a closeup of the word "history" in a dictionary

Dissertation on comfort women points out the importance of viewing historical events in their context

80 years later, the women who were sexually exploited by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II are still waiting for legal recognition. Anna-Karin Eriksson describes the issue as being stuck in a deadlock. In her dissertation, she points out how important it is to view historical events from a larger perspective – also current events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Comfort women is the term used for the systematic sexual exploitation of women and girls that took place under the Japanese Empire 1932–1945. It has been estimated that the system comprised anything from 20 000 to 400 000 women at some 2 000 different “comfort stations” and this is described today as either slavery or prostitution.

The system with comfort women for the Imperial Japanese Army came into being due to three main reasons, says Anna-Karin Eriksson who recently defended her doctoral thesis on this topic within the subject of political science at Linnaeus University.

“They wanted to reduce the number of rapes that took place where the Japanese Empire advanced. They also wanted to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, by controlling the women. It was also seen as a sort of relaxation after warfare, as recreation.”

Anna-Karin Eriksson
Ida Henriksson

Anna-Karin Eriksson ...

● Travelled to the U.S. after upper secondary school and felt very at home in a group of Japanese friends.
● Started studying Japanese at university.
● Got a job in Japan after her degree, working with gender issues in public administration.
● Has studied Japan and the Japanese language for more than 20 years.
● Has lived in East Asia for more than 10 years and also gained perspectives on Japan when living in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

Awaits rectification

Despite the fact that close to 80 years have passed since the end of World War II, the comfort women who are still alive are still waiting for rectification for their suffering in the form of legal recognition. The primary reason that this has not happened, according to Eriksson, is that the transformation that the occupying power enforced on Japan, which transformed the empire into a nation state, is spurring anti-feminist backlash that occurs at the survivors’ expense.

“In order to be able to implement this and have the support of the people, the emperor was kept in place, even though he had the ultimate formal responsibility for the war. The emperor became sort of a victim of the war machinery as well as the person who was to unite the nation. Thus, what was done was to relieve the new nation state of responsibility for the war and say ‘you are all victims’. In this way, it became impossible to point out individual victims who suffered more than others”, Eriksson explains.

Not an isolated event

One of the things that Eriksson points out in her dissertation is that the comfort women system cannot be seen as something unique to Northeast Asia during World War II.

“One journalist has found proof of a prototype for this system as early as in the Roman Empire. What is more, throughout Japanese history, several such systems can be found both within and outside the country; confirming there is a clear historical development. There is also a global history of subordination of women; this is not exclusive for the Japanese Empire”, Eriksson continues.

The comfort women during World War II came from Korea, China, and other countries in the region. However, to some extent, the matter has become an issue exclusively between the Japanese and Korean states. Eriksson means that this creates a deadlock.

“The problem is that other women, not least the first in Japanese history who were de facto Japanese women, are made invisible. What is more, when this becomes an issue for nation state rulers, the survivors’ perspective is lost, and they should be the protagonists. This becomes yet another feminist setback.”

Feminist achievements – and setbacks

After the end of World War II, a trial against prominent Japanese political and military leaders was held, the so-called Tokyo Trials. Despite the fact that the trials went on for two and a half years, gender-based violence was not addressed.

When comfort women, following many years of silence, had come forward, a major citizens’ initiative was launched in Tokyo in 2000, the Women’s Tribunal.

“They realised that it would be futile to seek legal justice and therefore decided to set up an inofficial tribunal anyways, with judges and experts from all over the world. Legislation that was available at the time of the Tokyo Trials was used and the emperor was brought to justice. The emperor was also sentenced for crimes against humanity”, says Eriksson.

“This was an incredible rectification for the survivors who came to Tokyo to take part in the tribunal. However, the documentary that was made about the tribunal was censored before it was aired on national television in Japan. The existence of non-Korean victims was removed. The sentence against the emperor was also removed. I think of this as a feminist setback”, Eriksson concludes.

Not being able to move forward

There is no doubt that the comfort women system existed and that it was appalling, Eriksson states.

“All such questions are actually not interesting to discuss, because they have been answered. The interesting part is to ask: Why is there resistance? Why is it not possible to move forward? Why can’t we agree on how to address issues like these in the future? What is there to gain for populists?”, Eriksson asks.

“We are prone to talk about the war as a separate chapter of history. I believe it’s crucial to look at history. What are the motives of the leaders of today? What possibilities do they have to get out?”, Eriksson continues.

Look at and understand history

Eriksson points out that we are good at talking about events as individual phenomena instead of seeing them as parts of the bigger context. In her dissertation on the comfort women, she draws parallels to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We talk as if history began in February 2022, but this has been going on actively since 2014, and there is a background also before then. We can’t just watch and go ‘ah, now this is happening, newsflash’. We must also look at and understand the history behind. What previous dynamics – that is to say; forces and movements – were, and still are, in place?”

Above all, it is important to look at power relations and dominance relations, Eriksson states.

“We should not be nice to Putin, but we should try to understand the position he is in, what opportunities he has to get out. Does it help if we strike down on him with maximum force, isolate Russia and cut the everyday contact between people? Or does it only make his followers grow in number and become stronger in their trust in him?”, Eriksson asks.

the cover of the thesis

“This can be described in many different ways, but I believe that the structures and dynamics that form the basis for various behaviours are considerably more interesting to study than the behaviour itself. We must put things in their contexts and go back in history to understand the present.”

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