performance of “comfort women” transcended the boundary between mothers and whores; it was the Japanese Association of Military Nurses which strongly opposed the mobilization of “comfort women” for medical aid, as this was apt to harm the reputation and professional pride of the nurses. Such opposition, in its turn, made it difficult for the latter to raise the issue of the sexual harassment to which they where constantly subjected by soldiers. Dominant perceptions of military nurses as chaste angels dressed in white, prevented these women from denouncing the sexual assaults they most likely experienced during work.7

The Rise of Historical Revisionism

46In December 1996, the founding of the “Association for the Creation of New History Textbooks” (Atarashii kyōkasho o tsukuru kai) attracted a great deal of public attention. Headed by Fujioka Nobukatsu, a Tōkyō University professor, the association represents the most vocal wing of neo-nationalism and historical revisionism among intellectuals and cultural workers in end-of-the-century-Japan. What is ironic is the fact that these conservatives call their stance “liberal” as opposed to what they consider the standard dogmatic view of Japans past as a crime. They demand to be liberated from the weight of what they call masochistic or self-condemning history – critical postwar reconstructions of Japans recent past.

  • 8 Nishio Kanji (1935-) is a literary critic and professor of German literature at the University for (...)

47At the press release, the founding members of the association provided a list of names of supporters: among them, there were not only notorious conservatives such as Nishio Kanji and Aida Yuji, but also popular novelist Hayashi Mariko and manga (comics) author Kobayashi Yoshinori, both of whom are highly influential among the younger generation.8

48In the wake of the formal apology concerning the wartime sexual slavery system, and which was extended by the Japanese government to the former “comfort women” as well as to the Korean government, a brief paragraph on the “comfort women” issue was included in the seven history textbook for primary and secondary school children approved by the Ministry of Education for the 1997 school year. Though this brief paragraph was insufficient as a response to the demands of victims and supporters, the Association for the Creation of New History Textbooks immediately opposed the integration of the sexual slavery issue in the textbooks, justifying their criticism of the latter as follows:

  1. The Association demanded that the incriminating paragraph on “comfort women” be eliminated from the approved history textbooks, insisting that the decision on inclusion was based on insufficient historical evidence, or what they considered a glaring lack of written documents proving unequivocally the responsibility of the military. (The Association’s insistence on the lack of written documents sounds very similar to the neo-Nazi argument on the absence of any document on the Final Solution of the Jewish problem which was signed by Hitler.)
  2. By adopting the position of serious historians and scholars who only put faith in material evidence and historical positivism, the members of the Association clearly aimed at discrediting the oral testimonies of victims as well as of offenders. Pointing to the inconsistency and ambiguity of oral history, they insist that oral testimonies cannot be depended on as reliable historical evidence.
  3. The argument of the Association for New History Textbooks went on to claim that it would be embarrassing to teach about “comfort women” to children of school age, as the military sexual slavery system showed the negative, dark side of human sexuality. The children, the Association’s members objected, are too young to know about such matters. Needless to say, the assumption of the innocence of school children, and of the sexual double standard which construes male sexual desire as uncontrollable, is highly problematic.
  4. The most debatable part in the argument of the Association is that concerning the restoration of national pride by establishing an official version of history that would get rid of the “masochistic” condemnation of Japan’s past; according to these critics, this latter interpretation was imposed by the occupation army and by communists. History education in the postwar period, the argument went on, has failed to celebrate the nation’s past – a legitimate line of action all other countries, and in particular economic superpowers such as the US, have not neglected to take. Not to develop a sense of pride over national history and the national culture may turn out fatal for the nation’s future.

49Though the argument of the Association for New History Textbooks may sound ludicrous, it is at the same time frightening in that that it seems appealing to many contemporary Japanese, who share a feeling of frustration with respect to bitter domestic and international criticisms regarding their country’s administration of its former colonies or wartime policies, all of which happened before their birth.

50It should be noted that postwar education on national history has consistently omitted to offer an unbiased, critical perspective on Japan’s past as a colonial empire, which has left the majority of the nation ignorant about its recent history. The Japanese are accustomed to viewing themselves as victims, which represents a sharp contrast with the dominant view of National Socialism and World War II in postwar Germany (in both its former components of East and West), and has resulted in a huge gap in historical perception between Japan and other Asian countries.

