Inconvenient truth for Japan

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Inconvenient truth for Japan


Nam Jeong-ho

By May 1954, Viet Minh forces in their 56-day offensive under General Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded French troops during the First Indochina War, or anti-French resistance movement, until they were confined to the small area of Dien Bien Phu, a border town between Laos and Vietnam. When the Viet Minh poured into the defeated French outpost, they were stunned by what they discovered. Among the debris on the battlefield were boxes of France’s best wines. More than 48,000 bottles of treasured varietals arrived via parachutes for 10,000 French soldiers on the front line.

In one of the tents were a group of 18 terrified Algerian and Vietnamese women. They had been part of the French unit called Bordels Mobiles de Campagne, a French term for a mobile brothel used to supply prostitution services to French servicemen. The mobile brothels were organized by the French army since World War I and consisted of large trailer trucks in which up to 10 women travelled to the front line or obscure garrisons.

The issue of “comfort women” - a euphemism referring to Asian women, mostly from Korea, forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during World War II - remains one of the most sensitive topics between the Koreans and the Japanese. Any unapologetic tone from the Japanese side rubs salt into the wounds of the people affected by it, as the emotional scars have never been allowed to properly heal. Words can be misconstrued, especially when they come from an antagonistic side. But knee-jerk reactions and oversensitivity based on ill feelings and prejudice are not right either. It’s like dismissing Francis Bacon’s work and theory because of his complicated role in the royal court. If we raise a hue and cry over every comment by an insensitive Japanese politician or public figure, even the sensible Japanese may find us overly hard to deal with.

Katsuto Momii, the new head of Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, did exactly that when he criticized Seoul last month for dredging up the issue of compensation for the comfort women, saying military brothels existed in any country at war, not just Japan. What he said was distasteful and disgraceful to the surviving victims, who still bear painful memories of abduction and coercion into sexual slavery. But getting the facts straight should come before emotional responses.

The French were not alone in running military prostitution. The Germans during World War II also had sex slaves. The Nazi military operated hundreds of brothels across occupied Europe where women were sometimes kidnapped or snatched off the streets to be transported off for sexual slavery. Brothels were set up in concentration camps and female inmates were forced to provide sexual services. Male prisoners were given coupons to receive sex as an incentive for their labor, an idea of the Nazi No. 2 man, Heinrich Himmler, to increase productivity among forced laborers.

So far, Momii was not exactly incorrect. Should we therefore keep mum about the comfort women issue?

The answer is a vehement no.

First of all, the women in the French brothels knew what they were in for when they joined their units. They were fundamentally different from the Asian women who were mostly deceived or coerced by the Japanese to serve as prostitutes for their servicemen. The crime of enforcing sexual slavery was only committed by the Japanese and Nazi armies.

It is shameful to question why the Japanese continue to be criticized for the same crime the Germans committed. The Japanese won’t get any reprieve just because the Germans have performed the same misdeed. Both the Japanese and Nazis have committed despicable crimes against humanity.

More important, after World War II, the Germans were not shy about exposing and apologizing for the brutalities committed by the Nazis. The government held exhibitions of photographs and documents from the camps to expose this sordid and horrific chapter of its country’s history. Any denial of Nazi-committed crimes is punishable by law in Germany.

But the current Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resists acknowledging the forced nature of the brothel operations, denying former statements admitting and apologizing for comfort women and past military aggressions by past governments run by the same conservative party.

What Momii said was no disgraceful slip of the tongue. We must focus on the differences between the two war-inflicting countries and the denials and unapologetic tone of Japan’s government.

During a closed-door Diet committee meeting, Masashi Nakano, a member of the Japan Restoration Party, defended the new NHK chairman’s remark by saying, “Fifty thousand South Korean women are working in the sex industry now.”

Whatever the motive may be, a politician from a country with a notorious penchant for sex of the sleaziest kind is in no position to make such an accusation or connection.

In a report on human trafficking released by the U.S. State Department annually from 2001, Japan was placed as a third-tier nation in 2004 and has always ranked as a second-tier nation out of four tiers. The report describes Japan “as a destination, source and transit country for men and women subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking and that the government of Japan does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” South Korea, in contrast, has remained in the first tier except for the year 2001.

*The author is a senior writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Nam Jeong-ho
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