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The comfort women

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The comfort women issue has been a controversial topic since December 1991, where Kim Hak-sun and several other Korean women came forward in a lawsuit against the Japanese government demanding reparation as former “comfort women.”[1] Undoubtedly, there is an abundance of literature concerning the issue from both Japanese and American scholars. In addition, the media illustrates many different positions that have been and are still argued today. Yuki Tanaka, however, provides an interesting analysis of Japan's comfort system in his book, Japan's Comfort Women: Sexual slavery and prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation. He begins on a personal note concerning his father and uncles being part of the Kwantung Army; one of many groups who participated in the comfort system. Tanaka suggests that the Japanese soldiers were not “monsters” but average and banal human beings whose participation was a “personal choice,” not a mass conspiracy of evil.[2] In essence, Yuki Tanaka's book provides a sound examination of the origins and structure of the comfort system during World War II, as well as its further establishment for the Allies during the US occupation. However, Tanaka neglects the issue of “slavery” and overemphasizes the issue of “sex” within the comfort women system. While this is not to say that he fails to acknowledge the slavery issue, his book is driven towards the universal connection between war and sex, in relation to his focus on the ideologies of masculinity and dominance as sole grounds for the brutality against comfort women in Japan and later on in the expanse of Asia.

In this review, I examine Tanaka's approach on the comfort women issue by evaluating how his literature is structured. I also examine his literature's dependency on the aspects of dominance, masculinity and sex during the wartime as reasoning for his chosen direction on the comfort women issue. Lastly, I examine Tanaka's use of terminology throughout his book and determine whether his chosen terminology indicates a trivial bias or an unconscious effort to categorize the differing levels of brutality in which the Japanese military and the Allied occupation forces exploit comfort women.

Tanaka's motivation to further investigate the comfort women issue stems from the continued silence from his father and uncles concerning certain Japanese war experiences. He suggests that he learned about his father's wartime experiences through a historical filter, which is often a common practice with history-telling. Tanaka states that the silence warrants a further examination of the history of Japanese prostitution, as well as the practice of wartime prostitution by other nations, specifically the US and Australia.[3] Although Tanaka does not excuse what Japan did to women during World War II, he explains that it was “part of a pervasive pattern of worldwide male aggression and domination.”[4] Ultimately, Tanaka universalizes certain aspects of Japan's military prostitution and the institution of the comfort system. This provides an interesting and rational approach to the issue, since deeming the comfort system as an isolated incident would be careless and ignorant.

Tanaka structures his book into six chapters: the origins of the comfort women system, procurement of comfort women and their lives as sexual slaves, comfort women in the Dutch East Indies, why the US forces ignored the comfort women issue, sexual violence committed by the Allied occupation forces, and Japanese comfort women for the Allied occupation forces. In chapter one, he provides a detailed illustration of the how the comfort system started and how it grew from mass recruitment, coercion, abduction and transaction. Tanaka specifically relates the structure of the comfort system to the karayuki-san system of overseas prostitution. He highlights the progressive nature of the Japanese military prostitution system of using professional Japanese prostitutes to using Korean women in the comfort stations. In chapter two, Tanaka examines the significant emergence of Korean women in comfort stations during Japan's colonization of Korea. While most literature concerning the comfort women issue focus on the exploitation of Korean women, Tanaka analyzes the circumstances pertaining to the use of Korean women as the main source for the comfort system. To enhance this aspect, he uses testimonies from Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese and Filipino comfort women victims to emphasize the drastic expansion of the system from China and the Shanghai Incident in 1932, to the entire Asia-Pacific zone after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.[5]

In chapters three and four, Tanaka's focus turns away from the Asian community and towards the international community to examine common characteristics of military prostitution between the Japanese military and the Allied occupation forces.[6] Tanaka first examines the Dutch, Eurasian and Indonesian comfort women in the Dutch East Indies, where the Dutch military prosecute the Japanese military for crimes against the Dutch women, but not for the Asian women situated in the Dutch East Indies.[7] The issue of race is a significant aspect to how the comfort system is structured, as well as how the US and other Allied occupation forces fail to prosecute the Japanese military for crimes against humanity for all comfort women victims. Tanaka highlights the aspect of racial discrimination to place responsibility on the Allied forces for exacerbating the issue by failing to take action against the Japanese military. He also examines how the US occupation forces, along with the British and Australian troops, maintained similar policies of “military-controlled prostitution”[8] as the Japanese military. In addition, Tanaka raises important questions pertaining to whether these policies are still a common practice in contemporary military forces, and whether this issue is “integral to the relationship between war and sexuality.”[9] Tanaka's approach to the comfort women issue takes on a broader focus, which encompasses other nations as active participants in their acts of brutality against comfort women.

