Guest Blogger

How Beijing weaponizes ‘comfort women’ as propaganda tool

By Jason Morgan on March 24, 2018

This picture taken on February 1, 2017 shows statues symbolizing so-called "comfort women" in a park in Shanghai.
Photo: AFP / Johannes Eisele

'Comfort women' are not just a relic of Japan's aggressive imperial history. They are today a key tool in Beijing’s disinformation strategy to isolate Japan and the USA in East Asia

The “comfort women” issue appears, on the surface, to be a bilateral problem between South Korea and Japan. In reality, it is deeper. The key player is increasingly not South Korea, but China, and the ultimate target is not Japan, but the United States, as the comfort women are co-opted by Beijing in its anti-American information war.
China has been waging this war since Beijing realized after the First Gulf War that it would likely be unable to the United States on the battlefield. As the document Unrestricted Warfare, published by two high-ranking Chinese military officials, makes clear, the Chinese have chosen to fight the US, and particularly the US-Japan alliance, using desinformatsiya rather than hardware and troops.
Chinese information warfare in the United States is a massive and multi-front campaign. In December 2017 the Washington Post alerted its readers to “the huge scope and scale of Chinese Communist Party influence operations inside the United States, which permeate American institutions of all kinds.” In May 2017, the New York Times reported that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of California-San Diego managed “within hours” to get the Dalai Lama uninvited as UCSD commencement speaker. The more than 150 Chinese students and scholars associations in the US, the Times added, are funded and influenced by Chinese Communist Party headquarters.
In January 2018, the Washington Post detailed that UT-Austin rejected funds from the China United States Exchange Foundation because the “Hong Kong-based foundation and its leader, Tung Chee-hwa, are closely linked to the branch of the Chinese Communist Party that manages influence operations abroad.”
But on-campus campaigns are just the tip of the iceberg. The comfort women issue represents arguably Beijing’s most aggressive information-war maneuver. It has been a source of serious friction between Seoul and Tokyo since the 1990s, and in the past three years, has threatened to upend the uneasy security relationship, triangulated through Washington, between South Korea and Japan. Rending relations between the three democracies is China’s premier policy goal in East Asia.
The South Korean government uses the comfort women issue mainly for domestic consumption – as a sure vote-getter or deflector of unwanted scrutiny. China’s ambitions are bigger. The CCP is much more interested in how this issue serves its global agenda; domestic politics runs a distant second. This is the difference and the reason that Beijing can operate on a much larger scale than Seoul on the comfort women front.

A three-front strategy
Globally, Beijing has so far moved through three main vectors: overseas Chinese networks; a largely compliant press; and the United Nations.
An example of the first is the comfort woman statue that mysteriously appeared in Manila in 2017. An investigation by the Sankei Shimbun revealed that the statue project was orchestrated by Overseas Chinese groups in the Philippines, including the Wai Ming Charitable Trust Foundation Company – long a front for politicizing the comfort women issue in mainland China.
Overseas Chinese groups have also pressed hard on the comfort women and Nanjing issues in the US and Canada: In San Francisco, Superior Court judges Julie Tang and Lillian Sing retired from the bench in order to co-found the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, which was ultimately successful in bringing a comfort woman statue to San Francisco. Chinese-American San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was himself a vocal proponent of the comfort woman statue. In Canada, Chinese-Canadian legislator Jenny Kwan has been pushing for a “Nanking Memorial Day” under the auspices of Canada ALPHA, a propaganda outlet run in-country by Hong Kong-born doctor Joseph Yu Kai Wong. Dr. Wong was one of the first, in 1997, to promote Iris Chang’s book Rape of Nanjing, a project which was, in turn, funded and coordinated by Chinese-American Ignatius Ding and his pro-China group Global Alliance.

A statue symbolizing former South Korean ‘comfort women’ is seen during an anti-Japan rally in Seoul, on March 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji

A statue symbolizing former South Korean ‘comfort women’ is seen during an anti-Japan rally in Seoul, on March 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji

A sympathetic Western media, for its part, has largely accepted South Korean and Chinese
historical claims and repeats – without adding critical context – what Beijing’s spokespersons say. For example, speaking on January 10, 2018, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang “scolded” Japan about the comfort women issue, standing with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in pressing Tokyo to make yet another apology.
At the United Nations, China has been working to register the comfort women with the UNESCO “Memory of the World” program. Also at the UN, Beijing has repeated the talking points of “sex slavery” and “systematic rape,” demanding that Japan offer a full apology and reparations. In fact, China has partnered with North Korea in the registration efforts. It is notable that several prominent persons connected with Chong Dae Hyup, the most vocal comfort woman-related NGO in South Korea, have been arrested as North Korean spies.
The comfort women issue allows China, a country which leads the world in forced abortions, gendercide (sex-selective abortions of girls in favor of giving birth to boys), and draconian restrictions on a woman’s rights to have children, to deflect from its own women’s rights record. In portraying Japan as uniquely perverted, China hopes to isolate its perennial enemy from the world community while assuming the mantle of champion of gender equality.
The more China can convince the international community to believe the worst about the Japanese, the easier it will be for China to have its way in Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Bhutan, Nepal, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mongolia, and beyond. The comfort women are unwitting ground troops in China’s push to whitewash its own programs
against Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, Falun Gong practitioners, Chinese girls,
and dissident Chinese citizens, topple the United States’ base network in East Asia, and retain its title as the regional hegemon.

