Thursday, November 27, 2014

Imagining the unimaginable about war, comfort women


At the start of the 2006 film “Flags of Our Fathers,” the voiceover narrator states to the effect that people who really know war do not talk about war.

I take this as a warning to be wary of people who run off at the mouth about something they could not possibly know in depth.

The September issue of Bungei Shunju magazine ran a piece by Tsuneo Watanabe, editor in chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun.

It is titled “Abe Shusho ni Tsutaetai ‘Waga Taikenteki Yasukuni-ron’” (My experience-based thoughts about Yasukuni that I want to share with Prime Minister Abe).

Watanabe is of the dying generation of Japanese who “really know World War II.” I think of this piece as something like Watanabe’s last will and testimony, meant to be read by the leader of the younger generation that does not know that war.

In discussing Japan’s war responsibility, Watanabe takes up the “Yasukuni dispute” as a symbolic issue.

Unlike national war memorial facilities of other countries, which rarely cause controversy among the public because of their strictly secular nature, Yasukuni Shrine is a peculiar, religious institution. Watanabe expresses his strong doubts about the choice of this shrine as the place for memorializing the nation’s war dead.

Defining himself as “someone at the tail end of the generation of Japanese who experienced that war,” Watanabe recalls the harrowing reality of his life in the army.

I do not see eye to eye with Watanabe on many issues. But I am deeply impressed with the sincerity with which he discusses war. His words are sometimes tinged with mistrust for “people who talk too much about the war.” But his mistrust is only murmured softly, as if to himself, without histrionics.

One of the biggest scars left by World War II concerns women who were forced to provide sexual services to soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army.

In August, a major development occurred regarding the “comfort women” issue.

On Aug. 5, The Asahi Shimbun announced it had concluded that the testimony of writer Seiji Yoshida, which it long deemed proof that the women were “forcibly taken away,” was a fabrication. Asahi also retracted its past articles based on Yoshida’s accounts.

To begin with, the comfort women issue was never really about whether or not they were “forcibly taken away.” Yet, because of the series of articles on that question, it became the focus of comfort women-related discussions over time.

For this, I believe the newspaper should bear responsibility. However, that is not what I wish to discuss here.

“Ianfu to Senjo no Sei” (Comfort women and sex on the battlefield) by historian Ikuhiko Hata is considered a seminal work that provides a broad range of precise materials on the subject.

But every time I read this book that purportedly deals with “solid facts,” I am overcome with a deep sense of futility.

Hata wrote that the stories the comfort women recounted of their lives were all “nebulous,” and that they “utterly lacked corroborating testimonies” by their families, friends, neighbors or eyewitnesses.

In other words, Hata asserted their stories could not be believed. But I wonder.

* * *

Several million Japanese soldiers fought in World War II, including a good number of novelists.

Those who survived, upon repatriation, wrote about what they had witnessed on the battlefront. Some of the works contain vivid portrayals of comfort women as fellow human beings, not as “specimens” to be examined by historians.

In “Inago” (Locust), Taijiro Tamura (1911-1983) depicts women who continue their grueling train journey, during which they are half forced to “bring comfort” to countless soldiers from various units.

His “Rajo no Iru Tairetsu” (Ranks of soldiers with naked women) describes stark-naked women forced to march alongside the troops.

Tamura portrayed a stark world where rape and carnage were daily occurrences. In contrast, there is a peculiar atmosphere of serenity in a collection of stories by Komao Furuyama (1920-2002).

In a story written in the first person singular, the protagonist, a soldier, lays down his own law in the battlefront: never to kill civilians and stay away from “comfort stations.” Abiding by this law is his only way of maintaining his sanity.

The soldier feels deep sympathy for and empathy with the comfort women.

“They are being forced to perform sex thousands of times,” he wrote. “They are no different from us in that they have been abducted to perform degrading acts against their will. Just as we could not refuse the draft, the women could not escape impressments.”

After the comfort women issue came to be discussed widely, Furuyama wrote a short story titled “Semi no Tsuioku" (Cicada’s reminiscence) in 1993. He expressed his bemusement over media reports about former comfort women who were beginning to demand justice.

While accepting the righteousness of their arguments, Furuyama could not shake off the nagging unease that plagued him. He wondered whether the words attributed to the former comfort women were really theirs.

Furuyama recalled in his mind’s eye the face of a comfort woman he met on the battlefront a long time ago.

“If she is still alive, I wonder what she is thinking about now,” he wrote. “I wonder how she feels about the organizations that are demanding, in the name of justice, that women like her be compensated for their past anguish.

“From time to time, I ask myself these questions, knowing that there will be no answer. Every time I imagine those things, I am reminded that they are beyond my power of imagination.”

* * *

Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, the better part of the people who experienced that war are gone, leaving the discussion to those who have no experience.

Whenever someone relying on “written materials” says things like “mere prostitutes” and “you can’t call something a massacre when only several thousands were killed,” I feel deep unease.

That’s because every person may be a mere statistic on a document, but a sentient, flesh-and-blood individual, with his or her life and destiny, was involved in the documented incident.

But if “those people involved” elude the imagination of even the most imaginative and sensitive souls who happened to be the closest to them, I must say that we, so distant from them, ought to be much humbler when we form our opinions about them.

Before rushing into any conclusion, I would like to close my eyes and try to imagine the inner, unuttered voices of those people--quietly and far away from them--even if such an attempt should prove to be in vain.

* * *

Genichiro Takahashi, a professor of Japanese literature at Meiji Gakuin University, was born in 1951. His just-published collection of essays, titled “Kanreki kara no Denno Kotohajime” (My initiation into cyber-world at age 60), is about the advancing digitization of his life.



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