Like the signatories of the open letter, we concur that it was inappropriate for the Japanese government to request a revision of a history textbook in the United States. The request aroused certain activists, who recruited scholars to pen letters accusing Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Japanese government of trying to rewrite history and suppress the facts. However, politics and emotions have deflected many of us from the actual question that we should be focusing on: Are there inaccuracies in the textbook, “Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past,” by Bentley and Ziegler, the book that started the maelstrom of invectives? As all historians know, interpretation of historical events is not an exact science. Sometimes the data are clear; sometimes, not.
For example, in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, we have a very good idea of the number of US Cavalrymen who died; however, the number of Native Americans who perished in this battle is not precisely known. Questions like, “What exactly happened during the battle?”, “Who were the ‘bad’ guys?”, and “Who is to blame?”, are even more difficult to answer in an unbiased, objective way.
For any history textbook, we believe that every attempt should be made to depict history as accurately as possible, and where ambiguity or subjectivity exists, this imprecision should be duly noted, especially when dealing with sensitive or contentious topics. We have conducted research in the area of comfort women. Based on primary source documents, as well as books are written by academicians, including scholars born in South Korea, we have found several unsubstantiated statements in the section on Comfort Women in the aforementioned textbook. Here, we shall point out only a small number of the many inaccuracies.
First, the following sentence: “The Japanese army forcibly recruited, conscripted and dragooned as many as two hundred thousand women age fourteen to twenty to serve in military brothels, called ‘comfort houses’ or ‘consolation centers.’” Let us break down this sentence and identify specific issues. (a) “The Japanese army forcibly recruited, conscripted and dragooned…” While there is firm evidence that some women were “forcibly recruited, conscripted and dragooned,” the cumulative body of evidence indicates that the Imperial Japanese Army did not directly participate in the recruitment of comfort women in most cases. Comfort women from Korea were typically recruited by private agencies or civilian recruiters (hereinafter collectively called “brokers”).
During the first half of the Twentieth Century, poverty was widespread in Korea and Japan, as well as in many parts of Asia. These stark economic conditions, combined with the patriarchal nature of Korean society, created an environment where working as a comfort woman constituted a means for destitute women to subsist. As such, nearly all Korean comfort women had been sent by their families (often by the father) to pay off family debts or joined of their own accord, although some (or many) were misled about the nature of the job by the brokers. Many of the brokers were, in fact, Korean.
Evidence of recruitment is demonstrated in ads appearing in major newspapers in Korea, as well as other documents. Families and women accepting advance payment essentially agreed to ‘contracts’ with specific terms, with the length of service related to the amount of debt paid off. In this sense, Korean families “forced” their daughters into service, or civilian brokers “forced” the women to comply after their families had been paid. Although some former Korean comfort women have provided narratives that they were abducted by the Japanese military, documented evidence indicates that the stories by a number of such former Korean comfort women have changed over time: initially, nearly all stated that they were not abducted or forcibly recruited by the military.
There were cases of Korean women being abducted illicitly by civilian brokers, many of whom were Korean; and, it is possible that some brokers were misidentified as Japanese military personnel, owing to their fluency in Japanese, their use of Japanese names, and that they may have worn uniforms resembling those of the Japanese Army. There were, however, cases where local military commanders forcibly acquired women in territories occupied by Japan during the war.
A well-known incident occurred in the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). Consistent testimonies from these women demonstrate that they were released from the brothels within about two months by Japanese military authorities when a higher ranking officer learned of their situation. The personnel responsible were later punished, and one executed. As such, women who were “forcibly recruited, conscripted, and dragooned” by the “Japanese army” constituted a small minority: their situation is not applicable to most comfort women. Thus, the textbook’s description is misleading and inaccurate. (b) “as many as two hundred thousand women age fourteen to twenty…” The exact number of women to serve as comfort women is unknown. Quantitative analysis indicates that this large number is highly questionable. If there were 200,000 comfort women, and each catered to, as stated in the textbook, “twenty to thirty men each day,” this calculates, on average, to 200,000 x 25 = 5 million men daily. The number of Japanese troops during that time is estimated to be less than 3 million. Considering the price charged by brothels to see a comfort woman, the low wages of the common soldier, and that soldiers spent time-fighting, there are clear inconsistencies in the numbers, even after considering turnover rates. Some comfort women may have had 20-30 visitors daily, but the assertion that this was typical for most comfort women is certainly apocryphal if there were 200,000 comfort women. In addition, the age of most comfort women was seventeen-years-old or older, and this age range is supported by numerous documents.