Comfort women: a nuanced history
None of this is to say that a comfort woman system did not exist.
In the Japanese Empire, time-tested Korean practices of buying and selling women as concubines to members of the elite yangban ruling class served as models for the Japanese military for contracting women to work at military brothels in Manchuria, China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific.
Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and was as much a part of the Japanese Empire then as Hawaii is part of the US today. Many women recruited from Korea were bought from their parents by Korean pimps or else were made vague promises by brokers—again, largely Korean—of employment prospects abroad. The Korean pimps and brokers simply repurposed the old yangban trafficking practice in order to deliver the Korean women to the “comfort stations” which the Japanese military used to combat sexually-transmitted diseases and prevent soldiers from revealing classified information to civilian spies posing as prostitutes in unlicensed brothels.
Many comfort women were professional prostitutes from Japan. Traditional Japanese pleasure quarters like Yoshiwara suffered from falling clientele as increasing numbers of Japanese young men were shipped to the front. Many prostitutes made the savvy business decision to go where the work was.
Some comfort women earned enough for their services (at rates set and enforced by the Japanese military authorities) to pay off the advance money given to their parents. Saving money was encouraged by the Japanese military, and accumulating large sums was hardly impracticable.
Now-deceased comfort woman Mun Ok-chu saved up a staggering 26,000 yen in three years (at a time when a sergeant in the Japanese army made between 23 and 30 yen per month). Mun made more money in 1943 – a lot more – than the Japanese lieutenant-general commanding all Imperial land forces in Burma.

More than history
Careful historians in South Korea, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere have repeated historical facts in an attempt to modulate the now-conventional rhetoric. But these historians have been mistaken in imagining that the comfort women issue as simply a historical question. It is not – it is another mode of Chinese disinformation.
But while comfort women propaganda is targeted at the US, a collateral benefit for Beijing lies in seeking revenge against Japan.
For example, in a recent policy speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed three new “State Memorial Days”: July 7, in commemoration of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident; September 3, in commemoration of the Japanese surrender to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces; and December 13, in commemoration of the Japanese advance into Nanking. In other words, China is invoking history in its direct confrontation with Japan.
China is, therefore, co-opting comfort women into the grand project of the CCP to re-assert its authority and to retake East Asia and beyond. What appears to be an issue between South Korea and Japan over history is actually a live-fire battle to draw East Asian states into satellite positions around the “Middle Kingdom” once again.

Jason Morgan is assistant professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan, and a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He holds a PhD in Japanese history from the University of Wisconsin, and an MA in Chinese Studies from the University of Hawaii, Mānoa. From 2014 to 2015 Morgan was a Fulbright scholar at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Communists Plots Behind Comfort Women

By Syaraku-sai, Animation Director

The newly-erected “Statues of Japanese Army Sex Slaves” were donated to the City of San Francisco by a Chinese civil group supported by local Korean residents. The mayor of Osaka—the second biggest city in Japan which had been in a sister-city relationship with San Francisco for 60 years—repeatedly urged San Francisco not to accept the donation. As the Osaka mayor was ignored, he declared the cessation of Osaka’s sister-city relationship with San Francisco.

The San Francisco political establishment—including the late Mayor Lee—appear to have been completely convinced by the historical interpretation insisted upon by the communist regime of the People’s Republic of China. However, almost nobody in Japan believes the narrative of “forcible recruitment of comfort women”. This is a natural consequence as the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the origin of the whole “forcible recruitment” saga, retracted of its own volition the series of comfort women articles which led eventually to today’s debacle in San Francisco.

This is an unfortunate situation for those women who came forward after being beguiled by such articles. In Japanese, this situation is described as “pulling the ladder away once someone has climbed up onto the roof”. The Asahi articles induced the women to make unsupportable claims, and now that the Asahi has backed away the women are left in the very awkward position of being unable to admit that it was all a lie from the beginning.

Most likely, the women themselves are not even aware that they are not telling the truth. The time period they are trying to recall is already more than 70 years in the past. Furthermore, these women are under extremely heavy social pressure to make the kind of statements they have made, because being “Anti-Japan” is almost a national policy of South Korea. Activists in Japan and South Korea with strongly-suspected ties to North Korea are waiting in the wings, eyes flashing with anticipation, as they goad unsuspecting women into testifying about alleged atrocities conducted by the Japanese army.

