Saturday, March 12, 2016

Comfort Women Issue in Historical Context

Every Wednesday, for the past 24 years, in front of the Japanese Embassy in South Korea, protests have demanded Japan recognize its war crimes, establish an official fact-finding mission, and provide official reparations for the sexual slavery of the Japanese Imperial Army. Last year, Japan and South Korea settled on a “final and irreversible” agreement without consulting the victims. Professor Han, Hong-gu will explore this issue along with South Korea and Japan’s relationship within a historical and political context.

A History of the Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Military

In the words of Professor Han (translation), "In regard to the Korean-Japanese history, it (the comfort woman issue) is very complicated. Korea was more advanced economically and culturally in the 1700s than Japan, but we started to fall behind, which ultimately led to being colonized by Japan."
  • In 1592 Japan attacked (the Imjin War) but after those battles Korea and Japan had peaceful court relations
  • In 1872 a Japanese ship forced the opening of Korea to Japanese trade
  • In 1895 the queen was assassinated by the Japanese
  • In 1905 Korea lost the right to diplomacy. Korea fought against Japanese attempts at colonization. There was a lot of resistance, example, Ahn Jung-geun
Though many might criticize Korea as not fighting the Japanese hard enough to retain their freedom, the feasibility of resistance was very small. Unlike in India where 2,000 Brits controlled the country and in Vietnam where 28,000 French people occupied and controlled that country making resistance virtually impossible, 1,000,000 Japanese were in residence with military might in the Korean peninsula. And because Japan were so proximal to Korea, they could easily send more numbers for settlement and to express authority and power; their control was strong and the Japanese were expanding their empire.

In their occupation, they used assimilation policies. They wanted to treat the Koreans like Japanese with Koreans taking Japanese last names. (This was exceedingly resisted by the Koreans who didn't share the same vision with the Japanese. Very interesting colonization and assimilation attempt because Professor Han knows of no other country that has ever introduced assimilation policies.) Japan did industrialize Korea unlike other countries that had colonies, but their aim was to have a base to control other countries like China and countries in Southeast Asia.

When Japan "invaded" Korea, about 200,000 Korean immigrated between 1900-1945, that is, about 16-17% of the population. This was the largest migration of people in such a short time other than the Irish leaving Ireland because of the potato famine.

In 1919 the last emperor was poisoned and the March First Movement resulted. The emperor's poisoning led the way to more control by the Japanese.

Japan did create elementary schools, thus providing education, and they did improve literacy which was very low within Korea. However, in the 1930s the education became militarized and students were indoctrinated by thoughts like "When the Yankees come, we will crush their heads" and students were drilled to fight, parry and attack with sticks and swords during school hours. Schools became the vehicle for resistance. 

In 1936 손기전 a Korean ran in the Olympics under the Japanese flag. In fury and nationalism, the Japanese flag was erased from his uniform and then published in a Korean newspaper, which was a very bold move, and one that motivated the Japanese to clamp down on publication and enforce tighter control of the "freedom of the press".

About this time Japanese also motivated Koreans to labor in Japan, ex. Kyushu, because their own men were militarized in foreign countries to fight and expand the Japanese nation-empire. (These laborers were later repatriated.)

6-7 years later all of the Koreans incarcerated in the Sodaemun prison and the ones who weren't but who had fought for Korean freedom moved to North Korea and beyond to organize a resistance government outside of the Korean peninsula. These individuals were to remain outside of Korea after the end of WWII so the events of history unfolding didn't really improve after colonial times. Those people who had resisted the Japanese the most were not the ones made governors or given government positions. The ones who fought most for the freedom of the country were not viewed as leaders by the makers of the new republic ... After the Japanese flag came down, the American flag went up. Koreans did not regain their autonomy and right of self-government.

In result, the 38th parallel is one of the cursed indirect heritages left by the Japanese colonial period.