51The us has played a major role in the postwar rewriting of Japans conduct in the interwar and wartime periods. The occupation allowed room for Japan to justify itself. In the first place, the US allowed the emperor Hirohito to go unpunished for his responsibility in the war, in spite of the demands of Australia, China and other countries that he be executed. Secondly, the US pardoned first class war criminals who had conducted experiments with chemical and biological weapons on war prisoners in order to obtain the data resulting from these experiments. In addition, the US contributed massively to Japan’s rearming in response to the new conditions of the cold war, which made it possible for former war criminals to reassume crucial positions in the political arena. Last, but not least, not only did the wartime sexual slavery system not become an issue with the allied forces, but the occupation army rather benefited from a military prostitution network that employed Japanese comfort women, and which was hastily set up by the Japanese government after the capitulation with the former “comfort stations” in occupied Southeast Asia as models.

52The reconstruction of Japan’s recent past in postwar historiography was, in ways that are strikingly reminiscent of postwar Germany, the outcome of international and domestic politics. Without a strong international pressure and the continuous watch by the Jewish community, it is doubtful that Western Germany would have ever acknowledged the crimes of the Nazi regime. There is an undeniable sentiment among the population in Germany of being fed up with self-blame, which goes hand in hand with the role of the critical examination of the Nazi past as corrective in the continuous process of (re)writing history in the present against the seductions of self-justification.

53In 1999, the Association for the Creation of New History Textbooks published Nishio Kanji’s massive Atarashii Nihon no rekishi (A New History of Japan), which became an instant bestseller and has so far sold four hundred thousand copies. Though the book’s quality is questionable and the tensions and factional conflicts among conservatives has shown no signs of abating, this end-of-century social phenomenon clearly represents a new form of nationalism as a reactionary rethinking of national history (and implicitly of Japans modernity itself). The public statements and public activities of this neo-nationalist movement are ironical in the sense that they arose in reaction to the critical moment of conservatism itself: this type of reactionism assumes the function of a critical discourse, namely a neo-conservative, neo-nationalist critique of a conservative discourse in crisis. This “critical” neo-nationalism may prove in the long run more dangerous than can be gathered from its current impact as it is clearly attractive to some sections of the Japanese population, who are bored with the long-lasting recession of the Japanese economy and who wish to restore the “national pride.”

The Value of Oral History

54The “comfort women” issue is the central problem in the trend of historical revisionism described above, which in its turn epitomizes the contradictory positionalities and allegiances of Japanese intellectuals at the turn of the millenium. In spite of a battery of countercriticisms issued by historians on the left and by scholars of women’s history against the argument of the revisionists, the dispute has continued to focus on matters of historical evidence. In this respect, historical revisionists and their opponents may be said to share the old-fashioned methodology of historical positivism. The most problematic aspect in this argument on “serious” scholarly historiography is the denial or the dismissive evaluation of the oral testimonies of the survivors. In the hierarchy of historical evidence, oral testimonies come secondary to or in the third place after material evidence such as work tools and written documents. The anachronistic invocation of historical positivism, or of the putative neutrality and objectivity of history as an academic discipline clearly undermines the achievements of women’s history in the last couple of decades.

55The “linguistic turn” in history has taught us that history is a (re)construction (or fiction) of the past in the present. History is an ongoing project of reinventing or rewriting the past in and by contemporary societies. Given this process of narrativization, it is evident that no evidence, fact or event is likely to be seen in the same way by everyone. History can be narrated in a variety of ways from a variety of different perspectives.

56The reason why the testimonies of the survivors of the military sexual slavery system provoked a tremendous shock, is that they provided a perspective on the war that diverged radically from the narratives composed by most Japanese soldiers. There is an interesting ongoing project of re-examining the huge amount of extant letters, journals and diaries written by soldiers during and after the war in relation to the comfort women. (According to a recent survey, there are about thirty thousand documents on this topic in the National Diet Library.) The research so far shows an astonishing gap in perception between “comfort women” and their customers: while the victimized women recall the sexual labor they were forced to perform as a horrifying inhuman experience, Japanese soldiers nostalgically evoke a brief, but warm encounter, a critical moment in their life. The two parties express totally different views of the same reality, which not only suggests that they experienced the war in ways that are irreconcilable, but hardly allows us to formulate one version of one historical truth.

