Recalling Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’ Rapes

Japan’s current nationalist leadership downplays and denies many crimes from World War II, but a global movement continues to press for a recognition of the mass rapes and murders of so-called “comfort women,” reports Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

On Sept. 22, a global campaign demanding justice and reparations for the Japanese military’s “Comfort Women” unveiled a bronze statue in San Francisco memorializing the Korean and other Asian women who were sexually abused by Japan’s soldiers during World War II.

The statue, erected by a coalition of local groups led by the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, shows three young women, holding hands in a circle, facing outwards, as an old woman looks on.

Korean children holding “Comfort bags” which were used to accommodate cans and commodity goods in front of them and sent overseas to the soldiers. (Wikipedia)

I spoke with retired San Francisco Superior Court Judges Lillian K. Sing and Julie Tang, leaders of the movement of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, and Flashpoints correspondent K.J. Noh, about the war crime in which as many as 400,000 women were mass raped and often murdered by the Japanese.

Dennis Bernstein: K.J., lay out a brief background on the so-called “comfort women.” When did this mass kidnapping and rape take place…and basically who was responsible?

K.J. Noh: The term “Comfort Women” is a euphemism for the young women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military between 1932 and 1945 throughout the Asia Pacific region of Japan’s colonial “co-prosperity sphere.”

It’s estimated that approximately between 200,000-400,000 women and girls, some as young as thirteen, were forced into an industrialized system of rape, “servicing” up to 60 soldiers a day. Scholars estimate that this resulted in a fatality rate of up to 90%. The system has been described as “considered unprecedented in its cruelty and magnitude,” and survivors have referred to “comfort stations” as “a living hell”, “a slaughter house”.

The Empire of Japan was a theocratic military dictatorship at that time, and its military government systematically planned, implemented, trafficked, transported, enslaved and, towards the end of war, slaughtered these women. This crime against humanity has still not been officially acknowledged by the Japanese government.

Dennis Bernstein:The prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, apparently does not believe that these World War II Comfort Women deserve anything.

K.J. Noh: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the grandson of Japan’s postwar Prime Minister, Nobusuke Kishi, a class-A war criminal, and is the figurehead of the hyper-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party faction that would like to see Japan restored as a global imperial superpower. Because of this, Abe has made Japanese historical denialism official government policy, launching a massive global PR campaign to “correct” the world’s understanding of Japan’s colonial and WWII history.

Abe has also come out with some very bellicose statements against North Korea and is a big proponent of military action. Recently he wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which he misrepresented the history of nuclear negotiations with North Korea, arguing that diplomacy will not work. He writes that, “Prioritizing diplomacy and emphasizing the importance of dialogue will not work with North Korea.”

In order to back up his argument, he lies about the breakdown of the 1994 agreed framework, which effectively stopped the North Korean nuclear program until 2002. He fails to mention that the framework contained promises to normalize relations with North Korea, to remove trade barriers, and to enact a non-aggression pact, and that none of these conditions were upheld by the US. He glosses this over and then makes the argument that there is no possibility of dialogue.

Shinzo Abe, leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Interestingly, in this op-ed, Abe mentions the abduction of a young Japanese girl by the North Koreans as proof of how immoral and unethical they are. What is interesting is that the North Koreans have acknowledged abducting between thirteen and seventeen Japanese citizens and condemned those actions, although they have not given formal reparations yet. But to this day, Abe has not even acknowledged the abduction of between 200,000 and 400,000 young women and girls from Korea and the colonies.

Dennis Bernstein: Last week a memorial was unveiled in San Francisco to the Comfort Women, over the vehement opposition of the Japanese government.

Lillian Sing: I was born in Shanghai, China, where over 200,000 girls and women were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. As an Asian-American woman, I will not be silenced. How can I not get involved, when my sisters were kidnapped and raped over and over again–sometimes over eighty times a day?! What is most heinous is that the Japanese government has refused to recognize their role in these crimes. Justice delayed is justice denied. Over 400,000 Comfort Women were kidnapped, and now there are only a few dozen left.

Julie Tang: I grew up learning about the Japanese atrocities committed during World War II. In 1991 these now elderly women told the world what had happened to them. But it was really the Japanese government denial of what had happened that drove me to become involved. The Japanese government has done everything it could to prevent this memorial from being built, but we have been able to overcome all the hurdles.

Dennis Bernstein: Could you describe the multiple struggles you faced getting this memorial constructed?