After WWII the 38th parallel was merely marked in roads and people could cross. Every year after the war the 38th parallel became more and more controlled, and ultimately the military patrolled the line, preventing anyone from crossing and closing down all communication between "countries".
After liberation, people had to punish the collaborators so many committees were set up. Ironically, the National Assembly contained people who were part of the punishment committee, but many of those assembly men were also accused of being communists. This pointing of punishment became a way for Japanese collaborators to "regain" power. 550,000 people were investigated, but not even 5,000 Japanese collaborators were investigated.

In 2009 a new form of Korean currency, the 100,000 won bill, much debated and discussed, was to be published. Kim Baek Bom, aka Kim Koo, leader of the provisional government during Japanese colonial period, was determined to be the figurehead for the bill. Kim Baek Bom had assassinated the president of the Korea National Assembly and therefore was a very controversial choice based on one's family and family politics. Why did the 100,000 won bill fail to be published? Because of the new Korean president of the time, Lee Myung Bak (president 2008 - 2013) and his family history; publishing the bill would have been problematic. When Lee Myung Bak became president, only the 50,000 won bill was passed, and very quickly the 100,000 won bill was scrapped.

Present-day Sexual Slavery Issue

At the end of December 2015, supposedly Korea and Japan finally "resolved" the years of controversy over the sexual slavery of Korean women (approximately 200,000) during the latter part of the colonial period. For details, read "Comfort Women Controversy between S. Korea and Japan Ended?" Many problems exist with this dropping of historical conflicts, most of it due to the apology not being public at all but reportedly given only to present president of Korea, Park Guen-hye, who was not a victim, who came from a family of strong Japanese sympathizers, and who has no authority of accepting such an apology, if indeed it did take place.

But how did such an "agreement of resolution" finally come about? The United States and China are in conflict and Korea and Japan are supporters and neighbors in the tension, so the United States wants them to get along and overcome their political historical baggage. Also, Japan really wants to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council so to purge themselves of some of their historical conflicts was seen as being in their best interests. The Japanese have never apologized for using the sexual slavery of women or for the Nanjing Massacre. Neither is there any discussion on the topics.

But then the question arises, why did Korea want to eliminate the sexual slavery issue? Park Guen-hye ultimately rushed to a conclusion to facilitate Korea-Japan relations. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is said to have called Park Guen-hye to apologize but only she heard this apology, but it is pointed out that "Park Guen-hye, daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee who also had a shameful career as a Japanese officer during the colonial period, wanted to throw away the burdensome image of a daughter of a pro-Japanese collaborator." Koreans want to hear the apology. Even the Japanese Parliament asked for a public apology but this was rejected. The questions remains: Does Park Guen-hye have the right to accept such an apology on behalf of the grandmothers who have never heard the apology?

A North Korean former comfort women became a witness at a tribunal and told who was who in this very iconic picture of young girls in a "comfort women" station. She also said that the baby was born but passed away.
Kim Hak-soon became the first former "comfort woman" to testify; her testimony came out in 1991, 46 years after the close of World War II. Why did it take so long? Many reasons. One being, in the case of the Holocaust, ALL Jews were victims so this could be an issue for open discussion. In the case of sexual slavery in Korea, the victims were poor rural daughters and loss of virginity was further blamed on women not men despite the reason for the loss, not to mention that the Korean society was patriarchal and women/daughters were not considered as important as men/sons. After WWII and then after the Korean War, Korea needed to focus on rebuilding the structure of the country; social issues were given little regard.

To support Kim Hak-soon, a Dutch former "comfort woman" came out also in order to support her, to give solidarity, and because she knew that an Asian wouldn't get the same attention as a "white" in regard to tribunal committees and forms of reparations and punishments. It is estimated that about 80% of all comfort women were Korean, and that guestimations of Korean comfort women range from 40,000 - 200,000; the latter does not seem to be a stretch of the truth.

The above picture of a military man dressed up in US military clothing with four comfort women is from the US National archives. Lots of information was made by the US military when they came across the comfort women stations. Why does the US have such notes? Because they noticed the Japanese fought to the death, absolutely, so they started documenting data about the Japanese. They noticed houses with women (as they took over territory) so they documented extensively about the women. This shows that the US military was very aware of the comfort women who were allegedly forced to serve the Japanese military, yet they the US remained silent. They therefore share some responsibility on not bringing this issue to the public or introducing it in the trials of Japanese soldiers after the war.