57On the other hand, it is a fact that the oral testimonies of survivors are sometimes inconsistent and confused. As the documentary film maker, Dai Sil Kim-Gibson (1997), who visited a housing compound for survivors in Seoul has commented, some of the interviewed women changed significant details in their narrative according to the interviewers. In one case, a woman, who began her story with an account of her unhappy marriage from which she was persuaded to run away by a broker, only to end up in sexual slavery in a “comfort station”, later changed her narrative so as not to mention her marital life.

58This particular instance might serve conservative historians as a good example of the “unreliability” of oral history. It could also serve as a good example for demonstrating how oral history is formulated to meet the demands of the interviewers bent on producing images and narratives of “model victims.”

59Notwithstanding the contradictions, inconsistencies and ambiguity of oral testimonies in general, I want not only to defend oral history as a legitimate strategy of history-writing and as a major achievement of women’s history, which has restored the voice of long-silenced, spoken for oppressed people, but also to propose a different perspective on the relation between oral narratives and the “comfort women” issue.

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60Human beings are not talking machines reproducing the same narrative over and over again like a tape recorder.9 More importantly, oral history is the product of the interaction between interviewer and interviewee, in which both parties are involved in the process of creating a narrative that does not exist prior to their encounter. In the case of oral testimonies of minority, native and other oppressed people, we tend to forget that this interaction takes place in the context of power relations. Oral historians are by no means innocent in this respect: if they do not create a sense of security in their informants, the latter will not reveal the “truth” in their own terms. This has been proven in rape trials: how can a rape victim tell her “true” story (“true” in the sense of faithful to her own reality) in the intimidating atmosphere of a (usually) male-dominated juridical court? As a rape victim, she is already placed in the inferior position in the hierarchy of power. Feminists have critiqued the rape trial as a second rape which insults the survivor once again by subjecting her to the inquiries about the details and enforced character of the violation.

61It is the oral testimonies’ very inconsistency and ambiguity which reveals the painful reality experienced by the oppressed women. If we fail to nurture their agency, their voices will remain unheard.

62Now the issue of military sexual slavery is not a bygone belonging to the past. It belongs to the present, including our own present. This is an ongoing process in which no one is innocent. From the Japanese viewpoint, this is a triple crime: First, the crime of military rape and forced sexual labor during the war; second, the crime of silencing victims for almost half a century in the postwar period. Finally, the crime of negating the reality of survivors. This triple crime may become a multiple one if researchers, interviewers and historians continue to force the victims to change their narrative to fit expectations at every moment in the creation of the text.

Conclusion: Toward Multiple Histories

63As a tentative conclusion, I want to propose that the “comfort women” or military sexual slavery issue be contextualized and analyzed at the intersection of race, gender and class. The painful experience of these women is the outcome of the racial discrimination of Koreans systematically perpetrated by Japanese colonialism; of the sexual discrimination enforced by Japanese (and Korean) patriarchy; and finally of the class discrimination against women recruited for prostitution. A total war of colossal dimensions, the most sweeping and encompassing national project in the history of modern nation-states, has made this brutal exploitation possible. From the perspective of prewar Japan’s colonial empire and its racial policies, it is clear that a sexual double standard was applied both to Japanese and Korean women, but in a racial hierarchy that divided women according to national boundaries. The same sexual double standard divided Japanese women once again into mothers and whores. The chastity of Japanese women as wives and mothers of imperial soldiers had to be protected by all means, even under severe control by neighborhood communities. On the other hand, the sexuality of colonized women was assigned the shameful task of providing sexual “comfort” to imperial soldiers – a dirty task appropriate for second class citizens. In this view, both Japanese women as colonizers and Korean women as colonized subjects were sexually oppressed, though each group knew a different kind of exploitation owing to their identities as oppressors and oppressed, respectively. From a different viewpoint, Japanese soldiers, or mobilized imperial subjects, were also forced to kill and sacrifice themselves for the nation-state – in other words, they were forced to be oppressors. The role assigned to respective actors in the historical arena can be better grasped when all the parties are placed in interaction in the context of the Japanese empire, which transcended or deviated from current national boundaries.

