In early-20th century imperial Japan, prostitution was not something that was hidden away in some seedy red light district in town – it was a well-organized profession. Geishas in kimonos and tightly bound feet, sashayed around town, very much an open part of society. It was accepted that an important part of being a woman in Japan was to provide men with sexual pleasure.
Naturally, given the social norm, Japanese men felt entitled – to seek and receive sexual pleasures as and when they desired.
Prior to and during the Second World War, Japan held vast occupied territories that covered Korea, China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan (then a Japanese dependency), Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies), East Timor (then Portuguese Timor), the Phillipines, present-day Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. These lands were secured by large standing armies, each of whose members held the very same entitlement to sex as did their civilian counterparts back home.
Far flung outposts also carried certain hazards – one, the risk of rebellion from the poor living conditions far from home, which the servicemen were made to endure and the risk of treachery. In an attempt to address both, the Japanese army brass decided to provide free sex to the soldiers, organized around whorehouses in the occupied lands that were known as comfort stations and the native women snatched from homes and sent to work in those joints were known as Ianfu (comfort women), the word ‘comfort’ attempting to convey that these women were meant to provide comfort to the Japanese servicemen.
The educated, better-looking girls were allocated to the officers, while the more rustic ones were sent to comfort stations meant for the grunts, where they toiled, sometimes servicing as many as 50-80 Japanese servicemen in a single day, until they literally dropped dead.
Sex slavery is no ordinary, garden variety human rights abuse. Many historians judge Japan’s atrocities in the conquered territories as being even more barbaric than what went on inside the Nazi concentration camps and yet, except for a sparse smattering of published work, the story of the ianfu has never been told around the world with the same intensity as the Holocaust.
After seven decades of hemming and hawing and refusing to apologize, Japan finally came around and atoned this week in front of one of the nations whose women ‘comforted’ its armies – South Korea and a compensation package has been mutually agreed upon (purportedly ¥1billion($8.3 million).
However, almost all of the surviving ianfu (most of whom are now in their 90s) have gone public and expressed unhappiness over the deal, not because of the amount of the compensation, but due to something that is intangible – the loss of honor, a priceless commodity anywhere, especially in Korea.
Anyway, money means little to anyone at ninety. The comfort women of Korea are very angry with their government for keeping quiet for decades after the Second World War ended and coming out and seeking an apology from Japan only in the early 1990s.
South Korea’s decades-long reticence seems bizarre but perhaps it was the shared security interests that Korea and Japan had during the Cold War and the continuing presence of the US Military bases in both nations that sort of glued them together in the fight against an imaginary bogie named communism and made South Korea see Japan as the only friend in a dangerous neighborhood.
Whatever it was, it was invariably the ianfu who were the losers. Today, they struggle to get through the day in a world where they have been living as outcasts, shunned by even their own families. Any atonement now is not worth the paper it is written on.
The current Japanese-Korean rapprochement brings to my mind another page in history that was about how close Japan came, to occupying India in the Second World War. Japan already had its satrap ready – a misguided guy named ‘Netaji’ Subhas Chandra Bose.
If Japan had had its way and history taken a different course, India might have ended up having its own ianfu.
Yes, my mother may well have been forced under pain of death, to be a ‘comfort woman’ and yes, I would have had a thousand slant-eyed fathers to choose from.
Oh, what a charming world the great ‘Netaji’ would have arranged for us Indians to live in. All those adoring Bengali men would no doubt have loved him, even if their women were forced to be ianfu. Who knows, his Jap bosses might have let our dear Netaji have a little ianfu harem of his own. Pity the Japs didn’t advance beyond Burma and he disappeared.
Of course Netaji’s megalomania began much earlier in those sultry evenings of the summer of Berlin 1942, when he would while away the time with the likes of Heinrich Himmler and Von Ribbentrop, downing schnapps with chips and nuts.
Folks like ‘Netaji’ Subhas Chandra Bose and their enemy’s enemy is a friend mindset make me throw up. That he disappeared, allegedly killed in an air crash, is a blessing for him. Gandhi and Nehru were too decent. If I found a man who almost managed to get an entire nation enslaved for the sake of his own little power grab, I would have had him stood up in front of a firing squad and shot.
Bose may have escaped rendering an apology – for almost being able to make me the child of a ianfu – but it took his Japanese masters a long time to come forward and say to the Koreans, ‘forgive us’. The others – the Phillipinos, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the Laotians are still waiting.
As far as the Ianfu are concerned, it was already too late for an apology, the very first time when their blouses were ripped open.