When one speaks of international crimes committed during the Second World War, one inevitably refers to an indelible stain on European history: the Holocaust. However, the Nazi violence that found expression in the death camps is not the only tragic turn that the Second World War took. Abandoning the Eurocentric perspective and adopting a global one, it is interesting to study how the world conflict developed in Asia, analysing the key role of the Japanese Empire. Following the era of 'Meji modernisation' from 1868 onwards, the Japanese Empire underwent rapid economic and social growth that led it to take on a leading role in Asia, overtaking China, and achieving rates of economic and industrial development comparable to those of European countries. This propulsive drive towards economic and geographical expansionism led Japan to enter the Second World War alongside Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Japanese Empire, which since the 1930s had started its own expansionist policy towards China and other East Asian territories such as Burma (present-day Myanmar), was guilty of serious violations of human rights (even though Japan has gone down in history as a "victim" country of the Second World War because of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively).
Certainly attributable to the Japanese government is the creation of so-called 'comfort centres' where the Comfort Women, women from the Asian peoples colonised by the Japanese Empire, were forced to prostitute themselves to Japanese soldiers.
The Comfort Women were thus women from South East Asia who were subjected to sexual exploitation by the Japanese army during the Japanese state's colonial conquest campaigns in East Asia. These women came mainly from China and Korea and to a lesser extent from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, India and various Pacific Islands. In some areas, the girls who were to be recruited were tricked into doing nursing work for Japanese soldiers and, after the girls accepted, sent to 'comfort centres'. Soon, especially in Korea, another form of recruitment, known as 'official mediation', was adopted, whereby Japanese senior soldiers would agree with local authorities to recruit girls for the comfort centres. In return, the Japanese soldiers promised the local authorities to refrain from mass rape and looting of civilians.
The places where these atrocities took place were, as mentioned above, the so-called 'comfort centres', located in various parts of East Asia, where women lived in very poor sanitary conditions and were forced to receive Japanese soldiers without any order of continuity.
The first official proof of the existence of 'comfort centres' dates back to 1932 during the war between Japan and China. This evidence consisted of a letter sent by a Japanese naval lieutenant to his superiors, in which he asked to be allowed to set up a prostitution centre for the exclusive use of Japanese soldiers during the Japanese expedition to Shanghai. Unfortunately, this tragic fallback taken on by Japanese colonialism did not end during that campaign but continued throughout the Second World War.
The most chilling details, which have come to light thanks to the testimony of the women who survived, concern the scientific organisation and meticulous scanning of their activities. One survivor testifies that in the Myitkyina camp in Myanmar, the girls were forced to prostitute themselves throughout the day and their activities were punctuated in this way:
-soldiers could be received from 10 am to 5 pm at a cost of 1.5 Yen for a duration of 20/30 minutes
-non-military attachés from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at a cost of 3 Yen for a duration of 30/40 minutes
-officers from 21.00 to 00.00 at a cost of 5 Yen for a duration of 30/40 minutes.
The rationale for which such a system of prostitution was set up can be traced back to Japan's expansionist perspective. Japan was the first non-western country to become a colonial power with the aim of colonising its continent. The reason why these women became mere resources for the Japanese army and navy is probably due to the very essence of colonialism. A colonising country, in fact, assumes a view of superiority over the colonised people that leads it, unjustifiably, to believe it can freely dispose of the resources that the colony offers and, even more illegitimately, also of the civilians, violating their fundamental human rights.
This page in the history of mankind is truly dramatic and little known in terms of the seriousness of the violation of human rights. More than 80 years later, the Japanese government has still not officially taken responsibility for what happened, thus risking legitimising a terrible historical precedent that conceives women as a resource that men can freely use.
Translated by Francesca Cioffi
Original version by Alice Stillone