Maverick Japanese mayor confuses prostitution with sex slavery

Philip Cunningham says it's vital to see use of 'comfort women' for troops as a grievous war crime

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 1:52am

The right-wing revisionism of Japan's ruling party, stacked to the decks with organisation men who are either progeny of former war criminals and war profiteers, or unduly inspired by the warriors interred at the Yasukuni Shrine, is worrisome enough, but even independents are marching to the militant drumbeat.

Osaka's maverick mayor Toru Hashimoto recently said that the so-called "comfort women" - long-suffering and justice-deprived sex slaves and prostitutes - were necessary to Japan's war, and, in the spirit of consistency, he urged the US to use the prostitution services in Okinawa to keep its own "courageous" troops happy.

According to the rigid sexual roles of the day, that women should do their utmost to support and comfort the soldiers

It's easy to express outrage about the latest verbal gaffe but is there any way in which Hashimoto's comments can be at least partially understood as an honest reflection of a deeply non-Western worldview?

Like the Yasukuni rightists in the national government, Hashimoto showboats his respect for the fighting men of Japan's ruinous war; his basic logic being that extraordinary demands upon women were justifiable because so much was demanded of the men.

In wartime Japan, men served as soldiers on the front line and in doing so put their lives at risk; so it followed, according to the rigid sexual roles of the day, that women should do their utmost to support and comfort the soldiers. It was not just a sexual thing; while being trained for their missions, the young kamikaze pilots were famously "mothered" by mama-sans in bars and hostels near airbases.

Hashimoto's observation that prostitution goes hand in hand with war is not without merit, but it evades a key point. Prostitution is one thing, sexual slavery something entirely different. The real crime was not finding women who wanted to comfort at-risk males, but forcing girls and women to service soldiers against their will. That many of the women were Korean and Chinese, drawn from the occupied territories of nations that had been effectively raped and beaten by the marauding troops of imperial Japan, only made matters worse.

Prostitution is too nice a word to describe the political cruelty of the ianfu system, but the victims weren't all sex slaves, either. Inasmuch as there are historical records of prostitutes plying their trade for the money, revisionists can imagine the entire system as voluntary.

Even those not so naive to pretend the ianfu were happy volunteers have their reasons for validating the comfort woman system. Since the dawn of military conquest, rape has been part of the horror of war. Indeed, it was partly in reaction to the documented horror of the rape of Nanking that the Japanese government upped its bureaucratic involvement in the business of procuring women, both as a means of better controlling its own troops and cutting down on the rapes that undermined civilian support in occupied territories.

Hashimoto's odd comments encouraging US troops in Okinawa to avail themselves of prostitutes can be understood as a reflection of the oddly subservient relationship that Japan's self-styled nationalists enjoy with US power. For most Japanese alive today, the only wars they've witnessed are American wars, the only soldiers they've seen in action are American soldiers, and the only rape cases between soldiers and civilians that they hear about are between US servicemen and Japanese women.

The rightists do complain, with some justification, about American double standards and hypocrisy. Was there not a great deal of soldier-civilian sex going on during the US occupation of Japan? And what about the infamous R&R exploits of US troops in Vietnam?

There are important policy differences, of course, between government-sanctioned sex business and the opportunistic interactions of soldiers and "freelancers" on the periphery of military bases, but even official interference has its supporters.

The thinking goes something like this; soldiers and sex go hand in hand, so it is better to constrain, contain and control the business than leave it to the vagaries of human nature.

In the archaic view of Japan's wartime administrators, it was necessary to "protect" the purity of wives, sisters and daughters of decent society by putting "indecent" women on the front line. When US soldiers marched into Japan in 1945, Japanese authorities were likewise quick to provide women and pleasure stations in the hope of minimising the rape of civilians.

Japan's historic readiness to "sacrifice" women for the comfort of its own and US soldiers before and after the war suggests an imagined fraternity of men that women have good reason to be sceptical about.

While it's understandable that some people oppose the idea of "comfort women" simply because they oppose prostitution, it is important to separate the two. Sex slavery as practised by Japan was a grievous war crime and should be apologised and atoned for, while prostitution is a persistent practice found in every society, about which a wide range of reasonable views is possible.

Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer, whose most recent book about China is Tiananmen Moon