Sunday, 30 December 2012

Debating the "comfort women" issue in Japan

Over the past couple of days Twitter has been abuzz with debate over the recurring issue of "comfort women" -- the predominantly Korean women coerced into prostitution by the Japanese army during the Second World War -- and their claims for acknowledgement and compensation. This time round, Hiroko Tabuchi of The New York Times was on hand to provide translations of some of the arguments against the women's claims and their comments reveal part of the uglier side of Japan -- the part that those of us involved in one way or another with trying to give Japanese culture a boost always find thoroughly dispiriting.

Before I get into the arguments, though, a warning. I use terms like "morality" and "national conscience" in here, which I'm not entirely comfortable with and which I usually approach with extreme caution in other people's writing. However, for want of better words, I'm forced to use the inadequate tools with which my vocabulary has provided me in the hope that I don't lose too much in terms of clarity.

First, I'm not going to debate the fundamental facts. There are primary documents available to peruse on this site, and if someone still wants to just flat-out deny that anything happened… well, if someone really doesn't want to believe something, they'll always find a way of not believing it. This blog is predicated on the reality that forced sexual slavery carried out on behalf of the Japanese army did occur. That's my position, that's the position of most reputable historians from what I can gather, and that's the position of the firsthand data so take it or leave it.

What I'm going to focus on instead is some of the arguments that fly forth from the denialist side whenever this issue or similar ones relating to war crimes, even painstakingly documented ones, come up. There are obvious similarities with Holocaust denial, Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide, and all manner of other crimes.

Because people in many countries are in some degree of denial about atrocities in their own past -- Britain and France have ugly colonial legacies and America has its own violent horrors in its westward expansion -- and taking a look at the arguments made in these various cases it's clear that the process of denial takes similar paths.

One of the most common arguments is precisely that: the fact that many countries have done horrible things in their pasts. There are three parts to this dynamic.

1. It's an argument that seeks to mute the impact of a crime by spreading the blame. It doesn't seek to legitimise the act so much as muddy the waters, to give the impression that in "other times" things were different and to give the impression of a moral grey area. By making the issue appear too morally complex, most people will either back off, or…

2. It forces critics from overseas onto the defensive. "But what about YOUR COUNTRY? What about what YOU did?" goes the cry. This argument forces the opponent to either admit moral equivalence or go on the defensive, thus evening out the field of battle as it were. This sort of argument is known as "whataboutery" and was first coined (I believe) due to the constant use of these "what about…" arguments in debates over sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

3. It implies that their country and their country alone is being unfairly victimised. "Why are WE being picked on when other countries also did bad things? Why are you not picking on THEM for what THEY did?" This argument attempts to usurp the mantle of victimhood from the actual victims of the crimes, as well as subtly implying an agenda that seeks to attack the speaker's own country for unspecified but probably nefarious reasons.

All of these points are attempts to divert the argument away from any discussion of the actual events and the evidence and testimonies of the victims, and the answer to all three of these points is basically always going to be a variant on, "Yeah, but we're not talking about what those countries did," followed by a repeated assertion of the actual issue under discussion.

There are also a couple of specific arguments particular to Japan and the comfort women issue that I've seen come up.

One is that the South Korean government is just using it as a stick to beat Japan with for political gain, particularly at election time, and that no matter what Japan does, they're never going to back off. This is a tricky argument because on the one hand, it's clearly true, but on the other, it's another attempt at distraction because it really doesn't matter.

It's an argument that only makes sense if you think that the only reason for Japan to acknowledge, apologise to and compensate women who were forced to work as sex slaves for its army would be in order to gain something in return (in the form of increased national good will or whatever) rather than out of any sense of basic justice and morality. Put another way, it shouldn't matter as far as Japan and its own national conscience is concerned that South Korean politicians are using the issue for political gain -- that's Korea's own ethical issue.

Another argument I've heard is that the comfort women were employed by private brothel owners and weren't being run by the military, so as a result, the Japanese government has nothing to apologise for. This legalistic argument is more blatantly desperate and seems designed mostly to satisfy the conscience of the speaker. Perhaps it's an appeal to the neoliberal capitalist in the listener, but it's hard to find anyone else really being convinced by it.

