The comfort women issue exploded in 1992 when Japanese historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki announced the discovery of documents linking the Japanese government to the wartime brothel network in the 1930s and ‘40s. Japan was accused of abducting hundreds of thousands of women as sex slaves, and then of massacring them in droves once the Fifteen-Year War in Asia had been all but lost. The main victims were said to be Koreans. Japanese politicians made endless apologies, and the anti-establishment Japanese press had a field day. Even the United Nations got involved, releasing the infamous Coomaraswamy Report on the comfort women issue in 1996.
For South Korea, where anti-Japanism is a perennial centerpiece of statecraft, the comfort women issue would seem to be a diplomatic slam dunk. And yet, the more South Korea presses the topic, the more it loses ground.
There are two main reasons for this.
First, the key comfort women claims are not true. Apart from rare war crimes (wherein offenders were later tried and punished), there was no systematized “forced abduction.” There were nowhere near “200,000 comfort women”. Many of the comfort women were not Korean. Much of this fantasy flowed from the pen of a communist named Yoshida Seiji, whose 1982 work of fiction, Watashi no senso hanzai (“My war crimes”), was treated as fact by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Today’s comfort women partisans continue to recycle Yoshida’s points, even if they do not cite him by name. Indeed, even the Coomaraswamy Report is essentially a rehashing of Yoshida’s book.
The second reason is that the closer one examines the comfort women issue, the worse other countries (including South Korea) begin to look.
From the ancient Greeks to the American Civil War to Bordels Mobile de Campagne, prostitutes have always followed the columns. German researcher Magnus Hirschfeld was the first to investigate the inseparability of war and sex. During the Great War, Hirschfeld found, there was heavy traffic at brothels arranged by combatant governments. Business boomed.
World War II was different, with men stationed in far-flung garrisons surrounded by potentially hostile locals. Americans, with the largest military-run brothel system in the world, had the luxury of locating their comfort stations along Hotel Street in Honolulu, far from enemy lines. For security reasons, Japanese field commanders forbade patronizing local prostitutes in order to stem information leaks.
Also fearing reprisals by Chinese civilians, high-ranking Japanese officials, in imitation of Western models, set up “comfort stations” (iansho) in an attempt to reduce the scourge of rapes bedeviling operations. The recruitment of women for these iansho was often subcontracted to madams in Japan and pimps in Korea. (This was made much easier because the Korean peninsula, under the yangban system, had centuries of experience in buying and selling young women — another inconvenient fact for comfort women diplomacy.)
While the Japanese military strove to end wartime rapes, some other combatant countries actually encouraged it. The worst offender during World War II was surely the Soviet Union, whose troops went on a rape rampage at the end of the war. In Manchuria, countless Japanese women committed suicide after being brutalized by advancing Soviet troops. (Although not encouraged by commanding officers, U.S. GIs raped French women by the thousands after liberating Normandy.)
Controlling venereal disease was the other calculus in a commander’s decision to provide his men with prostitutes. U.S. Gen. Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers, for example, were often grounded by syphilis and gonorrhea. Although forbidden to visit Kunming’s notorious red-light district, where the VD infection rate was said to be 100%, GIs kept going anyway. Exasperated, Chennault flew in prostitutes from India until Gen. Joseph Stilwell intervened.
Surprisingly, the comfort women system did not end in 1945. The Korean War brought comfort stations for troops from the United States. Indeed, the South Korean government supported this peninsular comfort women system. Former president Park Chung-hee personally signed an order in 1977 to clean up the “camptowns” where “Western princesses” serviced U.S. troops. The aim? To keep the American military in South Korea and U.S. dollars flowing into the economy. South Korean women who work at the brothels thronging U.S. bases are still stuck in an endless cycle of sex work and societal discrimination.
The hard truth is that South Korea is also guilty of heinous war crimes. In 1966 and 1968, for example, South Korean troops savagely raped and butchered dozens of defenseless Vietnamese peasant women in Binh Tai, Phong Nhi, and Phong Nhat. There is also the record of Korean cruelty against Allied POWs in World War II, and the sad legacy of the Lai Dai Han, the tens of thousands of abandoned, illegitimate children of South Korean soldiers born during the Vietnam War. It is a losing diplomatic gambit for any nation to bring up the history of wartime violence against women.
However, there is something much more sinister afoot with the comfort women issue than just shortsighted diplomacy. Today, the United States is home to several comfort women statues, most recently in San Francisco. (The mayor of Osaka, San Francisco’s sister city, cut ties after the city council approved the statue.) Comfort women statues can be found throughout South Korea, as well, most notably in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan. A comfort woman statue went up late last year in Manila, and in Sydney in 2016.
What do all these locations have in common? They are all key American allies in Asia. And the country with the biggest interest in breaking up American alliances with Asian nations is, of course, the People’s Republic of China. The comfort women controversy is a Chinese weapon to destabilize American relations with Asia and weaken Japan’s standing around the world. This is the overriding reason why South Korea must cease pressing the comfort women issue: it is now a subsidiary of the Chinese information war.
Jason Morgan is assistant professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan, and a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He holds a PhD in Japanese history from the University of Wisconsin, and an MA in Chinese Studies from the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa. From 2014 to 2015 Morgan was a Fulbright scholar at Waseda University in Tokyo. He has written for Japan Review, Michigan Historical Review, JAPAN Forward, the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, the Journal of Asian History, and Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, among other publications. His best-selling book, “Amerika wa naze Nihon wo mikudasu ka?” (“Why does America look down on Japan?”), was published by Wani Books in 2016. Morgan is also the translator of Hata Ikuhiko’s 1999 book on the comfort women, available from Hamilton Books this year.