«The Comfort Women issue is not resolved,» director Miki Dezaki carves in stone from the opening of his documentary. That occupying forces use local women for sexual labour is a phenomenon known from many war contexts. What is referred to by the term «comfort women issue» is a system set up by the Japanese army in the 1940s when Japan occupied large parts of East and Southeast Asia, including Korea, the Philippines and the former French Indochina.
No longer quiet
Though most of those who were put to work as comfort women for the Japanese soldiers have obviously passed away, some are still alive, and so is their demand for recognition and compensation. Japan refused for many years to even speak of the issue and denied that any such thing as a comfort women system had ever been put in place.
Many of the women had already kept quiet for most of their lives, hiding their past in fear of how they would be judged. However, since the 1990s recognition of the comfort women issue, and the demand that Japan take formal responsibility for it, has grown into a political movement.
Now the neo-nationalist movement in Japan – and its political allies in the US – are striking back. With Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe and his conservative party’s firm grip on power, the neo-nationalists and their ideology of restoring glory to Japan’s military past have gained traction.
Who are these people
Japanese-American director Miki Dezaki got caught in the crossfire himself when he started posting videos on his YouTube channel about contemporary Japanese society, including the comfort women issue. An American known as Texas Daddy started attacking him online, and while trying to figure out who this guy was and why he and many others were vehemently fighting to delegitimise the testimonies of the former comfort women, Dezaki unravelled a global web of revisionist misogynist and racist neo-nationalists working together to revise history textbooks as a central part of their claim to contemporary political power.
«Japan denied that any such thing as a comfort women system had been put in place.»
What began as a private investigation became the documentary Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, which had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October 2018. The strength of the documentary is not its portrayal of the women who laboured as comfort women during the Japanese occupation, nor its understanding of what a history of violence does to individuals and collectives. Other documentaries such as Jane Jin Kaisen’s The Woman, The Orphan, and the Tiger from 2010 (on Korea), Guo Ke’s Twenty Two from 2015 (on China), and Björn Jensen’s Forgotten Sex Slaves – The Comfort Women of the Philippines from 2015 give voice to the women concerned.
Instead, Dezaki focuses on the battle over historical facts and why the battle matters. The documentary maps the landscape of denialists including interviews with Hisae Kennedy, a «defector» from the neo-nationalist movement who explains how she came to realise that the revisionism she was involved in was unethical, and with the «spider» Hideaki Kase, an influential Japanese diplomat who masterminds textbook revisions in Japan without bothering to consult research-literature on the issue.
The revisionists are, according to Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, connected through nationalist and fascist circles and associations in Japan and the US, whose main concern is to reinstall Japan as a military empire in the East. They are driven by their belief that the Japanese belong to a superior race. The ideology of the comfort women denialists is, as Hisae Kennedy says, both racist and sexist.
The issue is not resolved
The documentary opens and closes by showing how historical atrocities and controversies reverberate into contemporary battlefields and how the claims for justice of individuals and collectives become entangled in inter-state relations and structural power shifts.
In 1993, the then Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yōhei Kōno for the first time acknowledged that the Japanese army had indeed set up a system of coerced «comfort» labour in the occupied countries during WWII. However, the so-called Kono Statement was practically revoked when current prime minister Shinzō Abe – whose power base is intimately linked to the neo-nationalist denialist circles – was elected in 2007.
In 2015, the South Korean and Japanese governments finally signed a common agreement that was supposed to end mutual criticism over the comfort women issue – but without consulting the women who demanded justice. That agreement was negotiated under pressure from the US, who found it inconvenient that its two closest allies in Asia were in strife.
Hideaki Kase, whom director Dezaki identifies as the link between all the networks and associations involved in comfort women denialism, is also a Nanjing Massacre denialist. His stunning statements to the camera illustrate the scope of the current neo-nationalist agenda in Japan. For instance, when he says that The People’s Republic of China is bound to crumble sooner or later, and by then South Korea – a «poorly raised child» – will have no other choice but to become «the most adorable pro-Japanese society».
With curiosity and patience Dezaki contributes vital pieces to understanding why the comfort women issue – more than half a century later – has not been resolved, and how the violence that thousands of women throughout East and Southeast Asia suffered under Japanese rule lingers not only for them but also on a global geo-political scale.