In capitalist terms, if the military has a certain level of demand and the supply is limited, the supplier is clearly going to be under enormous pressure to meet that demand. If the military decides to look the other way and not question the legitimacy of the source, the military is a co-conspirator just as any company caught handling illegally-obtained goods would be.

To take another example, my home town is Bristol in the United Kingdom. Growing up in Bristol, one of the first things I learned about local history was that the city's wealth in the early colonial era was built largely off the back of the slave trade. Initially, corrupt magistrates would manipulate petty criminals into going to the American colonies as indentured servants, taking a cut off the unscrupulous traders' profits as they sold the prisoner's contract to plantation owners across the Atlantic. Later, when demand became too high even for these practices, the trade expanded to the transport of black slaves from Africa. In all these cases, these were private transactions, not government policy, and yet the city of Bristol and the country as a whole were responsible every bit as much as the wealthy businessmen who profited off the slave trade.

It might be fashionable in these post-Wall Street Crash and post-Blackwater days to argue that governments aren't responsible for what happens under their watch, but when they set the rules that allow injustices to occur, they are responsible as if they pulled the trigger or wielded the baton -- or the whip -- themselves.

The most common argument, however, is the one that goes, "It was a long time ago. I didn't do any of these things. Why should we still feel the guilt for these crimes committed by past generations?"

This brings up the awkward morality of the Old Testament "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation", which I'm going to just lay aside here, partly because the Old Testament is full of crap no one needs to listen to, and secondly because this is a quote from a self-confessed "jealous God" who was probably a bit upset at the time. It's pretty obvious, I think, that we don't need to punish children for their fathers' crimes in every situation.

In the case of the comfort women, there are two points that put this argument on shaky foundations though. The first is that many of these women are still alive now, and who is going to acknowledge, apologise to and compensate them if not the country in whose name their mistreatment was carried out? Secondly, many of the men who carried out this mistreatment, whether directly or indirectly, are still alive, and many of them (and their families) have done very well thank you very much since the end of the war.

It's certainly an argument you can make that as modern Japan didn't commit these crimes, it shouldn't be held responsible for paying. However, I think that as these arguments so frequently find themselves accompanied by denials and diversions of other sorts, the people making them secretly know that if the comfort women's stories are accepted as true, the moral weight of acknowledging and compensating the victims would indeed lie on their shoulders. To play a little whataboutery of my own, one needs only to look at Germany to see a very different approach (the Contingent Refugee Act of 1991, for example, removed many immigration barriers to Jewish people, leading to a large influx of Jewish people from former Soviet states that had previously been ravaged by the Nazis).

Some of this is no doubt down to straightforward, ugly nationalism, but many of the people who come out with these kinds of responses are perfectly ordinary, not particularly politically motivated individuals. I'm inclined to put some of the blame on films like Isao Takahata's traumatic animated feature Grave of the Fireflies -- a very effective, alternately horrifying and beautiful film, but also a deeply manipulative one -- for colouring many Japanese people's image of the war with deep hues of victimhood, focussing attention and images of the war almost entirely on the suffering endured by children and families at home and, along with sanitised schoolbooks, providing little wider sense of the Japan's role in the war as a whole.

There's also the tendency of those of us from the West to view national trauma as something to be purged through a kind of bleeding of the national conscience. A sort of therapeutic introspection to purify the national soul, whereas Japan perhaps prefers not to hang out its dirty washing in public. It's a different way of dealing with trauma, and one shouldn't be too quick to dismiss it. In this case, however, there are real victims, still living and breathing, and still desperate for acknowledgement.

Worldwide, Japan is one of the countries viewed in the most positive light by foreigners, and attitudes like these are a rare stain on its international image. More importantly though, regardless of how it benefits (if at all) Japan and perceptions of it in the world, it should be a matter of basic decency and sense of justice that this cycle of denial is broken.

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