They were kidnapped on the street, or summoned to the village square, or lured from home with false promises of work, to be forced into the Japanese military's far-flung, highly organized system of sexual slavery throughout its occupied territories in the 1930s and 1940s. Of some 200,000 so-called comfort women only a quarter survived their ordeal; many of those died soon after of injuries, disease, madness, suicide. For years the ones who remained were silent, living marginal lives. But beginning in 1991, first one, then a trickle, then hundreds of middle-aged and elderly women from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other former Japanese possessions came forward demanding that the Japanese government acknowledge its responsibility, apologize and make reparations. Despite a vigorous campaign of international protest, with mass demonstrations in Korea and Taiwan, Japan has hung tough: In 1995 Prime Minister Tomiichi Muayama offered "profound"--but unofficial--apologies and set up a small fund to help the women, to be financed on a voluntary basis by business; this past March, the Hiroshima high court overturned a modest award to three Korean women. As if official foot-dragging weren't demeaning enough, a popular comic-book history of Japan alleges that the comfort women were volunteers, and ultraright-wing nationalists have produced middle-school textbooks, approved for use in classrooms, that omit any mention of the government's role in the comfort-woman program.
Frustrated in Japan, the comfort women have now turned to the US Court of Appeals for the Washington, DC, Circuit. Under the 212-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act, foreigners may sue one another in US courts for human rights violations; the women are also relying on a law against sexual trafficking passed last year by Congress. In mid-May, however, the State Department asked the Justice Department to file a brief expressing its sympathies with the women's sufferings but urging that the case be dismissed as lacking jurisdiction: Japan has sovereign immunity, under which nations agree to overlook each other's wrongdoings, and moreover, treaties between it and the United States put finis to claims arising from the war.
In other words, it's all right to seize girls and women and put them in rape camps--aka "comfort stations"--for the amusement of soldiers far from home, as long as it's part of official military policy. War is hell, as the trustees of the New School noted in their letter absolving their president, Bob Kerrey, of the killing of as many as twenty-one Vietnamese women and children. If it's OK to murder civilians, how wrong can it be to rape and enslave them?
"The Administration's position is particularly terrible and irresponsible when you consider the evolution of attitudes toward wartime rape over the last ten years," says Elizabeth Cronise, who with Michael Hausfeld is arguing the comfort women's case. Indeed, sexual violence in war has typically been regarded as the inevitable concomitant of battle, part of the spoils of war, maybe even, for the evolutionary-psychology minded, the point of it: Think of the rape of the Sabine women or the plot of the Iliad, which is precipitated by a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon over possession of the captured Trojan girls Chryseis and Briseis, although my wonderful old Greek professor Howard Porter didn't quite put it like that. It was only this past February that an international tribunal brought charges solely for war crimes of sexual violence, when three Bosnian Serbs were convicted in The Hague of organizing and participating in the rape, torture and sexual enslavement of Muslim women.
But even by these ghastly standards, the case of the comfort women stands out for the degree of planning and organization the Japanese military employed. Noting, for example, that subject populations tended to resent the rape of local women, authorities typically shipped the women far from home; although the women saw little or no money, "comfort stations" were set up as brothels with ethnically graduated fees, from Japanese women at the top to Chinese women at the bottom. The system was not, strictly speaking, a wartime phenomenon: It began in 1932, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and continued after the war's end. In fact, according to Yoshimi Yoshiaki, whose Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II (Columbia) is crucial reading, the Japanese military authorities set up comfort stations for the conquering American troops. As Cronise points out, even if the United States has closed the books on Japan's wartime atrocities, it could still side with the comfort women on the grounds that many of them were enslaved during peacetime.
"The government's position is technically defensible," says Widney Brown, advocacy director for women's rights at Human Rights Watch. "What's not defensible is the Department of Justice's giving as a reason that it doesn't want to jeopardize relations with Japan." Incredibly, the Justice Department is arguing just that, along with the further self-interested point that a ruling in favor of the comfort women would open the United States to human rights lawsuits in other countries. (Remember that the United States has sabotaged the International Criminal Court.) Says Brown, "It shows a failure to understand the significance of the comfort women case as a major step in the development of human rights for women. After all, their case could have been brought up in the Far East tribunal right after World War II, but it wasn't. This is a major chance to move beyond that. You could even argue that the view of women as property--if not of one man, then another--was what prevented sexual slavery from being seen as a war crime until now."
The US lawsuit may well be the comfort women's last chance. Now in their 70s and 80s, most will soon be dead, and since few married or had children, there won't be many descendants to continue the fight for reparations. By stonewalling, the Japanese government will have won. And the Bush Administration will have helped it. All that's missing is the call for healing and mutual forgiveness.