BOSTON — The name is what first grabbed my attention. Comfort women? What a moniker for the sexual slaves who were coerced, confined and raped in the Japanese military brothels strung across Asia during World War II.

The very name reduces the women to the sum of their service. What kind of comfort did they supply? The label is only marginally more humane than the other words for the women listed on the procurement rolls: “items” and “logs.”

Now comfort women are back in the news. They’re back because California Rep. Mike Honda held hearings on a bill asking Japan to finally “acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Force’s coercion of young women into sexual slavery.” They’re back because the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, chose instead to deny that the women were coerced or that the imperial government was to blame.

Abe was hardly the only one in his ruling elite to make such a gaffe. They don’t even consider it a gaffe. Another lawmaker, Nariaki Nakayama, breezily dismissed the government’s procurement of some 100,000 to 200,000 young women by describing it as a private enterprise. “Where there’s demand,” he said, “business crops up.”

Honda, himself a Japanese-American who spent childhood years in internment camps here, said, “Prime Minister Abe is in effect saying that the women are lying.” Mindy Kotler of Asia Policy Point puts it more baldly. Abe, she said, called these elderly survivors “lying whores.”

Koon Ja Kim, a Korean, remembers to this day what she was wearing — “a black skirt, a green shirt, and black shoes” — when as a 16-year-old girl she was taken to a brothel where she comforted 20 or more soldiers a day. Jan Ruff O’Herne, a Dutch woman taken at 19, remembers systemic beatings and rape even by the doctor who paid calls to the brothels checking for venereal disease. Lee Yong-soo lived with venereal diseases and shame for over half a century. Liars all?

This time the denial of history threw Japan’s image back 15 years, prior even to the Kono statement, a half-hearted apology to the women composed in 1993 by a Cabinet member. But it’s also a reminder of the distance the world has come on these issues.

This is Women’s History Month, when attention is often focused on founding mothers like Susan B. Anthony. But this year, the comfort women are showing the long way we’ve come from victim to heroine.

For millennia, rape was seen as a side effect, even a perk, of war. As recently as World War II, the Free French gave Moroccan mercenaries license to rape enemy women in Italy. In the 1990s there were rape camps in Bosnia and sexual assault is a grisly routine in African conflicts.

Nevertheless, wartime rape is becoming less a matter of personal shame and more a matter of international outrage. It’s designated as a war crime by the United Nations. And more than one comfort woman, like O’Herne, spoke out after seeing stories about the Bosnian camps.

There are few countries that haven’t been complicit in this war crime. But the Japanese military actually planned and managed a vast system of forced brothels complete with scheduled “comfort” appointments for soldiers, visits by doctors, and government-issued condoms named “Attack No. 1.”

Undeniable? “There is a right wing in Japan,” says Kotler, “that we would think of as equivalent to the Holocaust deniers.” But Japan is not the only country that wants to rewrite history. If some Japanese leaders talk about the World War II syndrome, some of our leaders talk about the Vietnam syndrome. In 2001, a revisionist Japanese textbook excising wartime atrocities caused a furor across Asia. The revisionists argued that history should make children proud of their country. Maybe telling the hard truths would make those children proud.

Abe has backed off his denial inch by inch. On a Japanese television show he even expressed formal, if offhand, sympathy for “the injuries of the heart” of the comfort women. But as Andrew Horvat, an American professor in Japan, says, “If someone has to provide sexual services for 20 soldiers a day, she comes home with more than just ‘injuries of the heart.’ She comes home sterile, infected with a stubborn STD and in a state of psychological trauma.”

So we have a shrinking, aging cohort of women standing on the cusp of history. It is long past the time for modern Japan to fully apologize and claim responsibility for its past. Maybe there is no final comfort for the comfort women, but there should be justice.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is [email protected].

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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