Rape: Japanese Weapon Of War

Hiroko Tabuchi

Yasuji Kaneko, a foot soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, speaks at his home in Tokyo about countless women he raped in China as a soldier.
Yasuji Kaneko, 87, still remembers the screams of the countless women he raped in China as a foot soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II.
Some were teenagers from the Korean Peninsula serving as sex slaves in military-run brothels. Others were women in villages he and his comrades pillaged as they battled in eastern China.

"They cried out, but it didn't matter to us whether the women lived or died," Kaneko said in an interview at his Tokyo home. "We were the Emperor's soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance."

Japan's forced prostitution of some 200,000 women in military brothels in the 1930s and '40s has long constituted one of the most horrifying chapters of its wartime rampage across Asia. The top government spokesman was finally forced to acknowledge wrongdoing in 1993.

Now the government is questioning whether the apology was needed.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday publicly denied women were forced into the military brothels in conquered lands, boosting renewed efforts by rightwing politicians who claim the women involved were professional prostitutes rather than victims of abuse.

"There was no evidence to prove there was coercion as initially suggested," Abe told reporters. "That largely changes what constitutes the definition of coercion, and we have to take it from there."

The debate is heating up just as a private fund set up to compensate some of the victims is about to expire at the end of March amid accusations it was only a cover for the government to avoid taking responsibility. The government has rejected most compensation claims, saying they were settled by postwar treaties.

Victims are outraged and are pressing ahead with their demands for a full government apology rather than the 1993 statement of remorse by a spokesman.

"The Japanese government must not run from its responsibilities," said Lee Yong Soo, 78, who said she was taken as a 14-year-old from Daegu, Korea, by Japanese soldiers in 1944 to work as a sex slave in Taiwan. "I want them to apologize. To admit that they took me away, when I was a little girl, to be a sex slave. To admit that history."

The issue is not limited to Japan. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings on a resolution that urges the government of Japan to "apologize for and acknowledge" the military's use of sex slaves during the war.

The sex slaves issue has also sparked tensions between Japan and its neighbors, who accuse Tokyo of trying to whitewash wartime atrocities.

Historians say that up to 200,000 women, mainly from the Korean Peninsula and China, were forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers in military brothels as so-called "comfort women." Many more were raped at gunpoint as Tokyo's troops rampaged through the region.

After decades of denial, incriminating defense documents discovered in 1992 forced the government to acknowledge that the military government ran brothels populated by women forcibly taken from their homes, and to offer an apology the following year.

The Asian Women's Fund, created in 1995 by the government but independently run and funded by private donations, has provided a way for Japan to compensate former sex slaves without offering official government payments.

Many women have rejected the fund, calling for a direct government apology -- approved by the Diet -- and compensation funded directly by Tokyo.

For rightists, however, Japan's apology went too far. Just hours before Abe spoke, a group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers met to prepare a proposal that urges the government to water down parts of the 1993 apology and deny direct military involvement.

"Some say it is useful to compare the brothels to college cafeterias run by private companies, who recruit their own staff, procure foodstuffs, and set prices," said Nariaki Nakayama, chairman of the group of 120 lawmakers, of which Abe is a member.

"And where there's demand, businesses crop up.. ..but to say women were forced by the Japanese military into service is off the mark," he said. "This issue must be reconsidered, based on truth.. ..for the sake of Japanese honor."

Though rightwingers are unapologetic, actual participants say the assertions are far from the truth.

"The brothels were run by the military. There's no question about that," Kaneko said, adding that he was once ordered to guard sex slaves being circulated around military posts.

"There were so many soldiers, and so few comfort women. Sometimes, four or five women had to serve several hundred soldiers," he said.

Those memories are still vivid for Lee, the former sex slave. For 10 months in the northern Taiwanese town of Hsinchu, soldiers raped her, kicked her and cut at her with swords.

"I was so young. I did not understand what had happened to me," Lee said. "My cries then still ring in my ears. Even now, I can't sleep."

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