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Book Review: Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone

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Finally, A Serious Scholarly Work on Comfort Women Translated into English

By Marshall Wordsworth

Professor Ikuhiko Hata, a premier authority on modern Japanese history, has finally managed to make available his highly-informative exhaustive research on comfort women to the English-speaking audience. His Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone, an admirable English translation of his 1999 work Ianfu to Senjō no Sei (which had been referred to Comfort Women and Sexuality on the Battlefield in previous years) includes a few additional chapters to reflect on much of what has transpired in the past two decades concerning the issue of Imperial Japan’s military brothel system.

While other works by Japanese scholars have been available in English since George Hicks introduced the subject of comfort women in 1995, including the likes of Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Yuki Tanaka, the perspective has been one-sided to synchronize with the prevailing narrative of the 200,000 (or 400,000) abducted/forcibly recruited/conscripted women to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military. And because the fundamental narrative within this narrative, that evil men with power (in this case Imperial Japan) brutally exploited helpless women in the most inhumane manner – what transnational feminists and human rights activists tirelessly seek and promote to further their political agenda, books by Yoshimi and Tanaka naturally were welcomed in the United States and other parts of the West.

Published by Hamilton Books, Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone provides an alternative viewpoint that is abundantly supported by Professor Hata’s comprehensive research. Starting from the historical background of Japan’s licensed prostitution to the emergence of comfort stations in different parts of Asia, Professor Hata brings the much needed in-depth research on the various aspects of the comfort women system that obliterates the narrative that continues to pervade the international community. He guides the reader from one country to the next, from parts of China all the way to the Dutch East Indies, highlighting the uniqueness of each territory. The ‘mobilization’ or recruiting of women from the Korean Peninsula indeed took place, but that also applied to the men who joined the Imperial Japanese forces – Korea was Japan’s annexed territory until the end of World War II. Moreover, many Japanese women relocated to different parts of Asia and served as comfort women, and it is Professor Hata’s expert opinion that they comprised the largest ethnic group out of the entire ianfu (comfort women) labor force.

In chapter thirteen, the concluding chapter and an apt supplement to the original Japanese version, post-WWII military brothel systems with some governmental involvement in one way or another are examined. Specifically, details of the Korean women for the U.S., U.N., and South Korean forces during the Korean War and their Vietnamese counterparts for the Korean and American troops serving in the Vietnam War, are presented. These ‘comfort women’ have not been part of the discourse by the transnational feminists and human rights activists, nor have the Japanese comfort women that labored in the Pacific War ever given serious attention all these years.

Recently, the U.S. has seen the #MeToo movement achieve tremendous clout by making more and more people aware of the inherent problems of sexual harassment and violence against women. Predictably, those who promote the comfort women narrative now link the #MeToo movement to somehow strengthen their case to pressure Japan that would result in more apologies and compensations. In my view, if the #MeToo matrix is to be applied at all, these activists must finally a) universally acknowledge the historical verity of the Japanese comfort women during the Pacific War; or b) fully recognize the sexual laborers of both the Korean War and Vietnam War who are just as deserving of their earnest efforts to bring about justice in the name of women’s rights. As more people become aware of the many truths surrounding Japan’s comfort women, the statues and monuments that have appeared across the United States and elsewhere will eventually be seen as examples of historical distortion and political manipulation schemed by a cabal of ill-intended propagandists with a geopolitical agenda, an agenda that escapes the foot soldiers who carry out their mission.

Marshall Wordsworth, author of Inconvenient and Uncomfortable: Transcending Japan’s Comfort Women Paradigm, is a researcher who divides his time between the United States and parts of Asia.

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