The History the Japanese Government Is Trying to EraseRoundup
tags: war crimes, comfort women, sexual abuse, World War 2, Japanese history
Chelsea Szendi Schieder is a professor in the Faculty of Economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, and the author of Coed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left (Duke University Press, 2021).
It was predictable that most of the early online harassment would target the one Japanese member of our group. As we prepared what would become an open letter demanding retraction of Harvard Law School professor J. Mark Ramseyer’s article claiming that Korean “comfort women” were contractually bound prostitutes, we had braced ourselves for abuse. Ramseyer’s piece bolstered the ultranationalist Japanese worldview that rehabilitates Japan’s history of militarism and colonialism and denies the coercive and brutal nature of much of that era’s violence. Although it appeared in an obscure law and economics journal, the far right in Japan embraced it as “cutting edge” research. The Japanese far-right newspaper Sankei Shimbun introduced the article’s claims as definitive scholarly confirmation that “comfort women” were not sexual slaves. It made front-page news in Korea, and was discussed and debated on television and in print for weeks.
The five of us—Amy Stanley, Hannah Shepherd, David Ambaras, Sayaka Chatani, and myself—had worked around the clock, producing a constant stream of texts and Google doc updates, in an intense two weeks of checking and rechecking each other’s work. We found it difficult to believe the extent to which the short article distorted and misused evidence. After we published our letter, the journal, the International Review of Law and Economics, issued an “expression of concern” and said that it is reviewing the article. That, of course, didn’t stop Japanese cybernationalists from dismissing the non-Japanese among us as ignorant and “anti-Japanese” and labeling Sayaka a race traitor.
The “comfort women” first became figures of international controversy in 1991, when Kim Hak-sun came forward under her real name as a survivor of the Japanese military’s “comfort station” system. Although the sufferings of “comfort women” had been an open secret, feminism as a transnational social movement in East Asia made it possible for people to care about how war created gendered forms of violence, particularly sexual violence.
Democratization in South Korea also created space for previously unheard voices to ask about the terms under which all Japan’s wartime atrocities had been settled by the 1965 agreement that normalized relations between Japan and South Korea. So when Kim and other survivors spoke out, South Korean society as well as feminist activists and academics in Japan were ready to listen. And what did they hear? That an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 “comfort women” were conscripted, often with force, from across Japanese-occupied territory; they were Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipina, Indonesian, and Dutch. But the majority of non-Japanese “comfort women” came from the Korean Peninsula. Kim testified that she had been taken to a Japanese military comfort station in China at the age of 17, where she was raped daily by multiple soldiers. When she tried to run away, she was recaptured and raped again. She was eventually able to escape with the help of a Korean merchant who became her husband. But many women did not survive this ordeal, and many others remained silent. The cases of a few remaining survivors continue to be heard in South Korean courts and remain a sticking point in Korea–Japan diplomacy.
We had discussed possible scenarios with scholars and activists who have published on topics sensitive to the right wing in Japan before—not only “comfort women” but also territorial disputes and the emperor system in Japan. I was told that Japan’s infamous Internet right wing, or neto uyo, often limited its activism to social media. As the only scholar in our small group physically based at a university in Japan, though, I remained nervous. I had seen Uemura Takashi, a former journalist for the progressive Asahi Shimbun, at an event at Sophia University in Tokyo in 2015. He was just beginning to discuss the campaign of harassment he had experienced since reporting on the “comfort women” in the early 1990s: death threats and a bomb threat to the university at which he now works. An anti-Korean blog posted a photograph of Uemura’s teenage daughter inviting viewers to convince her to kill herself. At the event I attended, an older Japanese man stood up in the audience to berate Uemura for fabricating the “comfort women” history. Uemura’s face turned red, his voice pinched and tense. The far right in Japan had latched onto him as a target, and they would never let go; the far right still hounds Uemura.
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