Issue No : 33 December 1999 - February 2000
People who disapprove of any further post-war compensation by Japan repeatedly claim that comfort women were licensed prostitutes. What they are saying is that comfort women legally practised prostitution under the state-regulated prostitution system, therefore no official apology or compensation is necessary. How could such a nonsensical argument be accepted by Japanese society? I would like to study what the claim is based on from the historical viewpoint.
How more illogical could one be than justifying no compensation for comfort women on the grounds of the legality of the practice at that time? In English those who exploit by managing prostitutes are pejoratively referred to as 'pimps'. Under the state-regulated system, the state was the general manager of all the pimps; the state controlled the system, directly or indirectly receiving the stupendous profits created. In such state-licensed quarters, violence was a daily occurrence. State police kept vigil to stop prostitutes escaping from routine rape. To these women, the state was the human rights violator that legalised violence and rape against them. To those who insist that comfort women were licensed, the system is the rationale for its legality: they say that it was legitimate, therefore there should be no compensation. This is the logic of a pimp that can be accepted only by its followers and others who would approve rape and violence.
The revelation that during the war prostitutes were licensed in itself proves nothing except how guilty the state was. Such reasoning as "it was the extraordinary and extreme conditions of war that created the comfort women" is a fallacy. Well before the comfort women policy existed, by licensing prostitutes, Japan had created sex slaves out of Japanese women. It merely extended the licensing system to colonies making sex slaves out of Korean and Chinese women too. It was not 'the extraordinary conditions of war that founded comfort women', but it was practised during the war because the licensing system existed previously in peacetime.
It ought to be indisputable that the legalised existence of state-regulated prostitution could only disclose the depth of sins committed by the state and thus only justify the righteousness of compensation for comfort women. How could it be used as an excuse for not compensating the women? I think that in order to understand such reasoning (or unreasoning), one must extend the argument to the wider framework of prostitution in general. Systematic prostitution consists of three parties: women selling, men buying and pimps as the 'middle-man'. Amongst the three, women have the least power. It is the male customers and pimps who exercise political, economic and physical power and violence within the system. Because women are relatively powerless, whenever prostitution becomes an issue in society, all the blame is without exception placed upon them. Yet it is the women selling themselves that has always been considered the vice and the problem.
The state-regulated prostitution system of Japan excuses itself by blaming women for all its vice. The Japanese government claimed in the past that prostitutes working in the system chose to be prostitutes and that the government just pardoned such ugly practices as a measurement to save the poor. According to their thinking, prostitutes were allowed to escape the punishment they deserved to receive only thanks for the mercy of government! Their logic makes a compassionate hero out of the state and neatly hides the ugly practice of the state which exploits women in poverty.
This logic was by no means only accepted by politicians and bureaucrats. In the purification campaign, which portrays an image of fighting for women's rights, prostitutes were conceived as criminals who must be punished by the state. Supporters of the campaign tried to abolish the state-regulated prostitution system not because the state was exploiting women, but because the state was publicly allowing the ugly practice. They hated the women because they seduced the Imperial soldiers and transmitted diseases. To both pro-prostitution (i.e. the state) and anti-prostitution advocates, prostitutes were the common enemy.
Even after the war, the fundamental attitude of placing all the blame onto prostitutes has remained. Speaking only in legal terms, it is true that GHQ abolished licensed prostitution, but the change only brought a superficial transformation of the same system. After the war, the Japanese government prepared prostitution sites for the foreign occupation forces. As the forces withdrew and the U.S. and Japan Security Pact came into effect, prostitution sites further developed on land neighbouring American bases.
In the turmoil the country was going through after the war, prostitution was the only means of survival for many Japanese women. In 1956 when the Anti-Prostitution act was introduced, over 500,000 prostitutes were estimated to exist. Most of these women were war widows, returnee comfort women, and those who were the victims of unemployment, poverty, and sexual violence, which were the immediate consequence of the US and Japanese political and military mismanagement after the war. However it was not war criminals, foreign occupation forces or the post-war Japanese government who were targeted and accused by the followers of the purification campaign or the general public, but the women 'for sale' and the women only.
The anti-prostitution law was originally pursued as a law to punish prostitution and as such, punishment should rightfully have been meted out to the state by- making it compensate for the victims. The claim that the state was the subject for punishment was actually voiced by prostitutes in red-light districts. It was not the state who had benefited from prostitutes that incurred punishment however, but the prostitutes, and they alone were accused and punished. The Prostitution Punishment Act completely shifted the blame for prostitution from where it was to where there was no guilt.
The current Anti-prostitution Act shares the same mentality towards prostitutes as the Prostitution Punishment Act. Immorality and evil both lie only with prostitutes. As far as the law goes, the act of 'selling', meaning 'to perform a sexual act that results in receiving remuneration' is the primary vice, whereas exploitation of prostitutes (including buying their services) is considered to be only a minor vice.
It is true that state-regulated prostitution finished with the introduction of the Anti-prostitution Act, but the way it ended was far from satisfactory from women's point of view: how the state was pardoned from any kind of punishment is a further humiliation to women. The system had a powerful influence on forming the general notion about prostitution in Japan and thus is still influencing people by allowing the opinion that comfort women were licensed, and therefore that no compensation is necessary. Such an idea sees comfort women not as victims harmed by the state but only as the objects of contempt. This is why those who claim that comfort women were licensed always claim that they are not entitled to receive any compensation from the state.
We must logically rebut such a claim and make people aware that women involved in state-regulated prostitution were in fact the very victims of the system. The fallacy ought to be destroyed completely to protect and defend women's rights.
By Yuki Fujime, Associate Professor of Osaka University of Foreign Studies, in Men and Prostitution: Why Men Buy Women in Women's Asia 21, Voices from Japan No.5 September 1999