In the United States, many fathers were sued by their own daughters in the past on the basis that the depression that women suffer often stems from childhood sexual abuse by their fathers. However, it was later discovered that these so-called memories of abuse held by the victimized women were often imprinted by their counselors and lawyers. By the same token, the reliability of the testimonials of former comfort women under the above-mentioned social pressure is highly questionable. Also, is it ethically appropriate to force women who have lived through hard lives to relive their past in public like this?

Prostitutes were not always looked down upon in Japan. Yoshiwara, the most prestigious red-light district during the Edo period (more than 150 years ago), was a very colorful place. It was a must-see for travelers, including females, visiting Edo (today’s Tokyo). People went to Yoshiwara even if they had no intention of visiting any prostitutes there. Travelers used to drop by a printing and publishing merchant called Tsutaya located just to the right of the Yoshiwara Tamon gate where they would buy offprint portraits of dayu (top prostitutes) as souvenirs. Today those cheap prints are displayed at the Boston and Metropolitan art museums as priceless “Ukiyo-e of beautiful women”. Prostitution had a place in Japanese culture, and the women who worked as prostitutes were actually often seen as cultural celebrities.

In addition, wealthy samurai and merchants adopted prostitutes as concubines by paying off their debts for them. There is a famous classical play called “Koya-Takao”. It is a story of a poor dyer and a prostitute who wait for the end of her contract and then happily get married. It is something like a happy-end version of Lady of the Camellias. Similarly, there was a sense of comradeship between comfort women and soldiers as cited in “Comfort Women of Empire” written by South Korean scholar Park Yuha. It was not uncommon for comfort women to get married to Japanese soldiers after the men were discharged from military service.

There is a famous case study in psychology involving a horse called Hans. Clever Hans, as he was also known, was praised for being able to calculate numbers. But what was really happening was that “clever Hans” was picking cards with the right answers written on them by reading the subtle gestures communicated to Hans by his trainer. This is a lesson always mentioned in sociology classrooms: “Even animals can read subtle nuances. So, extreme care is required to conduct research on humans.” We are all susceptible to cues and narratives. One is forced to ask, did the Asahi report on the stories of the comfort women, or are the so-called comfort women simply re-reporting what was originally set down in the Asahi?

While responsible citizens and governments are always interested in telling the truth, communist nations like the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China have badly abused the “clever Hans” effect. The scene is all too familiar. An accused person in a communist country comes before a “people’s court” and tearfully confess crimes she or he never committed. POWs completely brainwashed come home as communists. The US and Japan suffered a lot from such acts conducted against them. Today, many cult religions also make use of such a method. Susceptibly to suggestion can easily be twisted for nefarious ends.

Speaking of communist countries, it is a known fact that South Korean activist group Chong Dae Hyup and the Japanese Social Democratic Party are deeply connected to North Korea. It is impossible to assume that they do not know about such a method, or that they would hesitate to use it. Behind the so-called comfort women lurk some powerful organizations and ideologies which are hell-bent on destroying whatever is left of freedom and democracy in East Asia.

The former comfort women who lived through hardship were smart enough to understand what was really going on. The narrative of “forcible recruitment of comfort women” was created in the context of the attempted hijacking of East Asia—present, past, and future—currently underway in the People’s Republic of China. The Communist Party in Beijing and the Kim Dynasty in North Korea want to drive a wedge between Japan and the US.

The citizens and councilors of San Francisco should not be twisted around the little fingers of those who abuse “political correctness” with politically-driven lies. Justice is its own telos. The endless replaying of the comfort women saga brings justice to nobody, while steadily advancing the cause of perhaps the two most unjust regimes on the planet.