Lillian Sing: Japan is very afraid of the truth. It even went before the US Supreme Court to block a memorial in Glendale of a little girl sitting on a chair. It feared that that memorial would interfere with Japanese/US relations. Now the mayor of Osaka has threatened to break off its sister-city relationship with San Francisco if a memorial is erected there. The Japanese government is now accusing China of being behind this, of trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and Japan over this memorial.

Julie Tang: I think it is extremely insulting to the victims for the Japanese leadership to be blaming everybody but themselves. First it claimed that these women were willing prostitutes. Now they are pointing fingers at China. They are saying that Judge Sing and I are essentially puppets of the Chinese government, that we are attempting to drive a wedge between South Korea and Japan in their efforts to contain North Korea.

K.J. Noh: The key thing to re-emphasize is that Japan was a fascist military dictatorship with a wartime command economy that controlled every aspect of procurement, distribution and recruitment of all material, including human labor.

We know for a fact that these women were trafficked over thousands of miles, all over the colonies. There are documents that requisition thousands of girls, who were often procured and delivered in short periods of time. These actions would not have been possible without coordinated government actions.

Another point to highlight is that this was not simply the largest case of sexual trafficking, it was also an unprecedented femicide. Between 75-90% percent of these women died during their sexual enslavement. That makes it a modern femicidal holocaust.

The Japanese government has never taken any responsibility for this. From time to time they make generic statements of remorse which mean nothing. They refuse to recognize, take responsibility, and to make any reasonable official reparations. And they have refused to ratify any of their apologies in the Japanese Diet, which is what would be necessary for a state apology.

A memorial is actually a poor substitute for what is really needed, which is justice, reparations, education and apology. A monument is just a small symbolic gesture against a backdrop of one of the most extraordinary cases of silencing in modern history.

The Western human rights complex has had a very selective attention, including in the case of the Comfort Women. That is because it is largely driven by imperial geopolitical design. We see that with the statements of the State Department, of Wendy Sherman in particular, who poo-pooed the whole Comfort Women issue, saying they needed to get over it and it shouldn’t be used for nationalistic purposes, and the statements of Anthony Blinken, who urged that South Korea get behind the absurd, fraudulent 2015 “agreement”, the written text of which can be found nowhere. The memory of the Comfort Women is something that needs to be highlighted but is being erased.

What we are seeing now is the remilitarization of Japan as a key factor in waging war against China, the rising regional hegemon. The issue of Japanese colonization ties in intimately, is an impediment to the legitimacy of Japanese remilitarization.

Lillian Sing: San Francisco is being threatened not to accept this memorial. We want to make sure that San Francisco does not allow itself to be threatened in this way by its Japanese counterpart. Mr. Abe makes annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine to honor class-A war criminals. We in San Francisco would like to have a memorial to honor the war victims. Our memorial is for peace, not war. And there will be no peace in Asia without Japan apologizing.

Julie Tang: I’d like to invite people to visit the memorial. Actually, it is not yet open to the public but we hope it will be soon, with the help of the mayor and the board of supervisors.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at

15 comments for “Recalling Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’ Rapes

  1. wansun song
    October 12, 2017 at 11:09

    Thank you to the activists who are shining the light on japan’s wartime atrocities. The rape of Nanking is also abhorrent and shouldn’t be forgotten. Alarming that Japan is remilitarizing.

  2. Zachary Smith
    October 8, 2017 at 22:34

    I carefully examined the rightwingut’s post, and didn’t see mention of a single German/Japanese atrocity.

    I guess he just “forgot” the crimes of those nice Axis nations. And that they were an order of magnitude worse than those he listed.

    • mark
      October 9, 2017 at 20:07

      We all know about Axis war crimes. I gave the examples above because they are just a handful of those airbrushed out of history – who cares today about the 50 million Chinese peasants who starved? Why are there deserving and undeserving victims?

  3. mark
    October 7, 2017 at 17:56

    2 million German women were gang raped at the end of the war, mainly but not exclusively by Russians, Poles and Czechs. Many up to 100 times and more. Many were murdered afterwards, or committed suicide, or went mad. Many were infected with serious illnesses or had abortions without anaesthetics.

    But nobody cares. Whether victims are recognised as such depends on who they are, whether they are “deserving” victims. or merely “unpersons.”