64The lawsuits brought by the former “comfort women” for individual compensation and formal apology from the Japanese government are remarkable in the sense that they refuse to subsume the survivors’ individual rights under national interests. These women have continued to struggle for their own rights, which cannot be represented by either Korea or Japan. If their claim succeeds in establishing the logic that “My body and my life do not belong to the state”, the paradigm of the modern nation-state will be seriously imperiled. The same logic is available to men as well, which in the long run would undermine the very foundation of the nation-state.

65This interpretation, nuanced though it may seem, is provisional, as a new narrative can create an alternative view at any moment. In the face of what looks like a plausible and relevant model, I still want to ask: “To whom is the model plausible and relevant?”. I do not subscribe to the view that entire historical projects serve a single truth, or that conflicting narratives must be reconciled for the purpose of promoting “truer” truths. Instead, what I propose here is a project of multiple histories in which reality may be seen in different ways from different perspectives. What is required is an imagination broad and generous enough to recognize simultaneously unfolding multiple realities some of which may be invisible to you or even to me, but quite real to the other we address, and want to be heard by.

66Pregnant with the undeniable reality of the survivors and of their unspeakable experience of sexual slavery, and providing a poignant view of Japans recent past that requires attention and reparation to the victims, as well as a continuing critical examination of (the construction of national) history, the “comfort women” issue compels us to politicize the very concept of history. What is history? Whose history is it?



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Kawada, Fumiko, 1987, Akagawara no Ie: Chosen kara kita Jugun Ianfu (The Red Roof House: The Story of a Comfort Woman from Korea). Tōkyō: Chikuma Shobo.

Kim-Gibson, Dai Sil, 1997, “Japanese Military Supplies: The Korean “Comfort Women,” “Paper presented at the American Historical Association’s Annual Convention, New York, January 5, 1997.

Kim, Iruben, 1976, Tenno no Guntai to Chosenjin Ianfu (The Imperial Army and Korean Comfort Women). Tōkyō: Sanichi Shobo.

Maruyama, Yukiko, 1977, “Dansei Raita no kaita “Jugun Ianfu” wo kiru”. Reprinted in Kano, Mikiyo, ed., 1995, Komentaru Sengo Goju Nen: vol. 5, Sei to Kazoku (Commentaries on Half a Century of Postwar History: vol. 5, Sex and Family). Tōkyō: Shakai Hyoronsha.

Nishio, Kanji, 1999, Kokumin no Rekishi (A History of the Nation). Tōkyō: Fusosha.

Tanaka, Toshiyuki, 1996, “Naze beigun wa jugun ianfu mondai wo mushi shitanoka?” (“Why Did the Occupation Army Ignore The Comfort Women Issue?”), Sekai 627 & 628. Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten.

Tonkin, Elizabeth, 1992, Narrating the Past: The Social Construction of Oral History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ueno, Chizuko, 1998, Nashonarizumu to Jenda (Engendering Nationalism). Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten.

Yamashita, Yoengae, 1996, “Kankoku joseigaku to minzoku: nihongun “ianfu” seido wo meguru “minzoku” giron wo chushin ni” (“Korean Women’s Studies and the Nation: Recent Nationalist Discourses on Military ‘Comfort Women.’”), Joseigaku 4, Nihon Joseigakkai (The Japanese Association of Women’s Studies).

Yamazaki, Hiromi, 1995, “Minkan bokin wa ‘jugun ianfu’ wo nido korosu” (“The National Fund Will Kill ‘Comfort Women’ Over Again”), in Shukan Kinyobi (Weekly Friday), June 30. Tōkyō: Kinyobi co.

Yoshimi, Yoshiaki, 1995, Jugun Ianfu (Comfort Women). Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten.

