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Speaking about modern Japan, many people are likely to think about technological advancement, state-of-the-art technologies, high-quality electronics, and economic prosperity. In reference to the sins of the past, Japan of the twentieth century is known as one of the largest colonizers in the world using other territories’ resources for its own rapid development. The estimates of economic benefits derived by Japan may vary depending on the origin of authors and their ideological bent in relation to capitalism, but their existence does not present a fact in dispute.
The situation is a bit different when it comes to a more specific aspect of exploitation at the confluence of colonialism-related issues and gender-based violence – the history of the so-called comfort women. The complexity of the comfort women issue is linked to a variety of factors, ranging from the attempts to rehabilitate colonialism to controversies related to statistical data.
The Comfort Women Debate and the Key Issues
The exploitation of people at the times of the Japanese colonial empire is an issue that deserves attention due to its long-term consequences and the influence on different countries’ modern economic situation. Even though the recognition of the past sins in Japan remains critical, some topics such as the life of women in the colonized countries and, more specifically, these women’s sexual exploitation are related to numerous research gaps (Ward and Lay 255).
Judging from the focus of some works in the fields of history and sociology, the suffering of women forced into military prostitution under the Japanese colonial rule is a topic that is still regarded as controversial and disputable.
The first issue partially related to the comfort women dispute in the twenty-first century is the degree to which the flaws of colonialism are recognized. In the discussion of colonial capitalism in Asian countries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some researchers of Japanese descent stress certain benefits of “the capitalist mode of production” such as job opportunities for the poorest (Hori 37). Recognizing the massive expansion of colonialism, wide-scale transfers of the workforce, and the phenomenon of cultural exchange, Japanese researchers highlight these factors’ positive impact on people living in the occupied territories (Hori 37).
As an example, the legacy of the colonial rule can sometimes be associated with positive changes, ranging from the growth of the agricultural market to the development of manufacturing (Hori 39). Japanese researchers’ works describing the life of people in the formerly occupied territories do not mention the facts of inequality and “systematic crimes” such as sex trade supported by the colonists, which serves as the manifestation of conflict (Ward and Lay 256). With that in mind, some cases of whitewashing colonialism concerning its projected economic benefits can be noticed in modern literature.
The next aspect of the problem of comfort women and its representations in the existing studies is the overall lack of focus on women in former colonies. The examples of this tendency can be found in different works demonstrating the Japanese authors’ perceptions of the country’s colonial past. For instance, in the study of Hori devoted to the growth of capitalism in Korea and other countries, the composition of the workforce in a variety of industrial sectors is discussed with reference to the colonized territories’ male population (38).
Providing the statistical data peculiar to male workers before and during the time of the Second World War, the researcher acknowledges that the number of female workers is difficult to be verified (Hori 37). Taking into account the discussion of statistics provided by Park et al., the lack of quantifiable data is an issue that negatively characterizes the state of knowledge about women in Japanese colonies and military brothels supported by the Imperial Army of Japan (337). To some extent, the lack of verifiable data related to women in general contributes to the proliferation of the comfort women debate.
The discussion of the comfort women problem also touches upon gender inequality that is the element of some cultural traditions. Female war survivors born in Taiwan are known as one of the key groups affected by the establishment of the system responsible for the supply of sex slaves to Japanese soldiers (Ward and Lay 259). Similar to the case with other colonies, modern scholars have varying opinions on the exact number of women from Taiwan lured with the promises of well-paid jobs and educational opportunities (Ward and Lay 262). However, the links between the patriarchal culture of Japan and the establishment of the comfort women system in the colonies can be retrieved from modern studies.
The issues of Taiwanese women forced into prostitution are not widely discussed in the context of law. At the same time, the existence of gender-based hierarchy in both Taiwanese and Japanese cultures is acknowledged, and the latter is closely related to the phenomenon of sex trade (Wang 164). Although the imperial rule implemented significant changes to the laws of Taiwan, modern scholars argue that the views of the relationships between women and men were not altered (Wang 164).
According to Wang, “the superiority of the elder and the male” was among the key elements of Taiwan’s traditional social system (164). Importantly, given the presence of similar traditions in Japan, it could act as the point of contact facilitating the transformation of Taiwan’s legal system (Wang 164). The distribution of roles based on biological sex that is explicit in the majority of Asian countries could simplify the establishment of the comfort women system and make the justifications of those policies seem less shocking (Ward and Lay 255; Park et al. 332). Thus, some studies devoted to the legacy of colonialism do not pay attention to the links between the traditional Asian understandings of life and gender-based crimes of the war.