In chapter five, Tanaka uses a wide variety of Japanese and American documents to examine the true nature of the Allied forces' military-controlled prostitution and the extent of the violence and rape suffered by women. With this chapter, Tanaka aims to bring the problematic relationship between war and sexuality into the spotlight of the comfort women issue. In chapter six, Tanaka establishes that the characteristics of the wartime comfort system were similar to the Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA) established specifically for the Allied occupation forces. He maintains that the RAA was a less brutal establishment of military prostitution than that of the Japanese wartime comfort system. However, historian Bob T. Wakabayashi argues that “[i]f the Allies' sexual exploitation of women was less brutal, then, this was largely because it was more lucrative for the women.”[10] Throughout the book, Tanaka emphasizes the problem of venereal disease, which only increased as the comfort system expanded. While policies were implemented to prevent the spread of venereal diseases, none of the implemented polices attempted to discontinue the system. This, Tanaka suggests, shows how the preventive policies only increased venereal disease because soldiers were working around the policies to find other ways to meet with prostitutes. By examining how Tanaka structures his book, his approach on the comfort women issue suggests that he believes the role of the Allied occupation forces in the comfort system is explained by the ideological relationship between war and sexuality.

Tanaka's approach to the comfort women issue is defined by his book's dependency on the aspects of dominance, masculinity and sex during wartime. He uses these aspects to universalize characteristics of the comfort system as an example of the relationship between war and sex. In addition, Joy Damousi also suggests that Tanaka views “racism and nationalism [as] interrelated within the ideology of masculinity … [where] sexual abuse of women symbolized the dominance of the conquerors.”[11] Wakabayashi, however, argues that Tanaka purposefully shifts the issue's focus from Korea to the Asia-Pacific zone to look for “charges of criminality” from international law rather than domestic law.[12] Tanaka addresses the parallel between the violation of the woman's body and the domination over the enemy on the battlefield. He states that the brothels and prostitutes were used because soldiers believed that women were there to help the soldiers who fought to protect their country.[13] This type of reasoning indicates that the soldiers saw their relations with comfort women as a transaction of returned favors. Tanaka states that the soldiers' mindset stems from aspects of dominance and masculinity enforced in preparation for the war.

Tanaka also theorizes that sexual activity, especially during wartimes, provides an escape from reality, similar to the effects of alcohol.[14] Ultimately, it is used as a weapon against death. In relation to war, violence is needed when fighting wars, which translates into violence against women, in this case against comfort women. Physical domination over women, especially women of the enemy, translates into the humiliation of the enemy.[15] This type of war mentality is very common, not just with the Japanese military, but with the Allied occupation forces as well. Wakabayashi, thus, questions why Japan is the only country under litigation if other Allied occupation forces from the US and Australia also played a role in exacerbating the comfort system. A. Hamish Ion disagrees with Wakabayashi's assessment and states that while the Allied occupation forces' behavior was cruel, it “does not equate with that of the wartime Japanese military.”[16] Ultimately, the sexual abuse of women is inevitable during wartime because soldiers are trained to exude masculinity and dominance, which Tanaka explains is the “military culture of sexualized masculinity, a phenomenon common to military organizations regardless of nationality.”[17]

Tanaka provides an interesting comparison between war and sexuality in relation to how this ideological relationship shaped the comfort system during World War II and into the US occupation. While Tanaka gives the impression that he believes the Allied occupation forces played a significant role in exploiting Asian women, he reasons that it was less brutal than the exploitation suffered during the wartime. Wakabayashi argues that Tanaka shifts the focus of the comfort system towards the Asia-Pacific zone for the purpose of using international law to evaluate the Japanese military. However, one must acknowledge that Tanaka's shift in focus also emphasizes sexuality and its effect on war. For this reason, he concludes the use of sex was a main factor in sustaining military discipline.[18]

Tanaka's use of terminology throughout his book also factors into how he illustrates the comfort women issue. From examining his term use, the reader can question whether his literature depicts a bias or merely an effort to distinguish the severity of Japan's military prostitution and the Allied occupation forces' exploitation of women. Throughout his book, Tanaka does not use the term “coerced” like many other authors do in their literature. Instead, he consistently uses the terms “forced” and “recruit” in reference to how comfort women were procured. This is especially pronounced in chapter two: procurement of comfort women and their lives as sexual slaves, where Tanaka examines the circumstances of Chinese and Filipino comfort women. Often times, the Japanese military did not have to conceal how they were treating civilians.[19] In this case, using the term “coerced” implies bullying and intimidation, while using the term “forced” implies an outright proactive recruitment. In addition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's definition of “coercion” states that “government authorities [were] breaking into private homes and taking [women] like kidnappers,”[20] which proves to be a fitting definition in the procurement of Chinese and Filipino comfort women. Tanaka also uses the term “procure” as a more general reference to how the Japanese military were obtaining and acquiring women for the comfort system. The overall use of this term encompasses terms such as “coercing,” “forcing” and “recruiting” in relation to the comfort system because it only specifies that the women were obtained, not the method in which they were obtained.