A United States Office of War Information (OWI) document written in 1944 by an American soldier supports this older age range: the age of the youngest woman was seventeen when joining. Additional evidence comes from recruitment ads for comfort women, where the youngest age sought was seventeen. Sadly, a very small number of younger women may have been “dragooned” by local military commanders or brokers, but the wording in the textbook portrays an image that fourteen-year-old girls were systematically rounded up, which was not the case. The number “200,000” raises the question, “How did this ‘estimate’ come about?” Scholars seriously researching comfort women’s history have not proposed such a high estimate.
For the war effort, the Imperial Japanese government recruited Japanese and Korean female civilians to work in factories, e.g., make munitions, uniforms, etc. They were called “Teishintai” (“Volunteer [labor] Corps”), and those recruited did include school girls. The number of these recruits was reported as 200,000 by certain sources. This Volunteer Corps was distinct from the comfort women system. However, the information was conflated in newspapers and became the basis for the unsubstantiated claim that: “200,000 girls were ‘forced’.” A very small number of women who had served in the Volunteer Corps did end up as comfort women later, oftentimes due to unforeseen circumstances, e.g., after their factory was destroyed in an air raid; barring these exceptions, the vast majority of the female workers who served in the Volunteer Corps never became comfort women. In addition, several other historical inaccuracies or unsubstantiated claims were observed in the section on comfort women.
The asserted large-scale killing of comfort women at the end of the war did not occur; this misinformation apparently arose after a left-wing Japanese politician (Seijiro Arafune) made inflammatory, but completely unsubstantiated, claims, for political reasons, which were then parroted. Furthermore, salient facts were omitted from the textbook section. For instance, as the OWI document attests, the comfort women described in the report were paid well, “were allowed the prerogative of refusing a customer,” and “certain girls who had paid their debt could return home. Some of the girls were thus allowed to return to Korea.”
Another point not mentioned is the fact that a significant fraction of the comfort women were, actually, from Japan. Documents clearly indicate that the treatment and work conditions of comfort women varied substantially, depending on their individual circumstances: some were treated well, others poorly; some were very well paid, others were not. Some former comfort women reported being mistreated, but who was primarily responsible (i.e., civilian brothel operators or visiting soldiers) is likely impossible to establish with certainty.
Many other inaccuracies were noted in the textbook section, as well. We, by no means, wish to downplay the hardships and suffering endured by comfort women, nor do we support those who deny that the Imperial Japanese Army had worked directly with brothel owners (e.g., transporting the women, offering medical examinations, and guarding the facilities). Still, it is the responsibility of conscientious and objective historians to present history as accurately as possible. It is through understanding of the complexities of the human condition that we can change for the better: a simplistic and inaccurate narrative that places sole blame on Imperial Japan’s military, without exposing the multifaceted nature of the socioeconomic and cultural factors that contributed to women becoming comfort women, only serve to obfuscate the underlying basis for this tragic episode in history, and hinder reconciliation and understanding, as well as ways to make the world a better, peaceful, and just place for all individuals in the future.
In conclusion, our primary goal is to provide as accurate a picture of the historical events as possible, so that all parties can better understand and resolve this complex and emotionally-charged issue. We urge historians and scholars, who consider themselves responsible and ethical, to read the key documents and books cited in the References. It is now time to set the record straight, which should be the goal of all scholars who claim academic integrity and scholarship. We end here by posing an uncomfortable question: Did the signatories ever consider the possibility that the people who are accusing Japan of re-writing history are, in fact, the ones who are attempting to re-write history?