You Don't Want to Know About the Girls? The 'Comfort Women', the Japanese Military and Allied Forces in the Asia-Pacific War

tags: Japan, comfort women

Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor of Japanese History in the Division of Pacific and Asian History, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, and an Asia-Pacific Journal associate. Her most recent books are Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan's Cold WarBorderline Japan: Foreigners and Frontier Controls in the Postwar Era and To the Diamond Mountains: A Hundred-Year Journey Through China and Korea.

Angus McDougall, an Australian serviceman, was captured by the Japanese in the early stages of the Asia-Pacific War and sent to Changi prisoner of war camp. From there he, like over 40,000 others, was transported by rail to Banpong in Thailand on his way to work on the Thai-Burma Railway. The journey was gruelling. POWs were packed 28 or more to a truck in goods wagons. The trucks were far too small to carry such a number, the heat was intense, and food and water were scarce. Interviewed about his experiences many decades later, McDougall echoes other survivors in describing the journey as “hell”.

But, as you can hear if you listen to his recorded interview on the website of the Australian War Memorial, McDougall then goes on to make a remark that catches his interviewer unprepared: “You don’t want to know about the girls and everything in the truck?” he asks. “Girls in the truck?” echoes his interviewer in surprise. McDougall responds by explaining that alongside the POWs, their train also transported 25 to 30 “comfort girls”, as he calls them: “one carriage of them, with guards, same as we had, like the guards with us”. These girls, McDougall recalls, were not Japanese, but a multiethnic group made up (he thinks) of “Malays, Indians, Chinese and others”. Transported like prisoners, in the same hellish conditions on the same military train, the young women were on their way to Japanese army brothels in Thailand or Burma.

But McDougall’s assumption was right. His interviewer evidently did not “want to know about the girls”, and briskly moved the conversation on to other topics. The pattern is repeated again and again in the oral history record of the Asia-Pacific War. From the 1980s to the first decade of the twenty-first century, historians undertook a massive task of recording many thousands of interviews with former allied service people and civilians who participated in one way or another in the war. These interviews provide an astonishingly rich record of many long-neglected aspects of mid-twentieth century history. But the references to Asian “comfort women” which from time to time emerge in this record are very rarely followed up. Fleeting descriptions of encounters with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian and other women recruited into Japanese military brothels all over Asia are left frustratingly hanging in silence, a thousand questions unasked and unanswered.

The silences reflect the widespread attitudes of allied service people during wartime. The ubiquitous presence of Japanese military brothels in China and Southeast Asia was regarded sometimes as a subject for criticism, more often as a curiosity. But in either case, it was seen as an issue of relatively little importance compared to other all-consuming concerns of war. Frederick Arblaster, an Australian translator who had learnt Japanese and was sent to the Dutch East Indies to assist with post-surrender interrogations, recalls encountering a group of women who were with newly-surrendered Japanese forces. A Japanese officer, asked about the women, insisted that they were Red Cross and hospital nurses, but Arblaster noticed their clothes and powdered faces and observed “they’re the funniest looking Red Cross and hospital staff that ever I saw in my life”. He asked his commanding officer for permission to question them, but the brusque reply was “don’t waste your time, sergeant. Let’s go”. Some time later Arblaster realised that they must have been “comfort women”, and regretted having failed to talk to them:

I’m sure that if they [his commanding officers] had accepted my view that there was something wrong there, then we could have spent some time… Once I’d spoken to these women, I’d have found out, and arrangements could have been made to look after them. But any way… I can still see them. It was so incongruous to see these women in the jungle.”  ...

Read entire article at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

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