WHAT DOES “DIARY OF JAPANESE MILITARY BROTHEL MANAGER” HAVE TO SAY?
I have just finished reading A Cultural Anthropologist’s Review of ‘Diary of a Japanese Military Brothel Manager’—an engaging book dealing with wartime Korean “comfort women” by Professor Choi Kilsung of the University of East Asia in South Korea. Based on diaries kept by a Korean identified only as “Park,” Choi’s book was published in Korea in 2013 and translated into Japanese last month (Heart Shuppan Co., Tokyo).
The published diary (hereafter “the Diary”) contains entries written while Park served as manager of Japanese military brothels in Burma (Myanmar today) and Singapore between 1942 and 1944. Comprising a rare record by someone well versed in wartime “comfort stations,” I began reading the Diary with high expectations.
Frankly, however, Choi’s work has left me frustrated, as it didn’t go into enough detail in certain areas.
Three years ago, Professor Choi published another “comfort women” book—The Origin of the US Army’s Korean Comfort Women. These two books amply reveal the strong interest the author has taken in the Diary and his intent to interpret its content as objectively as possible.
Choi says his research has mainly been aimed at exploring “sex through the wartime behavior of nations in modern history.” The book is colored by his own experience of the Korean War, which broke out when he was ten years old. A quote from the preface:
“To me as a little boy, the United Nations forces symbolized peace—angelic troops who would save my country from communism. That was why we waved to them in welcome when they arrived. Little did we know they would begin sexually assaulting the women and girls of our village.”
Choi grew up in a typical Korean village where strong Confucian ethics prevailed. However, under the irresistible circumstances of the war—which he describes as “an event of force majeure marked by a perpetual fear of sexual violence”—the villagers “could not but recognize the need for prostitutes, i.e., Korean ‘comfort women’ for the US Army.” Choi further notes that his “happy little native village, at the mercy of the UN forces, was transformed into a village of prostitution,” but feels that “thanks to the prostitutes, the other female villagers were spared sexual violence and exploitation.” He asks: “Isn’t this similar to what went on with Japanese troops during World War II?” A pertinent question, I believe.
The “comfort women” issue involves not only the Japanese military but troops from other countries as well fighting under the flag of the UN. What makes Choi’s interpretation fair is a recognition on his part that Koreans themselves were perpetrators as well as victims.
In South Korea, Choi points out, “’comfort women’ have been elevated from poor victims to patriotic heroes and are now revered, with statues of them built in many places, including some American cities.” Noting that this phenomenon is “actually nothing new,” Choi cites the example of Nongae, the legendary “kisaeng” (traditional entertainer) of the16th century.
“The Facts Back Then”
During the era in which the Koreans called the Japanese “little barbarians,” Nongae allegedly committed suicide by casting herself from the cliff side into a river while embracing a general of the Japanese invading forces, leading to his death too. In her honor, Koreans built a pavilion in central Jinju in Gyeongsangnam-do, southeastern Korea. Kisaengs and prostitutes were disdained under Confucian ethics, but the popular image can significantly change when certain political factors are taken into consideration, as Nongae’s case demonstrates.
Park’s Diary was initially published in South Korea in August 2013 with a commentary by An Byenong-jik, an honorary history professor at Seoul National University who discovered it the previous year. In South Korea, the Diary is recognized as proof that the “comfort stations” were under the solid control of the Japanese military and that “comfort women” were put under strict surveillance by the military. On the contrary, in Japan it is viewed as proof that the wartime brothels were run under the government-approved prostitution system.
Choi took special care to remain neutral in his interpretation of the Diary, refusing to align himself with either side. As mentioned earlier, I wish this book had gone into more detail. Not all of the original text has been translated in the Japanese version and while I have no way of knowing why its publisher decided against translating the full text, I find its decision regrettable.
And yet, Choi has done a good job explaining how comfort stations were managed during those days and what types of people were involved in this business. Instead of applying contemporary values, Choi shares with the reader the reality back then through the eyes of a Korean experienced in managing Japanese military brothels.
In July 1942, Park boarded a ship in Pusan for Rangoon (now Yangon) as part of the Fourth Comfort Women Group, together with nearly 700 “comfort women” who were under contract to entertain Japanese soldiers at the front. In the same boat was Mun Ok-chu, known in Japan today as a former “comfort women” who saved a large sum of money—enough to buy several homes in Korea—while serving Japanese soldiers in Burma.
Two months later, in November, Park moved to Akyab near the port of Sittwe in western Burma. (In recent years China has invested heavily in Sittwe to construct a stronghold for its navy.) In 1943, Park returned to Rangoon, then moved from city to city across Burma. His movements make one aware that a military comfort station hardly operated in one permanent spot.
Park moved to Singapore at the end of September 1943, finally returning to Korea in December 1944.
While in Burma, Park wrote, he remitted stunning sums of money for himself, his colleagues, and the women at the comfort stations. For instance, he wrote, he was instructed by the proprietor of his brothel, Ryutaku Yamamoto, to remit \32,000 to his family back home shortly after returning to Rangoon on January 16, 1943.
As a matter of fact, Yamamoto turned out to be a brother of Park’s wife—a fellow Korean. Many Japanese names appear in the Diary as owners of brothels, but
Choi points out that most of them were actually Koreans bearing Japanese names.
What is \32,000 worth today? As the average monthly salary of civil servants of \75 of that time is calculated to be worth around \200,000 (US$1,786) today, Choi figures \32,000 to be about \85,300,000 (US$761,607).
“That means close to \100 million (US$892,900) in today’s currency was remitted off and on back then,” states Choi in surprise, also noting that Park himself made personal remittances of sums ranging from \10,000 (US$238,000) to \30,000 (US$714,000) to his family or his own bank account in Korea. That he was able to remit such large sums at least a few times during his two-and-a-half-year stint in Burma shows that military brothels must have been a very lucrative business indeed.
Presumably, other brothels were just as profitable, and many of the comfort women there were highly paid. Brothels being such a thriving business, their proprietors sometimes even engaged in buying and selling brothels themselves.
Park’s Diary in its Japanese translation introduces only a sketchy picture of the life of the women at comfort stations. Park mentions he personally went to the movies on his days off rather often. Choi introduces such references as “(we went to the movies) mostly with men in the same business” and “sometimes, (we went) together with ‘comfort women’ and waitresses (who worked at comfort stations).” Choi also quotes Park as mentioning that “at one time a movie was shown by the military railway service unit, which the ‘the comfort women’ went to see.”
After scrutinizing the Diary, Choi concludes that it is absolutely devoid of any reference to the Korean women having been coerced into sexual servitude or treated as sexual slaves. Emphasizing that it is “theoretically possible for any nation or any ethnic group to accuse another of sexual exploitation and violence during a time of war,” he notes: “Korea’s accusations (of Japan) on the basis of sexual ethics automatically lead one to question the behavior of its own soldiers (during the Vietnam War, for instance).” He adds: “It’s like a boomerang: it is bound to come back on one’s self.”
Choi concludes that South Korea must immediately stop criticizing Japan about the “comfort women” issue. I fully agree with what he has to say. However, I wonder if his candid admonition will find its way to the ears of the administration of Moon Jae-in, who chose to invite a former “comfort woman” to the official dinner honoring Donald Trump in Seoul on November 7.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 782 in the December 14, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)