Wakabayashi also hints at Tanaka's “slight bias” when referring to “sexual slavery” for Japan and “military-controlled” prostitution for the Allied forces.[21] Ultimately, Wakabayashi feels that Tanaka “downplays Western military sexual violence”[22] because he categorizes Japan and the Allies' role in the exploitation of women differently. Wakabayashi also accuses Tanaka of being hypocritical because Tanaka states in his introduction that he means no offence by using terms such as “comfort women” and “comfort stations” in his literature, which he describes as “cruel euphemisms.”[23] In addition, Wakabayashi is bothered by Tanaka's use of the acronym “RAA” to refer to the “Recreation and Amusement Association” established specifically for the Allied occupation forces. However, it can be argued that Tanaka uses acronyms throughout his book, including the terms General Head Quarters (GHQ), venereal disease (VD) and Government Issue (GI). His use of acronyms could either mean he is attempting to save the reader from repeatedly reading “venereal disease” numerous times, or that he is trying to downplay the Allies' involvement in the exploitation because most of his acronym usage is located in the chapters focused on the Allies.

It is not difficult to see why Tanaka downplays the Allied occupation forces' involvement, especially when he refers to terms such as “prostitution” and “sexual slavery.” In this case, prostitution implies “payment of sexual union.”[24] Tanaka provides a brief examination of the structure of a comfort establishment by the Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA). The GI is to pay at the front desk and pick up a ticket and a condom before meeting with the comfort woman. In the morning, the comfort woman goes to the front desk to claim half of the money paid. Therefore, one could agree with Tanaka and argue that the RAA and the Allied occupation forces were not as brutal in their exploitation, which is why only Japan is involved in litigation concerning the comfort women issue. By examining Tanaka's terminology throughout his book, one can establish that his use of certain terms indicates a bias, but not an unexamined one. His chosen terminology also emphasizes the sexuality aspect of war and its effect on how both Japanese and Allied troops influenced the comfort system.

This review centers around the argument that Yuki Tanaka overemphasizes the aspect of “sex” and not enough on the aspect of “slavery.” This is because Tanaka's approach on the comfort women issue is dependent upon the relationship between war and sex. This relationship implies a universality of certain characteristics of the comfort system or at least characteristics of military prostitution exploited by all nations. By examining the structure of his book and the terminology he uses, one can identify that Tanaka aims to investigate certain war experiences that the older generation of World War II, from Japan, the US and Australia, maintained silence about. In essence, Tanaka relies heavily on the aspect of “sex” where A. Hamish Ion also points out, “the issue at heart is not sex but slavery.”[25]

Tanaka's book provides an interesting yet reasonable approach to the comfort women issue. He manages to examine different sources from the Japanese Archives, the Australian National Archives and War Memorial, as well as the US National Archives, which allowed him to map out patterns and continuities between military prostitution and war mentality. He provides many primary documents throughout his book, including comfort women and military officials' testimonies, witness reports, statistical data as well as photographs. He attributes most of this research to his fourth and fifth chapters, which would have turned out differently had he not visited the US National Archives. Tanaka's book not only provides insight to the origins and structure of the comfort system during World War II, but also establishes the Allied occupation forces as a major contributor for the silence maintained concerning the comfort women issue. Therefore from this abundance of information Tanaka provides, one can conclude that the established silence on the issue was not for the lack of resources, but because literature has over-examined different aspects of the same angle.

[1] I use the term “comfort women” without quotation marks throughout the review to stay consistent with the author's use of the term in his book.

[2] Yuki Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women: Sexual slavery and prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation (New York: Routledge, 2002) 3-4.

[3] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, 2.

[4] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, (Forward) xvi.

[5] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, 5.

[6] Raymond Lamont-Brown, “Sex Slaves for the Emperor,” Contemporary Review 281, no. 1640 (2002), http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/gtx/start.do?prodId=EAIM&userGroupName=yorku_main, 181.

[7] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, 78.

[8] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, 92.

[9] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, 6.

[10] Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, “Review: Comfort Women: Beyond Litigious Feminism,” Monumenta Nipponica 58, no. 2 (2003), http://www.jstor.org/stable/25066215, 245.

[11] Joy Damousi, “Review: [untitled],” The American Historical Review 108, no. 4 (2003), http://www.jstor.org/stable/3523712, 1122.

[12] Wakabayashi, “Beyond Litigious Feminism,” 249.

[13] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, 87.

[14] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, 174.

[15] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, 176.

[16] A. Hamish Ion, “Review: [untitled],” The International History Review 23, no. 2 (2003), http://www.jstor.org/stable/40109381, 475.

[17] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, 179.

[18] Damousi, “Review,” 1122.

[19] Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women, 48.

[20] Hirofumi Hayashi, “Disputes in Japan over the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” System and its Perception in History,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 617 (2008), http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/gtx/start.do?prodId=EAIM&userGroupName=yorku_main, 124.

[21] Wakabayashi, “Beyond Litigious Feminism,” 243.

[22] Wakabayashi, “Beyond Litigious Feminism,” 243.

[23] Wakabayashi, “Beyond Litigious Feminism,” 244.

[24] Sarah Soh, “From Imperial Gifts to Sex Slaves: Theorizing Symbolic Representations of the ‘Comfort Women',” Social Science Japan Journal 3, no. 1 (2000), http://scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/, 65.

[25] Ion, “Review,” 474.


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