Saturday, December 15, 2007

How Empires Deal with History: The European Parliament Gives Me the Opportunity to Revisit the Comfort Women Issue

Once upon a time, I suggested that I would revisit the comfort women issue more fully than I had up till then. I’ve taken this occasion to put my tentative conclusions and the conclusions only in the form of a conjecture. A fuller treatment at this point would require my reasoning behind each assertion as well as many qualifiers and modifiers.

In an event that even wire services overlooked but the Japanese media dutifully recorded, the European Parliament in its plenary meeting on 13 December passed a resolution closely mirroring the U.S., Canadian and Dutch resolutions. The European Parliament apparently does not need a quorum, since out of the 785 EU MPs, only 54 voted in support while 3 abstained. Regardless, the Yomiuri is alarmed at the possibility of a chain reaction, and has decided to strike back with an editorial calling on the government to “review the Kōno Statement”, which according to the editorial, “suggested that Japanese officials systematically and coercively recruited women to be comfort women.” The editorial further states that “there is not one single document or a shred of evidence that substantiates this”. Knowing Japan hands will likely chide the Yomiuri for rising to the bait and advise it to let yet another non-binding resolution lie.

I for one would fully agree with any public efforts to revisit the entire issue. If such a thing is done, though, I believe that the picture of what most likely occurred over those years will disappoint many people, including the denialists as well as the people pushing the resolutions. It will also displease the Korean public. In fact, I am surprised to find nothing out there from my admittedly intermittent and usually accidental visitations to the issue that resembles what I have come to see as the probable. Since I do not feel the urge to expend my own resources to do the substantial spadework required to provide proper documentation, I offer it here as Okumura’s Conjecture. If anybody is interested in putting up real money to explore it more fully, I’ll be happy to spend some of my time on it. As things stand, the only thing that the denialists obtain is overseas opprobrium, while those who claim to be seeking reconciliation merely achieve revenge as proxy.

The comfort women from Korea and Taiwan were recruited in more or less the same way as the Japanese comfort women, with due adjustments for the greater poverty of those two colonies* as well as the lower status of Koreans and Taiwanese in the Japanese empire. Their treatment once in situ also reflected such status. The business was mostly a private sector affair dominated by Japanese operators but with substantial local involvement. Some of the women did receive financial rewards - if not emotional satisfaction or job security - far exceeding that of a general in the imperial army, but many, if not most, saw conditions quite different from those advertised, never for the better. Some, at times with the complicity of immediate family members, were totally ignorant of what would be in store for them. And speaking of advertisement, most comfort women did not of themselves find placement through newspaper ads.

As the Japanese military moved out beyond Manchuria**, it foraged for supplies***, including women. Beyond whatever contingent that it managed to bring along and locally available local supply, it gang-pressed unwilling women into sexual service****. The overall scope and relative proportion of the latter will never be known. The level and nature of this coercion, even its existence, varied widely from place to place, and also as result of the outlook of local commanding officers. It did this in mainland China, the Dutch Indies, the Philippines and Singapore. It is possible that it did this in other locations as well. The Dutch women were released because the Germans interceded. In any case, the military - local commanders and officers as well as Central Command -was a branch of government just as much as, say, the Emperor’s Privy Council.

The human condition of the comfort women as well as their ultimate fate also varied with time and place. The outlook of local commanding officers had a major effect. As the situation worsened for the Japanese military, the women also suffered. Under extreme conditions, they were treated at best no better than other civilians.

As I’ve said before, I see no reason to retract the Kōno Statement. If - it is an enormous if - the Cabinet decides to issue an apology over and beyond the Prime Ministers’ letters, or the Diet decides to adopt a resolution (passes a motion?) of its own, I think that one or the other will come up with something that I can support. But leaving the political practicalities aside (the resolutions have made a meaningful domestic dialogue impossible for the time being), any such action will have to follow the fullest possible search for the truth. And the truth should lie more or less in the above conjecture.

I believe that the reason that such a scenario fails to be adequately explored is because the public debate is dominated by the two extremes, one dominant in Japan and the other in the West and South Korea. The two ends focus on material that supports their conjectures to the neglect of other evidence direct and circumstantial, historical analogues both Japanese and non-, and other known facts and circumstances as well as common sense that speaks otherwise. Though I have no reason to doubt their sincerity, the truth may be too complicated and unpleasant for these people to handle. But my views, needless to repeat, are mere conjecture. I stand ready to be proven wrong.

Finally, to those legislatures that purport to pass moral judgment on the Japanese government, I will heed your words if and when you destroy your own glass houses. Otherwise I have no regard for your actions, which you believe, falsely, to be costless.

* I use the term “colonies” rather loosely here. In legal terms, imperial Japan in Korea and Taiwan went beyond what the old European empires did. Think Hitler and Sudetenland, only if there had been no ethnic Germans there.

** The origins and the fate of the comfort women from Manchuria should have been similar to those of the Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese comfort women, but I cannot pull any material on them from my memory, so I refrain from including them in the main body of my conjecture.

*** Logistics was never a strong point of the Japanese military.

**** There must have been a large number of women who were raped but were never subsequently conscripted as comfort women. That is a related but different issue.

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