    Like nobody really cares about the hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians deliberately barbecued in the bombing holocaust, or shipwrecked Japanese sailors machine gunned by US submarines. Or German prisoners of war who were routinely massacred by all allied nations. These are all unpersons. There are many more. Like the Palestinians who are slaughtered like sheep and thrown off the land they have farmed for generations. Like the millions who have been slaughtered and starved in the Middle East this century. The 500,000 Iraqi children under 5 who died from 1991 – 2003 because of sanctions. The examples are legion. The one million people slaughtered in Indonesia in the anti communist pogrom. Or the 50 million peasants who starved to death in China in the 1960s because of failed policies and crazy ideology. It would be possible to fill several pages with similar examples.

    Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from this is not to expect anything resembling justice in this world. Any justice you get is something you have to obtain for yourself, by however much violence is required. That is the reality of it. Nobody cares about these Korean women. They are just a footnote in history. Like the 2 million gang raped German women. They don’t matter. That is the sad reality of it. All you can do is try to avoid becoming a victim in the first place – by reacting with savage unlimited violence when threatened.

    The cost that is imposed may serve as a deterrent, or at least some form of justice. That is the only justice anyone is likely to get. All the Red Indian tribes were exterminated, but some like the Apaches fought back so savagely for as long as they were able that some form of contemporary justice was exacted. That is the most anyone can hope for.

    • Ian
      October 11, 2017 at 16:06


      History is the joke the living play on the dead!

  4. Roza Shanina
    October 6, 2017 at 14:50

    In addition to the comfort women, let us not forget Unit 731.

  5. Zachary Smith
    October 6, 2017 at 11:36

    Because of this, Abe has made Japanese historical denialism official government policy, launching a massive global PR campaign to “correct” the world’s understanding of Japan’s colonial and WWII history.

    I believe this to be precisely the case, and on that account I also believe that Japan will never, or at least not in the foreseeable future, admit it did anything wrong.

    IMO this Abe guy is a potential disaster for Japan in the rank of Teddy Roosevelt and GWB.

    • mike k
      October 6, 2017 at 15:31

      It’s in the official Machiavelli play book that Great Leaders never, ever say they were wrong about ANYTHING! The Donald strictly adheres to this policy – it’s the one thing he is really consistent about.

  6. J. L. S.
    October 6, 2017 at 10:28

    What a bizarre post. Both Japan and South Korea signed an agreement saying that the statues would be removed. In the agreement, Japan admitted responsibility and apologized. They also paid out compensation. It was the third such compensation paid out by the Japanese government specifically for comfort women and their relatives. Why is none of this mentioned?

    • Zachary Smith
      October 6, 2017 at 11:42

      Probably the main problem is that the Abe guy is a warmongering right-wing ***hole who is working to return Japan to Imperial Glory.

      Shinz? Abe, the prime minister at the time, stated on March 1, 2007, that there was no evidence that the Japanese government had kept sex slaves, even though the Japanese government had already admitted the use of coercion in 1993.

    • Zachary Smith
      October 6, 2017 at 11:51

      Another issue is that Japan has been busy altering school textbooks to minimize their ancestor’s crimes. They’ve even gone so far as demanding that the US do the same.

      TOKYO — A group of Japanese historians and academics is urging McGraw-Hill, the American publisher, to “correct” a college textbook that they say contains “many erroneous expressions” about sex slaves used by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

      Saying that the women were simply prostitutes, the group is taking up an official Japanese effort to win support for its perspective on the euphemistically known “comfort women,” a particularly sensitive part of its wartime legacy.

      No link to a WP piece.

    • Zachary Smith
      October 6, 2017 at 11:56

      Just learned a new term on the software list triggering “moderation”.

      s e x _ s l a v e s

    • K.J.Noh
      October 6, 2017 at 12:07

      Japan and Korea never signed this agreement because there was no written agreement. No party has been able to produce a signed document. The “agreement” was immediately denounced by comfort women groups and civil society,. There was no recognition or responsibility assumed. There was no ratification in either the Japanese parliament or Korean national assembly on any aspect of the “agreement ” that would render this legitimate.

      • J.L.S.
        October 7, 2017 at 01:53

        This is an international treaty we’re talking about. What you’re saying is on par with demanding Obama’s birth certificate.

        • K.J.Noh
          October 7, 2017 at 03:42

          The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties–the fundamental document on treaty law–requires all valid agreements between states to be in writing.

          This is because a treaty consists of words between parties subject to interpretation, unlike a birth which is a simple, verifiable, physical fact.

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