Much Of What You May Think You Know About Korean ‘Comfort Women’ Is Wrong

By JASON MORGAN on February 12, 2018

The comfort women issue exploded in 1992 when Japanese historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki announced the discovery of documents linking the Japanese government to the wartime brothel network in the 1930s and ‘40s. Japan was accused of abducting hundreds of thousands of women as sex slaves, and then of massacring them in droves once the Fifteen-Year War in Asia had been all but lost. The main victims were said to be Koreans. Japanese politicians made endless apologies, and the anti-establishment Japanese press had a field day. Even the United Nations got involved, releasing the infamous Coomaraswamy Report on the comfort women issue in 1996.
For South Korea, where anti-Japanism is a perennial centerpiece of statecraft, the comfort women issue would seem to be a diplomatic slam dunk. And yet, the more South Korea presses the topic, the more it loses ground.
There are two main reasons for this.
First, the key comfort women claims are not true. Apart from rare war crimes (wherein offenders were later tried and punished), there was no systematized “forced abduction.” There were nowhere near “200,000 comfort women”. Many of the comfort women were not Korean. Much of this fantasy flowed from the pen of a communist named Yoshida Seiji, whose 1982 work of fiction, Watashi no senso hanzai (“My war crimes”), was treated as fact by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Today’s comfort women partisans continue to recycle Yoshida’s points, even if they do not cite him by name. Indeed, even the Coomaraswamy Report is essentially a rehashing of Yoshida’s book.
The second reason is that the closer one examines the comfort women issue, the worse other countries (including South Korea) begin to look.
From the ancient Greeks to the American Civil War to Bordels Mobile de Campagne, prostitutes have always followed the columns. German researcher Magnus Hirschfeld was the first to investigate the inseparability of war and sex. During the Great War, Hirschfeld found, there was heavy traffic at brothels arranged by combatant governments. Business boomed.
World War II was different, with men stationed in far-flung garrisons surrounded by potentially hostile locals. Americans, with the largest military-run brothel system in the world, had the luxury of locating their comfort stations along Hotel Street in Honolulu, far from enemy lines. For security reasons, Japanese field commanders forbade patronizing local prostitutes in order to stem information leaks.
Also fearing reprisals by Chinese civilians, high-ranking Japanese officials, in imitation of Western models, set up “comfort stations” (iansho) in an attempt to reduce the scourge of rapes bedeviling operations. The recruitment of women for these iansho was often subcontracted to madams in Japan and pimps in Korea. (This was made much easier because the Korean peninsula, under the yangban system, had centuries of experience in buying and selling young women — another inconvenient fact for comfort women diplomacy.)
While the Japanese military strove to end wartime rapes, some other combatant countries actually encouraged it. The worst offender during World War II was surely the Soviet Union, whose troops went on a rape rampage at the end of the war. In Manchuria, countless Japanese women committed suicide after being brutalized by advancing Soviet troops. (Although not encouraged by commanding officers, U.S. GIs raped French women by the thousands after liberating Normandy.)
Controlling venereal disease was the other calculus in a commander’s decision to provide his men with prostitutes. U.S. Gen. Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers, for example, were often grounded by syphilis and gonorrhea. Although forbidden to visit Kunming’s notorious red-light district, where the VD infection rate was said to be 100%, GIs kept going anyway. Exasperated, Chennault flew in prostitutes from India until Gen. Joseph Stilwell intervened.
Surprisingly, the comfort women system did not end in 1945. The Korean War brought comfort stations for troops from the United States. Indeed, the South Korean government supported this peninsular comfort women system. Former president Park Chung-hee personally signed an order in 1977 to clean up the “camptowns” where “Western princesses” serviced U.S. troops. The aim? To keep the American military in South Korea and U.S. dollars flowing into the economy. South Korean women who work at the brothels thronging U.S. bases are still stuck in an endless cycle of sex work and societal discrimination.
The hard truth is that South Korea is also guilty of heinous war crimes. In 1966 and 1968, for example, South Korean troops savagely raped and butchered dozens of defenseless Vietnamese peasant women in Binh Tai, Phong Nhi, and Phong Nhat. There is also the record of Korean cruelty against Allied POWs in World War II, and the sad legacy of the Lai Dai Han, the tens of thousands of abandoned, illegitimate children of South Korean soldiers born during the Vietnam War. It is a losing diplomatic gambit for any nation to bring up the history of wartime violence against women.
However, there is something much more sinister afoot with the comfort women issue than just shortsighted diplomacy. Today, the United States is home to several comfort women statues, most recently in San Francisco. (The mayor of Osaka, San Francisco’s sister city, cut ties after the city council approved the statue.) Comfort women statues can be found throughout South Korea, as well, most notably in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan. A comfort woman statue went up late last year in Manila, and in Sydney in 2016.
What do all these locations have in common? They are all key American allies in Asia. And the country with the biggest interest in breaking up American alliances with Asian nations is, of course, the People’s Republic of China. The comfort women controversy is a Chinese weapon to destabilize American relations with Asia and weaken Japan’s standing around the world. This is the overriding reason why South Korea must cease pressing the comfort women issue: it is now a subsidiary of the Chinese information war.

Jason Morgan is assistant professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan, and a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He holds a PhD in Japanese history from the University of Wisconsin, and an MA in Chinese Studies from the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa. From 2014 to 2015 Morgan was a Fulbright scholar at Waseda University in Tokyo. He has written for Japan Review, Michigan Historical Review, JAPAN Forward, the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, the Journal of Asian History, and Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, among other publications. His best-selling book, “Amerika wa naze Nihon wo mikudasu ka?” (“Why does America look down on Japan?”), was published by Wani Books in 2016. Morgan is also the translator of Hata Ikuhiko’s 1999 book on the comfort women, available from Hamilton Books this year.