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Why do some Japanese politicians continue to defend the wartime practice of ‘comfort women’?

Image 1Controversial remarks have recently been made by Japanese politicians with regards to Japan’s wartime issues including that of “comfort women”.  Here are a few of the comments which have come under fierce bombardment from inside as well as outside Japan:

‘The Japanese military’s “comfort women” regime of forced prostitution of Asian women before and during the second world war was necessary to maintain discipline in the ranks and provide rest for soldiers who risked their lives in battle.’

‘”Comfort women” is erroneously translated as “sex slaves,” which might encourage anti-Japanese riots and conspiracies. We better fight back by telling them that the words “comfort women” and “sex slaves” are completely different and that there are numerous South Korean prostitutes roaming around Japan.’

The first comment made by the outspoken nationalist mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, has outraged not only Japan’s Asian neighbours but also many in the West. In order to stand by the founder and co-leader of The Japan Restoration Party, his colleague, Shingo Nishimura, gave the second comment during the party meeting. It turned out that Nishimura, who is notorious for his past ‘hoopla,’ was expelled from Hashimoto’s party.

The question raised here is why Japanese politicians continue to make such antagonistic remarks. Walden Bello, the alter-globalisationist and Filipino political analyst specializing in the Asian Pacific region discusses it with regard to various aspects of post-war Japan in the opinion page of The Inquire Net. His analysis touches on the following points: Japan’s failure to come to terms with its war-time history in comparison with Germany’s success; the pivotal role of the U.S. in promoting Japan’s ‘historical amnesia’ for their own national interest; Japanese conservatives’ economic clientelism, especially with regard to the U.S.; and the emergence of historical revisionists, such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, against the backdrop of long-term economic recession and political turmoil.

Among others, Bello’s following criticism entails the failure of Japanese society as a whole in interpreting war-time history.

‘Right-wing elements that seek to restore Japan’s imperial glory have taken advantage of the nation’s lack of internalization of war guilt and responsibility for war crimes to become a political force, even as the left, which has championed pacifism and national  responsibility for war crimes, has become more and more marginal.’

So, have the champions of human rights been dying out in Japan? The answer is ‘No’. In the wake of his brazen comments on the commodification and objectification of female sexuality, anti-Hashimoto movements have been gaining momentum and expanding across the nation. On 22nd May 2013, a wide-scale political rally to protest Hashimoto’s comments was held inside the Upper House Building under joint sponsorship of 235 non-governmental organisations across the boundaries of race, gender, and religion.

Japan’s resilient moral activists’ campaign for women’s human rights bore fruit through actions taken by the United Nations on 21 May 2013. The U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended Japan prevent hate speech and manifestations including those against former “comfort women”, who are labelled as ‘prostitutes.’ The UN committee made numerous recommendations, including the following:

‘The Committee is concerned about the lasting negative effects of the exploitation to which ‘comfort women’ were subjected on their enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights and their entitlement to reparation (art. 11, 3). The Committee recommends that the State party take all necessary measures to address the lasting effects of the exploitation and to guarantee the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by ‘comfort women’. The Committee also recommends that the State party educate the public on the exploitation of ‘comfort women’ so as to prevent hate speech and other manifestations that stigmatize them.’

However, since the UN recommendation is not legally binding upon Japan, its political impact may not be substantial enough to transform Japanese politicians, including Hashimoto, into lawmakers that are conscious of human rights issues. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the global community to encourage and support moral activists in Japan from outside, thereby facilitating the creation of ‘viable’ civil society in Japan. It has been the efforts of transnational activism that unearthed the memory of “comfort women” from its buried history and made the voice of the forgotten heard in Japanese society.

On the one hand, people of conscious must raise their voices in disapproval of comments which distort history as well as commodify and de-humanise women’s bodies.  However, since the main focus of my research is on the contestation between history, memory and gender in post-war Japan, such comments, for better or worse, provide a vibrant terrain for further research.

Sachiyo Tsukamoto graduated from the School of Politics in 2010 with an MA in Social and Global Justice. She is currently a first-year PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham, in the Department of History and a fellow of The Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ).

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