Modern authors’ works devoted to the legacy of colonialism provide varying evaluations of the outcomes of Japan’s superiority, including the sexual exploitation of women. For example, Akita et al., the former supporters of the Korean nationalist narrative of the Japanese rule, argue that the policies enforced by Japan were moderate and productive in many instances (16). In their discussion, the authors refer to new evidence that is said to prove that the image of Korea as a victim of imperial rule is the case of overcoloring. The nationalist perspective, the researchers believe, is linked to ideological considerations rather than to objective reality (Akita et al. 15). Judging from the book, these conclusions refer to different aspects of Japan-Korea conflicts, including the issue of female sex slaves in Korea.
As some of the mentioned studies demonstrate, there are authors that support pro-Japanese views on the issue. Also, some of them attract attention to other aspects of exploitation or claim that the size of comfort women’s problem is exaggerated as a part of the ongoing ideological battle. In their discussion of the dispute, Ward and Lay state that despite recent Japan-Korean agreements aimed at ending the conflict, the issue has not been solved yet (256).
One of the most criticized parts of this agreement is the number of victims that, according to researchers in the former colonies, is at least twice as large as the estimates provided by the Japanese side (Park et al. 334; Ward and Lay 255). Theoretically, both sides to the unending conflict have solid financial reasons to falsify the size of the comfort women’s problem in imperial Japan, sometimes at the expense of actual victims who are blamed for their past.
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The researchers supporting the victims’ side in the conflict voice an undivided opinion when it comes to Japan’s efforts to destroy documents helping to evaluate the degree of the problem of sexual exploitation more accurately. For instance, according to Park et al., the documents proving the massive exportation of female teenagers living in the colonized states to the so-called comfort stations were “largely destroyed” by the Imperial Army’s leaders (333).
The study by Joo presents a similar opinion on the issue of documentation and reflects on the trend to fetishize rape victims’ testimonies, making them a means of “serving voyeuristic curiosity” (168). Using credible facts from academic sources, Joo proves that victims’ testimonies are sometimes used to shift the focus of attention from their suffering to the physiological component of rape (168). Being among the strengths of the mentioned study, numerous illustrative examples related to the perceptions of comfort women’s stories add to the discussion of the dispute. Furthermore, this work helps to reveal the problem’s new dimensions such as the implicit objectification of victims’ experiences that distorts the perceptions of forced prostitution.
Additionally, the dispute revolves around the actual contributions of the Japanese government to the coordinated functioning of military brothels for the Imperial Army. According to Ward and Lay, the amount of global attention to the problem of sexual exploitation of women in the colonies doubled in the 1980s, which led to the escalation of the conflict between Japan and Korea (257). Right after that, the authorities of Japan attempted at shifting the blame on some “private entrepreneurs” allegedly involved in the creation of comfort stations (Ward and Lay 257).
However, a few years later, the government of Japan had to “recognize its culpability” and offer financial help to women forced into prostitution (Ward and Lay 258). Therefore, the exact number of victims and repetitive claims about Japan’s military forces’ attempts to destroy the pieces of evidence are not the only parts of this problem in colonial and gender history.
In the end, the comfort women system is one of the most controversial topics in Japan’s history of gender and colonial rule. The recent successes of any country should not be regarded separately from its past since the latter often sheds light upon the modern socio-economic situation. As the analysis of modern studies demonstrates, the problem of forced prostitution still attracts modern researchers’ attention since Japan’s official statements concerning this chapter of the war do not satisfy activists in the former colonies.
Regarding the specific factors contributing to the heated discussions, it can be supposed that they include the whitening of colonialism and the lack of focus on women in the studies of the Japanese colonial empire. Additionally, the lack of consensus on the issue relates to the absence of documentation and attempts to shift the focus from victims’ traumatic experiences to other topics.
Akita, George, et al. The Japanese Colonial Legacy in Korea, 1910-1945: A New Perspective. MerwinAsia, 2015.
Hori, Kazuo. “The Formation of Capitalism in East Asia.” Economic Activities Under the Japanese Colonial Empire, edited by Minoru Sawai, Springer Japan, 2016, pp. 11-49.
Joo, Hee-Jung Serenity. “Comfort Women in Human Rights Discourse: Fetishized Testimonies, Small Museums, and the Politics of Thin Description.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, vol. 37, no. 2-3, 2015, pp. 166-183.
Park, Jee Hoon, et al. “Korean Survivors of the Japanese “Comfort Women” System: Understanding the Lifelong Consequences of Early Life Trauma.” Journal of Gerontological Social Work, vol. 59, no. 4, 2016, pp. 332-348.
Wang, Tay-Sheng. Legal Reform in Taiwan under Japanese Colonial Rule, 1895-1945: The Reception of Western Law. University of Washington Press, 2015.
Ward, Thomas J., and William D. Lay. “The Comfort Women Controversy: Not over yet.” East Asia, vol. 33, no. 4, 2016, pp. 255-269.