SOUTH KOREAN SCHOLAR FRESHLY DENIES “COMFORT WOMEN” WERE “SEX SLAVES”
Lee Yong-hoon, a leading expert on the economic history of modern Korea, has reiterated that the so-called “comfort women” were not sex slaves coerced into sexual servitude for the Japanese military before and during World War II. Lee, Professor Emeritus at Seoul National University, stressed that “the ‘comfort women’ were ‘ordinary’ licensed prostitutes who followed Japanese troops,’” pointing out that “the claim that they were ‘kidnapped’ by the Japanese military or the police is predominantly based on oral documents alone that can hardly be recognized as credible as objective sources.”
Lee made these remarks in the last of his 12-part Internet Korean modern history lecture series entitled Korea, A Nation Trapped in Fantasy. The lecture, lasting more than two hours, was net-cast in two installments August 22-23.
Lee has published several controversial books, such as An Alternative Textbook; South Korea’s Modern History (Kirapang Publishers, South Korea; 2008) and The Story of the Republic of Korea (Bungei Shunju Ltd., Tokyo; 2009). Both books have been severely criticized in South Korea because they reflect a surprisingly fair view of Japan and the Japanese. A stunning number of South Koreans are said to have read An Alternative Textbook, which squarely repudiates and challenges the pro-Pyongyang leftwing textbooks widely used in South Korea over the years.
I once asked Prof. Lee how he managed to break free from the spell of anti-Japanese ideology so prevalent in both Koreas. He replied that it was presumably because he was not a political scientist but an economist whose research must be based on absolutely objective numbers.
In point of fact, Lee’s August lecture was quite empirical and fair. The varied historical resources he cites—including Diary of A Japanese Comfort Station Caretaker and the testimonies of Korean “comfort women” hitherto unreleased in Japan—strongly undermine the line taken by the liberal Asahi Shimbun and others that South Korean women were coerced into Japanese military comfort stations and treated as sex slaves. Lee has this to say about the conditions at that time:
“After 1938, when the market for military comfort stations was opened to potential Korean proprietors, many Koreans themselves came to run comfort stations to cater to the Japanese military. (The women) followed Japanese troops in such countries as China, Taiwan, and Burma to work as ‘comfort women…’ At the time, many typically ended up being ‘comfort women’ as a result of ‘human trafficking’ (such as parents selling their daughters) or employment scams.”
Free to Work, Free to Quit
Lee points out that detailed records of Ms. Moon Ok-ju, a former “comfort woman,” show that women were not allowed to work at comfort stations without a lawful work permit under licensed prostitution and that they were permitted to go home when their contracts terminated. In her biography, Ms. Moon reveals that she was permitted to leave her comfort station for good when she submitted a request for permission to quit “due to failing health.” Matters like these are common knowledge to those familiar with the situation of those times.
Still, those who believe the women were sex slaves would maintain they could not possibly have been allowed to quit that readily. Based on the historical records mentioned above, however, Lee notes: “The women’s requests were generally accepted unless they were with comfort stations on the front lines…In fact, under the licensed prostitution system that existed then, they rarely were banned from leaving.”
In addition to the freedom to work or to quit, the women were entitled to two holidays a month on which they were free to leave their comfort stations. Adds Lee: “The women were engaged in a business in which the work was intense but the pay was good, so their proprietors could not have hoped to restrain them even if they were initially liable for a debt of just a few hundred yen.”
Some women were financially well off. In Ms. Moon’s case, she is known to have remitted ￥5,000 (\1.3 million, or US$130,000, today) to her family in Korea while setting aside ￥26,000 (approximately US$700,000) in savings—said to be enough to buy 26 houses in Korea or Japan during those days.
While China and South Korea maintain that the “comfort women” were subject to brutal violence by Japanese soldiers, Lee strongly refutes this argument. He notes:
“The widely-known ‘Mandalay Comfort Station’ rules enforced near a Japanese military base in Mandalay, Burma specified that officers and soldiers entering comfort facilities near the base wear badges of rank and that they not abuse women or commit violence to them within the facilities under all circumstances…Patrolling and R&R officers saw to it that these military rules be stringently honored, while weekly physical check-ups were conducted on the women to maintain high standards of hygiene.”
How thoroughly were these rules enforced within the comfort station? Lee cites an amazing example involving Ms. Moon. He writes:
“One day at the comfort station, a soldier abused Ms. Moon. In the scuffle that followed, she took his sword, stabbed, and killed him.”
So, a soldier was killed by a “comfort woman” with his own sword. What became of Ms. Moon, the assailant? Lee continues:
“After (Ms. Moon) testified that the soldier committed violence against her and that she acted in self-defense, she was found not guilty. The court martial rendered a judgment of acquittal.”
Given how the women were generally treated at comfort stations, Lee concludes that their definition as slaves—attributed to liberal Japanese lawyer Etsuro Totsuka—clearly does not apply. Lee stresses that, while slaves are not recognized as “legal persons,” the “comfort women” were.
Voice of Common Sense
American slaves, for instance, weren’t legally entitled to give testimony in court even if they might have witnessed a murder, because under American law they weren’t recognized as human beings. By contrast, the status of the “comfort women” was markedly different, as was exemplified by Ms. Moon’s experience. If she had been a “slave,” she would certainly not have had the right of access to courts. But she was able to go to court and was actually acquitted. Therefore, Lee concludes that the claim that the “comfort women” for the Japanese military were “sex slaves” is clearly wrong.
As regards the total number of Korean “comfort women,” Lee brushes aside the long-held Korean contention that there were 200,000, and concludes there were “5,000 at the most,” citing his extensive research. He appeals to Koreans as follows:
“In order for we Koreans to join the ranks of the world’s advanced nations, we must cast aside all our fantasies and illusions about our wartime experience. Only when we manage to set ourselves free from the quagmire of history that has led to our poor relations with Japan can we truly claim to be members of the contemporary international community.”
How have South Koreans taken Lee’s point? Because of the objectivity and fairness of his views, he has previously been labeled as “pro-Japanese” and mercilessly condemned by anti-Japanese forces. What about this time?
To determine the impact of what Lee had to say, Professor Tsutomu Nishioka, an expert on the Korean Peninsula at Tokyo Christian University, examined the reaction on the Korean Internet. He explains: “Koreans are reacting quite differently this time. Already 50 days have passed since Lee’s lecture went on the Internet but it continues to draw interest. After Tokyo and Seoul reached a ‘final and irreversible’ agreement on the “comfort women” last December, the Korean perception of Japan and the Japanese has been steadily changing for the better. (Tokyo committed \1 billion, or US$8.3 million, to a fund to be set up in Seoul.) Nearly 80% of surviving former ‘comfort women’ (40 in all according to a July 2016 estimate by the Jiji Press ) have expressed their readiness to receive financial assistance from the fund, which has led anti-Japanese activists bodies, such as the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery for Japan, to decline in influence.”
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagyuda is eagerly counting on Koreans willing to share the facts of history with Japanese, stating:
“I see the new developments in Korea as an indication that the previously suppressed voice of common sense is at long last being expressed in Korea. With both Japan and Korea facing up to our mutual history sincerely, I am certain we will be able to move closer together and support each other as real neighbors.”
The new turn of events makes it all the more pertinent for Japan to step up its efforts to continue to disseminate to Korea the pertinent facts about its wartime history.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 725 in the October 20, 2016 issue of The Weekly Shincho)