Japan Fiddles with Euphemism for Imperial Army’s Sex Slaves

The Japanese government has issued yet another directive in a creeping campaign to disclaim all responsibility for World War II atrocities by fiddling with the euphemism for wartime sex slaves.

The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology earlier this year decreed that school textbooks are no longer to refer to the Imperial Army’s sex slaves as “military comfort women” but call them “comfort women” instead.

The aim is to conceal the fact that the Imperial Army itself was behind the drafting of Korean and other Asian women into sexual slavery. The Japanese revisionist right claims the victims were prostitutes and any abuses that took place were the fault of independent contractors rather than the Japanese government.

Tokyo has been tying itself into knots over the issue for decades. Following a Japanese government study in 1993, then-Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono made a famous statement that admitted that the Imperial Army forced women into prostitution at brothels run by the military during World War II. 

The statement has hung like a millstone around the neck of subsequent rightwing governments. According to Japanese media, the Cabinet on April 27 declared it was in principle upholding the statement, but that it would be “preferable” to refer to the victims as “comfort women” or “ianfu,” a euphemism for prostitutes, instead of “jugun ianfu” or “comfort women following the army.”

The Cabinet was caving in to the demands of rightwing lawmakers who felt that mentioning “jugun” in the context besmirched the honor of the military.

At the same meeting, it also decided that it is improper to say wartime forced laborers from Korea were mobilized “by force” to work in Japanese manufacturing lines and mines. They are now described as “conscripted.”

Following the Cabinet decision, 29 middle and high school textbooks will no longer use the terms. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe created a new standard requiring a unified government view and Cabinet approval for the screening of school textbooks.

One textbook publisher decided to keep using the term “military comfort women” but add a note that the Japanese government believes “comfort women” to be the proper term.

Previous Japanese governments have acknowledged the role of the Imperial Army and apologized for the “deep wounds” it caused to the honor and dignity of the Korean victims. But since the mid-2000s, increasingly chauvinistic governments have tried to backpedal at every opportunity.

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