Sex slaves? What sex slaves?

A Japanese TV network glosses over the painful past between the Imperial Army and "comfort women."

By Catherine Price
Published January 30, 2007 6:10PM (EST)

In the years leading up to and during World War II, from 1932 until 1945, tens of thousands of women in Asia (up to 200,000 by some estimates) were forced into service as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army. They were called, euphemistically, "comfort women" and were repeatedly raped in army brothels by soldiers fighting in the war. (Click here for previous Broadsheet coverage, and here for 2005 coverage by CNN.) On Monday, their defenders had a victory in court.

The back story: In 2001, one of Japan's main broadcasters, NHK, altered a TV program about the comfort women that originally included a mock tribunal of crimes against humanity led by Gabrielle McDonald, former president of the International War Crimes Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia. The program initially found former Japanese Emperor Hirohito (now known as Emperor Showa) guilty for "accepting institutionalized sex slavery" and demanded that the Japanese government apologize to and compensate the victims, according to the Seoul Times. The toned-down version omitted the guilty verdict, along with testimony from former soldiers.

A Japanese women's group, Violence Against Women in War-Network Japan (VAWW-NET), took NHK and two production companies to the Tokyo High Court and was awarded $16,420 in damages, though one of the group's more inflammatory accusations -- that the changes were made at the request of Shinzo Abe, who was then the deputy chief cabinet secretary (and is currently prime minister), and Shoichi Nakagawa, another senior lawmaker from the Liberal Democratic Party -- was not recognized. (According to the Seoul Times, Abe "admitted urging NHK to alter the program as he felt the contents were 'biased,' but he denied having pressured the broadcaster.")

OK, so I personally hate it when historical TV shows try to judge past events by modern standards (usually in some cheesy, sepia-toned style, at that). But there are certain things that seem bad enough that they deserve to be acknowledged as such regardless of when they happened, especially when, as is the case in Japan, official versions of history have been whitewashed in the past. Sure, NHK is partially funded by the government (which exercises some control over its programming). It's also not clear how much direct governmental influence/pressure there was over the decision to change the program, although judging from precedent, it doesn't look too promising: As the Times reports, under Abe's administration, "the government issued an unprecedented order to NHK in November to place emphasis on the issue of North Korean agents' past abduction of Japanese nationals in its international shortwave radio service."

I haven't seen the two versions of the show, so I can't weigh in on how much of the overall message was lost, but I still don't like the idea of whitewashing history. One of the best ways to avoid repeating past atrocities is to reveal them for what they were, and acknowledge that they are not something we want to let happen again.


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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