Sympathy for Korean Comfort Women Now & Then

Tetsuhide Yamaoka
President of Australia-Japan Community Network Inc.

“You are denying comfort women!”
An Australian journalist well known for his hatred of the Japanese Imperial Family yelled at me over the phone.
“No,” I replied. “Of course the comfort women existed. Nobody is denying it as far as I know.”
“Then why don’t you honor them?”
“We do honor women’s human rights. Yet we do not agree with what the Korean activists claim.”
He then grew even more irritated and aggressive. When I asked him to calm down, he lost his temper and hung up on me.

The reporter’s tantrum notwithstanding, I strongly believe that we should be deeply sympathetic towards Korean women. Their plight has been hard. Before Japan’s annexation and modernization, Korean women born in the lower social classes were literally enslaved and traded against their will. There were Korean officials who forcibly took women away from their homes in order to send them to the rulers of China as tribute payments. Desperate parents sometimes hid their daughters or even scarred their faces to spare the young girls such a fate. Because of this lingering historical trauma, an elderly Korean gentleman once explained to me, Koreans were well primed to believe the “comfort women abduction narrative” fabricated by a con man called Seiji Yoshida and spread by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

These practices were banned under Japanese rule, but the underlying feudalistic attitude of male dominance remained into the modern era. Before the arrival of the Japanese, Koreans had seen little use in educating females, who overall suffered much worse oppression than their counterparts in Japan. Young girls fleeing home were easy prey for human traffickers, and many ended up in prostitution.

During the annexation era, the Japanese introduced into Korea the licensed prostitution system already widespread in Japan. While the complete eradication of prostitution proved impossible, the licensing system strictly controlled pre-existing prostitution engendered by human trafficking. It was still not uncommon in Japan at that time for poor parents to sell their daughters to brothels under contract, especially in the poverty-stricken north. The government established strict rules for this baneful custom in the hopes of eventually eradicating it.

The Korean peninsula was much poorer than Japan, so when the Japanese system was introduced there it ended up allowing Korean parents to legally sell their daughters to brothels. Kim Hak Sung, the first former comfort woman to come forward during the 1990s, once testified that she was sold to a kisaeng (female entertainer) house by her mother. The law stipulated that such transactions were illegal without the consent of the daughter, who had to be released once she had paid off the advance payment provided to her parents. However, Professor Lee Yong-hoon of Seoul University contends that Korean pimps forcibly took away daughters even when they refused to consent to it. But even without the intervention of these pimps, daughters in Confucian Korea had little power to refuse their parents’ commands.

Japan’s military comfort woman system was an extension of the prevailing licensed prostitution system, which was in turn grounded in the ancient Korean practice of human trafficking in women. The Japanese government should reiterate that, by today’s standards, such a practice would be—indeed is—unthinkable. However, by the same token, countless records show that Japanese police arrested Korean brokers who were deceiving and kidnapping local women. While laboring under the strictures of vicious local customs, the Japanese during the colonial period still strove to ameliorate the positions of vulnerable females.

Activists portray the comfort women issue as black and white, and Japan as uniquely evil. But the system was clearly not a simplistic perpetrator-victim relationship. Korean parents and Korean vendors played a significant role. Furthermore, Korean men who joined the Japanese Imperial Army used the comfort women just like all the other troops. Conscription did not take place on the Korean peninsula until September 1944, less than a year before the end of the war. Yet by that time, hundreds and thousands of Korean men (who were Japanese at the time) had already volunteered and were serving in the Japanese Imperial Army. In their private meetings at the comfort stations with Korean comfort women, those Korean troops would have been able to communicate with the women in their own language. If even one woman had mentioned having been forcibly abducted, the Korean troops would have rioted against their commanding officers. This is not speculation—Korean POWs told their Allied captors as much. Korean men knew that the comfort women servicing them had either signed up voluntarily or else had been sold by their parents. The latter practice was so common that even heavily armed Korean soldiers showed no reaction when meeting Korean women who had been trafficked in this way.

The fact is, though, that there was technically no nationality at the time of “Korean”. Koreans were Japanese then. They fought and lost as Japanese citizens. They collaborated in the comfort woman system, as did their fellow Japanese. If the comfort woman system is considered criminal, then Koreans are accomplices. They switched sides when Japan lost and quickly took the position of victim, hiding their own participation and responsibility.

But the time for falsehood and victim politics is over. If Koreans are genuinely concerned with women’s human rights, they should be scrambling to rescue the tens of thousands of Korean women trapped in prostitution all over the world right now. These modern-day victims of human trafficking are at this very moment suffering at the hands of the same vicious brokers whom the Japanese authorities cracked down on in Korea nearly one hundred years ago.