Friday, October 25, 2013

Burden of remembrance

Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese national newspaper, reported recently that the Japanese government deliberately avoided the “comfort women” issue in Southeast Asia because of the negative public attention it might generate. The report was based on diplomatic documents the newspaper obtained through Japan’s information disclosure law.
When the comfort women issue became hot news in 1992 and 1993, Japan decided to interview alleged victims in South Korea and issued a pledge to launch similar probes in other countries. But according to diplomatic documents dated July 30, 1993, which Asahi Shimbun was able to obtain, the Japanese government’s official policy was not to conduct interviews with former comfort women in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Lola Fidencia David was forced to be a sex slave for Japanese soldiers who
invaded the Philippines during World War II. Now 86, she is still campaigning
for an apology from Japan. Photo by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star. Click link to view "Forgotten Slaves: The
Comfort Women of the Philippines."
A telegram from the Japanese government to its embassies in the said three countries stated that “we want to avoid (interviews) as much as possible also from the viewpoint that we should ward off a situation in that we only end up fanning public interest unnecessarily.”
Last October 23 in Manila, the Japanese ambassador to the Philippines Toshinao Urabe said that Japan had already settled the demands of Filipino wartime sex slaves for an official apology and just compensation. The ambassador was apparently referring to a 2001 letter of apology issued by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the Asian Women‘s Fund, a charitable organization established in 1995 with Japanese government financial assistance for the purpose of collecting donations from the public as “atonement money” and carrying out programs to help the victims.
Most of the former comfort women in South Korea refused the 2 million yen ($20,618) in atonement money, demanding Japanese government compensation instead. The group of comfort women in the Philippines dismissed the apologies of Japanese government officials for not being the government's official apology, and the assistance from the Asian Women's Fund which was donated from the Japanese people, and not from the government. The said fund was eventually dissolved in 2007.
Only about 130 Filipino comfort women are believed to be still alive today. One of them, Lola Fidencia David, now 86 years old, continues to campaign for an official apology from the Japanese government. Lola Fidencia visited Toronto recently to speak about the harrowing details of sexual abuse she suffered from the hands of Japanese soldiers when she was only 14.
After the war was over, Lola Fidencia married young but it wasn’t a successful union. She scavenged from garbage dumps to provide for her children. The children never became aware of the abuse she suffered during the war although they noticed sometimes that she would be uncommunicative when she had flashbacks of her traumatic experience.
When a group of Korean comfort women came out in 1990, Lola Fidencia found the courage to tell her children about her sexual abuse. She also joined a group of survivors called Lolas Kampanyera Survivors Organization, which has persevered in demanding an official apology and just compensation from the Japanese government.
It would be easier today to condemn and indict any government for war crimes under existing international law which now recognizes war rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity as a crime against humanity if the action is part of a widespread or systematic practice. The comfort women forced to become sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II unfortunately did not have the same kind of protection. Although the sexual abuses they suffered are appalling and inexcusable, the most they have demanded the Japanese government is an official admission that they were forced to become purveyors of sexual comfort to their soldiers and a genuine apology for this shameful wrong.
According to Lola Fidencia’s testimony before a crowd of students at the University of Toronto last week, she was abducted from her home and lured with the promise of work in a factory, just like the other comfort women she knew. This story would be repeated by similar testimonies from other comfort women from South Korea, China, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Once the women were recruited, they were then interned by the Japanese in “comfort stations” where soldiers took turns raping and abusing them day and night. The testimonies from these women bore the fact that the practice was both systematic and organized with the singular aim to treat them as slaves for the sexual gratification of Japanese soldiers. 
Korean comfort women who were rescued and were protected in Lameng, Yunan,
September 3, 1945. Photo courtesy of  the US National Archives.
Prostitution was open and well-organized in Japan before the war so it was considered logical that there should be organized prostitution to serve the Japanese Armed Forces to provide comfort to soldiers and prevent discontent among them. This was clearly the argument used by the Japanese government in justifying the existence of military brothels and hiring of prostitutes for the army.
The Japanese even referred to military brothels the Nazis established in concentration camps for the sexual gratification of German soldiers and officers. Ironically, military brothels that provided sexual services to soldiers also existed during and after the Korean War where separate “comfort stations” were maintained for U.N./U.S. and South Korean soldiers.
This is the undeniable truth: comfort women kept by the Japanese army during the war were not prostitutes. They were lured and forced to provide sexual services to soldiers against their will. But the Japanese government maintains that there was no evidence that these women were forced and kept as sex slaves. They insist that these comfort women lived in military brothels attached to the army and were treated well because their food was not rationed and they had plenty of money to buy articles they wanted such as clothes, shoes, cigarettes and cosmetics.
In other words, these women were prostitutes to the eyes of the Japanese government. Hence, why they are called “comfort women,” a translation of the Japanese ianfu which is a euphemism for shōfu, whose meaning is prostitute. In the words of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, "The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion.”
Except for admitting that military brothels existed, the continuing denial by the Japanese government that comfort women were forced to provide sexual services to soldiers is a clear attempt to diminish the crimes they committed during the war. In fact, this is part of a greater scheme among contemporary Japanese revisionists to spread the big lie that Japan’s invasion of China and Southeast Asia were justified responses to Western imperialism at that time.
Historical revisionism is the most convenient last resort of those who wish to deny and avoid the enormous burden placed on them by the truth and the wrongs they committed. We see this in those who deny the holocaust. Omission by the Japanese of their military aggression and atrocities during World War II in history classes taught in schools is a clear minimization of their war crimes. Conspiracies are born every minute catastrophic events happen, like presidential assassinations, the 9/11 attack, or the Boston marathon bombing, which are all designed to blur the truth in the collective consciousness.
That comfort women were not forced as sex slaves during the war amounts to defiance by the Japanese government of the existential cruelty of the Japanese military. That only military brothels existed where prostitutes were allowed to escape the war’s hardships in exchange for their sexual services only obfuscates reality, an illegitimate distortion of an actual historical record. This is revisionist Japan understanding Plato’s dictum that “those who tell the stories also hold the power."
There are limits to remembrance, especially when the victims are powerless like these comfort women. When a mighty country like Japan re-interprets history to make it more palatable and less culpable and inhuman, the pain, anguish and indignity that comfort women suffered are diminished. Japan’s intransigence to be pious to the facts and events of the war they aggressively pushed and their deliberate attempts to revise the interpretation of those events make history the antithesis of remembrance.
There is neither a physical monument nor space in the collective consciousness to memorialize the suffering of all comfort women. In the long run when the last survivors of the comfort women have died, nothing else will be remembered, and this is an unpleasant truth.
The campaign for an official apology from the Japanese government is weakened by the lack of support from the national governments of these comfort women, with the exception of South Korea. Politics play a major role for this muted response from these governments, not to mention access to foreign loans and assistance from Japan.
In the end, all the comfort women can hope for is to dwell on George Santayana’s warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But to those of us who wish to learn from history, there is always the assumption that remembrance has the ethical superiority over forgetting. For to remember is to be responsible while to forget is not only irresponsible but the precursor to a descent into an abyss of moral cowardice and into believing that nothing is ever worthwhile.

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