Young Joen Ok, et al., 1992, Chosenjin Josei ga mita “Ianfu Mondai” (Korean Women’s Perspectives on the “Comfort Women” Issue). Tōkyō: Sanichi Shobo.


1 This paper is based in part on chapter 2 of my book Nashonanzumu to jendā (Engendering Nationalism). See Ueno (1998). I am indebted to Livia Monnet for her careful editing of and her constructive comments on this essay.

2 This essay examines only the case of Korean “comfort women”, as a host of other factors must be considered with respect of the victims from China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and other areas in which “comfort stations” were established.

3 For historical information on “comfort women,” see Yoshimi (1995), Young et al. (1992) and others.

4 There were about six hundred thousand Koreans living in Japan at the time of the San Francisco Treaty. Most of them were Korean migrants and their off-spring, who as Japanese colonial subjects with Japanese nationality were mobilized by force during the war. After the war, they decided to stay in Japan, but refused to naturalize themselves as Japanese, preferring to keep their Korean nationality as a sign of protest in spite of the difficulties this caused in everyday life.

5 Tanaka Toshiyuki (1996), a Japanese historian teaching in Australia, points out that the Tōkyō International War Tribunal, held on 1947, never mentioned the “comfort women” issue. Tanaka has completed a comparative survey of military prostitution in both Axis and Allied countries.

6 It is symptomatic that a minimal number of Japanese former “Comfort Women” have come forward so far. This is a clear indication that the stigmatized nature of sexual labor has continued to silence them, and that Japanese feminism has failed in supporting them.

7 In many memoirs of former military nurses, the narrator s self-representation tends to be desexualized, paying little attention to the unwanted sexual approaches she may have experienced.

8 Nishio Kanji (1935-) is a literary critic and professor of German literature at the University for Electrical Engineering in Tōkyō. He is known as an outspoken, nationalist political commentator. His recent works include Zentaishugi no noroi (The Curse of Totalitarianism, 1993) and Kokumin no Rekishi (The History of the Nation, 1999).
Aida Yuji (1916-1997) is a well-known conservative historian and critic. His early writings were based on his experiences in Burma during wwii. He is the author of Āron no shuyōsho (The Concentration Camp at Alon, 1962) and Nihon no unmei (The Fate of Japan, 1993).
Hayashi Mariko (1954-) is a popular novelist and essayist. She was awarded the Naoki Prize in 1986 for Saishubin ni ma ni seba (If I Catch the Last Train). Her recent works include Hon o yomu onna (The Women Reading a Book, 1993) and Nichiren RenRen (1994).
Kobayashi Yoshinori (1953-) is a the author of the hit manga Gōmanizumu Sengen (A Declaration of Arrogantism, 1992) which was first serialized in the magazines Spa! and Sapio. He has written a sequel to this manga entitled Shin Gōmanizumu Sengen (A New Declaration of Arrogantism, 1996).

9 In her informative study of oral history, sociologist Elizabeth Tonkin (1992) has argued that informants are not tape recorders that repeat the same stories time and again, but are likely to make changes in their narratives. She calls the assumption of a truthful, unvarying narrative to be promptly served by the informant “the talking book fallacy.”


Professeur de sociologie à la faculté de sciences humaines et sociologie, section des études supérieures, de l’Université de Tōkyō. Elle est spécialiste en études féministes, études du genre sexuel (gender) et de la sexualité et s’intéresse à la sociologie de la famille et à la construction de l’histoire et de l’État-nation moderne au Japon, en Europe et aux États-Unis. Elle s’est aussi penchée sur les pratiques sexuelles et l’art érotique de la période des Tokugawa (1603-1868) ainsi que sur la construction de la sexualité dans la culture de masse contemporaine. Parmi ses publications récentes, on note Nashonarizumu to jendā (Engendrer le nationalisme, Tōkyō, 1998), Hatsujō sōchi (Le dispositif érotique, Tōkyō, 1998) ainsi que Kindai kazoku no seiritsu to shūen (Formation et décomposition de la famille dans le Japon moderne, Tōkyō, 1994).

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