Uncomfortable History

Japan’s responsibility for ‘comfort women’ is avoided by the state and written out of national histories. Activists are working to make Japan confront its past.

Ben Jones

During the Asia Pacific War (1931-45), tens of thousands of women and girls in countries occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army were forced into sexual slavery as ‘comfort women’. Japan was compelled to confront this aspect of its history in the early 1990s, when survivors from South Korea came forward and sued the Japanese state, seeking an apology and compensation. In total, ten lawsuits were filed. Inspired by the survivors’ courage and impelled by a sense of responsibility as members of the perpetrator state, citizens across Japan formed groups to support this fight for justice in collaboration with activist groups in the survivors’ home countries. These included the Association for Supporting the Kanpu Lawsuit, the Association for Supporting the Lawsuits of Chinese ‘Comfort Women’ and the Association for Thinking about the ‘Military Comfort Women’ Issue. 

As historians uncovered documents that proved the Japanese military’s involvement in the comfort women system, politicians apologised, but without offering compensation. In a 1993 statement made by then chief cabinet secretary Kōno Yōhei – which would become Japan’s official stance on the issue – the government admitted the military’s involvement, as well as the practice of ‘coercion’ in the recruitment and treatment of the victims. It expressed ‘its sincere apologies and remorse’ and promised ‘never to repeat the same mistake by forever engraving such issues in our memories through the study and teaching of history’. In the wake of the statement, rekishi ninshiki (‘historical view’ or ‘understanding of history’) became a significant question for the Japanese people, who had tended to identify as victims of their own military leaders.  



When it became clear in 1996 that all lower secondary school textbooks approved by the government mentioned the comfort women issue in line with the Kōno statement, historical revisionists began a backlash against the view of Japan as a perpetrator. It would prove successful: within five years, only a few textbooks continued to mention the issue and 80 per cent of schools adopted those which avoided the subject, discouraging publishers from mentioning it. Endorsed by conservative politicians, most notably the former prime minister Abe Shinzō, a revisionist view that denies Japan’s history of military sexual violence and undermines the Kōno statement is now widespread. 

In 2007 the US House of Representatives passed a resolution requesting that Japan acknowledge its historical responsibility towards the comfort women. Other countries followed suit. The Abe administration refused to do so, insisting that private agents, not the military, had forcibly taken women to ‘comfort stations’. More recently, the Japanese government intervened in the building of comfort women memorials in South Korea and the Philippines, countries where the crimes occurred, and in the US and Germany, where transnational comfort women activism has taken place. In Japan, citizen groups continue to pursue state compensation and to inform the public of truths about comfort women. Much scholarship has been produced on the issue in what has become a national battle over rekishi (history) and kioku (memory). Yet it appears that the revisionists are winning: the majority of Japanese people adopt the government’s stance and there is a deep gap in understanding between the Japanese public and the international community. 


Legal means

I have interviewed dozens of women activists in Japan, who have developed different understandings of history and memory by meeting and listening to survivors in person. Ōmori Noriko is a lawyer who worked with Chinese survivors in their reparations lawsuits between 1995 and 2007. She has been seeking a legal resolution in Japan, even after the 2015 Japan-South Korea agreement, in which, after Japan established a 1 billion yen (£5.6 million) fund for surviving comfort women and issued another apology, the South Korean government agreed to consider the matter ‘finally and irreversibly’ resolved. One stipulation of this agreement was that the Japanese government made it clear this was not state compensation, which would mean acknowledging its responsibility. The agreement excluded survivors in other countries (the Chinese government has avoided taking a clear stance for political reasons). 

Ōmori was frustrated that Japanese progressives had failed in their attempt to make the government accept the state’s responsibility, but has continued lobbying officials for a resolution in line with the Kōno statement. ‘A political resolution is the only way to generate a collective historical memory of the issue’, she told me. It will create a historical view laden with visual images. She wants the words ‘comfort women’ to evoke soldiers making a long line in front of a room and of a woman confined inside, lying with her body injured by continuous rape.

The survivors lost all ten lawsuits, with the final Supreme Court judgment given in 2010. While earlier judgments were based on the principle of sovereign immunity and the statute of limitations, the rulings after 2007 rested on the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty and bilateral treaties made in conjunction with it. The Japanese government says that it resolved all compensation issues with these treaties, but Ōmori argues that the individual right to seek compensation from the state remains intact. She argues that Japanese officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs know this, despite denials.


A historian’s view

Ishida Yoneko is a historian of China. Between the mid-1990s and the late 2010s, she made regular visits to survivors and their families in China’s Shanxi Province with the group she co-founded, the Shanxi Group for Uncovering the Facts. Her encounters with surviving comfort women caused Ishida to change her stance as a historian. When the first survivors began to give their testimonies in the 1990s, a debate began in Japan over whether testimony could constitute historical evidence. The debate reached its climax when the feminist scholar Ueno Chizuko criticised historians for having an unquestioning faith in material evidence while dismissing the value of oral testimonies. Having previously relied on sources produced by historians Ishida and the Shanxi Group looked for first-hand testimony, with the intention of cross-checking accounts. 

On their trips to Shanxi the group interviewed villagers and studied the geography and topography of villages occupied by the Japanese, publishing their findings in a 2004 book, Kōdo no mura no seibōryoku (‘Sexual Violence in Villages in a Yellow Land’). Ishida found the women’s testimonies to be fragmentary. What they told her often changed from one occasion to another. Yet Ishida decided to accept what they said on each occasion, encouraging them to repeat their testimonies. Over time, they began to speak about their ordeals more coherently. 

Ishida also read wenshi ziliao, literary and historical materials collected by the Chinese state and widely acknowledged as comprehensive primary sources for Chinese regional history. In the wenshi ziliao of Yu County she found many descriptions of Japan’s atrocities and the Chinese resistance, but none of sexual violence. The memories of illiterate women, especially their memories about sexual matters, were never recorded.


New generation

Born in 1984, Yoneda Mai, an acupuncturist, is younger than most other activists. She works with Hainan NET, created to support survivors from Hainan Island. After visiting survivors in Hainan, Yoneda moved there to study Chinese. She  describes herself and members of Hainan NET as the ‘grandchild’ generation, committed to passing down what she has learned to the ‘great-grandchild’ generation, who will not be able to meet survivors in person. 

Yoneda was a college student when she met a survivor for the first time. Witnessing Huang Youliang testify in court in 2008, Yoneda was horrified by her story and moved by her courage: Huang had travelled from a remote Chinese village to fight in a Japanese court. Becoming acquainted with other survivors, Yoneda created a short film, Grandmas in Four Seasons, which captures the movements and facial expressions of two survivors walking, cooking, talking and laughing. She says: 

We can somehow explain the comfort women system, but how can we describe the physical and psychological injuries that survivors received? What kinds of expressions should we use to convey what they experienced, not what we experienced?

These three activists have taken different approaches to the issue of their country’s crimes, but all assume some responsibility for the Japanese army’s sexual violence. Citizen groups have fought against historical denialism, while historians have found numerous documents that endorse their efforts. Yet those activists who have met survivors in person have come to understand ‘history’ and ‘memory’ in a way that is more meaningful to the survivors. It is personal histories and individual memories that they want to record for future generations of the perpetrator state. As survivors pass away, today’s activists reread their testimonies with a new generation. Survivors’ voices remain central to the movement. 


Eika Tai is the author of Comfort Women Activism: Critical Voices from the Perpetrator State (Hong Kong University Press, 2020) and a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at North Carolina State University.