There are matters left untouched, and what I have written below does not have the look of a finished product even as a self-indulgent blogger. But I have other matters to tend to, so I shall let it stand for now, perhaps to come back to it if I have something appropriate for a more formal outlet.
The Kono Statement regarding the comfort women was issued to smooth the way to the 1993 Japan-South Korea summit. Since then, the Korean government, citizens, media and expats and their descendants—I will refer to them collectively as Koreans except where it is necessary to be more specific—have assumed ownership of the issue and have demanded restitution and further apologies from the Japanese government and to secure international recognition of their unique suffering, each to varying degrees of success.
The Korean claim in its purest form is that 200,000 or more young Korean women were taken forcibly and detained to provide sexual services against their will for Japanese soldiers. Japanese revisionism at its most extreme holds that the women were highly paid professionals who performed sexual services of their own free will. The Asahi report falls somewhere in between, a more detailed variation of my conjecture some years ago, which I posted on this blog: a Japanese military and government that procured women from Japan, Korea and Taiwan through middlemen to provide sexual services to its soldiers and officers and engaged in the maintenance of the establishments where the females were sequestered or housed1. As the military pressed forward and secured women locally, the report says that it became more strident and violent for this undertaking, including rape.
The number 200,000 is connected in the Asahi report to a claim that the Korean comfort women were recruited as the Women’s Volunteer Corps. But the Women’s Volunteer Corps of Korea turned out to be the same as their Japanese namesakes, school girls who had been mobilized to work in Japanese factories2. The assertion that the women were taken forcibly stems from the testimony of a Japanese man who claimed to have been involved in the seizure on the Island of Jeju. His testimony, however, was totally discredited by facts that contradicted it and by his inability/unwillingness to produce any evidence to support it. These matters had become widely known by the late 1990s, but Asahi had remained silent until it conclusively rejected them in its report.
Where does this leave the Kono Statement? I continue to believe that it is within the range of acceptable renditions of what occurred or is likely to have occurred. It is certainly appropriate for some of the things that the Japanese military did in China and Southeast Asia. And if what we see and hear even today of the sexual trade held true then as well, then many of the Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese women, the younger ones in particular, and some of their families, should not have been aware of what was befalling them until it was too late; some of them would have surely have left their stations had the military and/or the police not been there to maintain order2.
How then, does the rejection of the Women’s Volunteer Corps-as-comfort women and forcible taking of the women from the Island of Jeju change the circumstances? Well, they were both held up as key elements of the Japanese government’s involvement in the recruitment. Take them out, and much of the power of the narrative disappears. Moreover, advocates of the comfort women assert numbers, the bigger the better, with conviction, while detractors prefer smaller numbers, if any, and emphasize uncertainty. Take the Women’s Volunteer Corps off the table, and the largest estimate disappears.
By remaining silent, Asahi allowed the related assertions to maintain a degree of legitimacy that Koreans could use to give the undeniable story of victimhood a power and Korean uniqueness that it otherwise would not have lacked. For Korea as a nation never fought imperial Japan; it never had the chance. It was seized, then subsumed, with minimal resistance. Then WW II came and went, with only tangential consequences until the release at its conclusion, again at the hands of others. The comfort women, embellished by a misunderstanding and a falsehood, became an indispensable symbol for Korea’s alignment with the victims and eventual victors in Japan’s war of aggression in Asia and the Pacific.
Now that the Korean narrative has lost much if not most of its uniqueness, where does the world go from here? In an ideal world, Koreans would adapt to the new narrative, align with the Japanese, most of their elderly and recent forebears, who felt victimized by the misadventures of the Japanese government and military, while the kind of Japanese who experience schadenfreude at the lawsuits recent brought against the South Korean government by “comfort women” for the US troops stationed there wake up to the fact that this was almost surely another case where the South Koreans had learned well from the example of their erstwhile colonial masters in the archipelago to the east and likewise accede to the new narrative when they have exhausted themselves from flogging the Asahi for its belated admission3. But I am probably grown too old and too cynical to expect that to come to pass or to advocate in the hopes that they will listen.
1. My assertion of “not quite separate, not quite equal” for military service and forced labor held true for the comfort women as well, since only the Japanese women had a minimum age limit of 21.
2. Bruce Cumings’s Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (2005) had a photo of two or three girls in school uniforms surrounding a middle-aged man in a chair, all looking solemn, even dignified. With no provenance, Cumings states that the girls were comfort women. The photo had no provenance, but an armband indicated that the man was an executive at Nakajima Aircraft, the producer of the Zero Fighter among other things. My deceased mother went to a school not that far away, in Gifu and inevitably wound up as a member of the Women’s Volunteer Corps. It is now too late to ask if their paths might have crossed.
3. Yes, it would be nice if the Asahi accounted for what had transpired during its silence. It would be nice if Asahi set out its position as an editorial. (The other major dailies have spoken on it, from predictably Sankei, Yomiuri and Mainichi perspectives.) But self-reflection is not one of the Japanese media’s strong points, Asahi or otherwise. Let it suffice that Asahi has decided to clear the air on the facts at all.