For some years now there has been a campaign in Japan to publicise the ‘hidden’ history of the existence and treatment of ‘comfort-women’ during the Second World War. These were women who were mainly forced into prostitution to service the sexual desires of Japanese soldiers during that war. Such women were ‘captured’ by (or on behalf of) the Japanese government and herded from place to place as the army advanced or retreated. A few of the women, who were ‘used’ and abused in this fashion are still alive and their stories have been compiled by activist women in Japan.
The use of the term ‘comfort’ itself attempts to hide a reality of forced sex-slavery for some women in the Japanese theatre of operations. The resistance to come clean is already embedded in the term selected to describe this predatory and degrading practice. It cannot be surprising therefore, that the campaign for a retrospective admission and apology for this callous obliteration of women’s rights in the 20th century, has been met with less than enthusiasm by the ‘nationalist’ sentiments of ‘official’ male-stream Japan. Apparently to some among the Japanese elite, the visiting and discussion of historical crimes against humanity, has little or no contemporary relevance and should be left entirely to the individual study of historians.
Yet it is clear – to those who want to see – that resistance or failure to admitting past wrongs, more often than not, says a great deal about the present. Elites, throughout the globe, like to base themselves upon ‘traditions’ and those traditions are always whitewashed to make them appear healthy and ‘civilised’. Japan is no exception! The admission of former crimes against humanity, not only shakes the moral foundations of these traditions but also raises questions as to what contemporary crimes are also being committed and covered up by these ‘traditional’ values. This revealing possibility was at evident in a recent televised discussion on the subject in the ‘stream’ section of an Aljazeera international broadcast. This discussion, of the plight of ‘comfort women’ with participants drawn from Japan, revealed this reluctance and also its contemporary rationalisation.
From the outset the discussion was couched within a ‘nationalist’ framework with one young male most anxious to defend the political and military integrity of Japan. He claimed that it was not the Japanese military who recruited these women, but the men of the countries annexed by Japan. It was pointed out to him that these men were directly acting on behalf of the Japanese occupying forces. However, this did not inhibit his sophistry and bluster in his increasingly failing defence of Japanese integrity and humanity, during the Second World War. As part of his rationalisation of the use of ‘comfort women’ by the Japanese military and political class, at one point he claimed that such ‘prostitution’ was part of ‘the oldest profession’ .
Such patriarchal assertions completely ignore the fact that to the extent that this claim has any truth within it at all, this merely indicates how long the sexual exploitation of the female half of humanity has been systemic. During the ensuing discussion this young Japanese double-chauvinist kept on attempting to shout the female participants down and continually interrupted the points they were making. This latter behaviour as much as his justifications, more than anything demonstrated that Japanese patriarchal attitudes were still dominant in the 21st century – even among the younger generation of males of that country.
His one relevant point was to blurt out that other armies – the west included – had also made use of military-supported brothels to satiate the sexual desires of their troops. However, this observation on the international character of sexual exploitation via patriarchy and patrifocality was not followed up by the organisers of the discussion nor the other participants. This was a pity because the fate of women during warfare is entirely global. And this brutal treatment is as utterly and horribly relevant in the 21st century as it was in previous centuries. No modern nation-state, or ancient feudal kingdom is bereft of such horrors.
This particularly exploitative and oppressive attitude to women is not a product of nationality, but of patriarchy. The general discriminatory and callous treatment of women – in all countries – merely reaches the ultimate depths of depravity during the obscenities of war. This universal phenomenon reveals much that is deficient in the male section of humanity. The failure by men to confront the ideological foundations of patriarchy and patrifocality, and ‘all’ its practical manifestations is also an indicator of the long journey modern humanity has yet to make to become truly human and truly wise.
Roy Ratcliffe (May 2015)