Last week’s visit by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to a US warship off Sydney where he told visiting American sailors their navy was a “comforting presence” in Australia should provoke a public conversation.
It was with surprise and regret that I read the news that the present Japanese government is considering revoking its apology to the thousands of women forced into prostitution during World War 11.
Tragically up to 200,000 women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II in one of the world’s biggest cases of sexual trafficking. Most of the women came from Korea, with many also from Japan and the Dutch East Indies. Incredibly the sex slaves became known as ‘comfort women,’ – and the brothels which were insultingly termed ‘comfort stations’, were spread throughout the Pacific, including then East Timor and the Solomon Islands.
Advertisements such as this one (left) were to be found on billboards of the day. Not surprisingly they failed to attract volunteers into prostitution and so young girls were kidnapped and taken to military rape camps. Most of the women were under the age of 20, with some as young 12 for whom the rape was their first sexual experience.
Can you believe it?
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Japanese government finally issued a long overdue apology to the surviving women who’d been forced to serve as sex slaves and although the apology didn’t include compensation, it admitted that the women were “recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, and so on” and “lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere”.
Over recent years the wartime sexual trafficking of women has become a political issue with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe particularly uncomfortable with any reference to the abduction of the women into sexual slavery. Abe is an eager supporter of Japan’s alliance with the U.S. government which insists that Japan stand by the 1993 Kono Declaration issued by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono to the women forced into military brothels.
So the Japanese government, hell-bent on un-apologising and undoing the words of the apology is doing just this but without officially withdrawing the declaration. Instead it is casting doubts on the credibility of the victims and changing the meaning of the word ‘force’ to refer to only extreme cases where women were abducted by gunpoint.
Japan is not alone in having such a despicable history of sexual violence in war. Take the case of post-war Germany when the Russian army invaded Berlin and took the local women as their sex slaves. Presently I’m reading A Woman in Berlin, the astonishing diary of a woman fighting for survival amid the horror and inhumanity of war. The anonymous author was a 34 year-old journalist who kept a diary during the two-month occupation by the Russians. The author did not want the book to be published during her lifetime. When she died in 2001 her identity was still unknown.
Faced with the inevitable event – her impending rape by Russian soldiers, the ‘Woman in Berlin’ makes up her mind to survive:
I’ll think of something when the time comes. I’ve never been so removed from myself, so alienated. All my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. They shall not destroy me.
In Not a Choice, Not a Job, author Janice Raymond discusses the work of The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) in researching and documenting the role of the U.S. military in buying women and children for prostitution all over the world. Raymond explains that CATW Asia- Pacific has connections with organisations of survivors of prostitution in the Philippines which have documented the abuses of military prostitution users around the various U.S. bases.
Japan is not alone in its abuse of women in wartime but it’s desire to un-apologise for its role in the sexual abuse of thousands of women is regrettable. The world knows that hundreds of thousands of women were forced into sexual slavery to be systemically raped for the pleasure of the Imperial Japanese Army.
The 1993 apology needs to remain.