Most people focus on the issue as young girls being forced into sexual slavery, but the real focus should be on why the government implemented such a practice, supported it, and of course forced young women to participate. 

A Japanese picture labeled "The virgin girls" - In the back row are teenage girls and some in their 20s,
five and six-year-olds are in the front row. 
The caption reads, "When the war heroes come back from the war,
the girls will provide the best for them."
Maintaining comfort women and comfort stations isn't just an issue of nationalism with Koreans demanding apologies from Japan. Korean army documentation shows that the Korean military likewise maintained sexual stations for their men. "War History on the War Front" (1956) published by the Korean Army documents Koreans having comfort stations too. The book shows only four places were Korean comfort stations were (but there were more). In the book 89 women were listed serving 204,580 men. This was the number of Korean soldiers at the time. 

Professor Han cradling the book, "War History on the War Front" (1965)
In "War History on the War Front" is documentation of the number of men in the army at that time
and documentation of four comfort stations used by the Korean army.
Sexual slavery wasn't only limited to Japanese soldiers. Korean generals were collaborators with Japanese and they were the ones who authorized the sex slavery for the Korean army.

There was also a sexual slavery for the UN army at the time but statistics haven't been found as yet.

In 1965 an issue of normalization of slavery became an international discussion; however, the sexual slavery issue in regard to Japan wasn't brought up because the Korean government had their own sexual slavery, and at the time Korean soldiers were sent to Vietnam and sexual slaves went along to accompany and "accommodate" them.

In the 1970s the Korean government had a cleaning campaign for the military base area (because of STDs). In the US military about 1,000 US soldiers and about 700 Korean soldiers had STDs. 

"Monkey" House (which later became a documentary) was a detainment house for women who had STDs. The house functioned from the 1970s to 2003. There was a "joke" that if you worked (not as a female) at the Monkey House, you would become rich and be able to buy an elaborate house within two years because pimps would come around and want their girls out so bribes to get them released were lucrative and frequent.

Though women were not termed comfort women and were paid, albeit a very marginal amount, they functioned sexually for the military. Military prostitution became a part of US military bases, not within the base grounds but just outside the encampment so as not to be "officially" military operated. However, such operations did occur. American Town was a house opened 24 hours a day and served about 1,000 US soldiers. It was operated by a high-up official from the KCIA (2nd or 3rd in command). Officials told the women working there, "You are a safety net for keeping the US military men happy." From the 1950s to 1960s the revenue made by the women serving the US military men was 10% of South Korea's Grose National Product. 

Former prostitute for the American military speaks out and writes a book
on American Town where she did sexual work.
Military camps in South Korea are still set up with red-light districts around, and the women working in them were euphemistically called 양공주 (Western or Yankee princess). It is said that the South Korean and US government collude on providing sexual entertainment facilities for the US military men serving in South Korea; former prostitutes testify against both governments

For so many reasons, the comfort women issue has not gotten the sharp focus and attention of the South Korean government as well as international backing to achieve an apology and war crime reparations. Though an "apology" is said to have been given and received, politics has shaped and continues to shape how "noisy" the governments want to be, or don't want to be, on the politically and economically driven issue that seems to mask the social aspect.

In "apologizing" to Park Geun-hye, one of the demands of the Japanese government for giving apology is the removal of the controversial comfort woman sculpture in front of the Japanese embassy. Many such images exist in South Korea and they, according to the terms of the apology, are all to be removed. Activists stay 24/7 with the sculpture. They say it will not be removed until a real apology is forth-coming. The former comfort women have gathered every Wednesday for 24 years now. They have protested more than 1,200 times. Never during this time has a Japanese ambassador come to see, to talk, to listen, or to apologize. There doesn't seem to be a formal, public apology forthcoming and the activists will continue to demand recognition and apology indefinitely until it does.

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