Interview with Chizuko Ueno on the Sex Slave (ianfu) Issue

A comment from the translator:

The following translation is based on an interview with WAN director and Professor Emeritus of the University of Tokyo Chizuko Ueno on her book Ianfu o meguru kioku no seijigaku (literal translation: The Political Science of Recollections Surrounding Comfort Women) published in Korea in July 2014.

Translation of the Japanese word ianfu into English has been an issue in itself. The word, mainly used in Japan, literally means “comfort women.” However, this expression has been criticized as being euphemistic by those who insist that “sex slaves” better portrays the tragedy of women being forced to have sex with men in the Japanese military during World War II.

In the following English translation, I will use the original Japanese word ianfu, and the English “sex slaves” where appropriate.

(The following translation is an excerpt from the Japanese article http://wan.or.jp/book/?p=8158. Because Ueno asserts that the original Korean language interview article had small inaccuracies, this Japanese article was edited to better reflect Ueno’s thoughts.)


You stated in your book that the Japanese government has blundered repeatedly in dealing with this issue. When Prime Minister Abe recently denied Yohei Kono’s 1993 statement[i] acknowledging that women in Korea and other parts of the world were in fact forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers, resolution of the ianfu controversy seemed ever more distant. What do you think of this attitude of today’s Japanese government?


Just one word: frustrating.  To add to the mistakes of the past, (the Japanese government) made errors in dealing with those mistakes. And they have repeatedly erred in their handling of the ianfu issue. When things appear to move towards reconciliation, the true feelings of the conservative politicians surface, destroying the hard-earned progress.
Mainichi Shimbun recently ran an interview article on Yohei Kono (published July 13), in which the former chief cabinet secretary broke his silence.

“I don’t know why, but there are people who apparently do not want the Japan-Korea friendship to progress, and those people pushed through a motion demanding verification of my statement (from 1993).
“Reconciliation is hard to achieve and maintain, but it is quite easy to destroy. The painstaking efforts of the previous generation of Japanese and Korean politicians have gone up in smoke. I’ve gone past surprised — to disbelief.”

Asked how this situation could be improved, he offers the following view.

“In the end, it is the voters who have to change the politics. Never forget your frustrations and your distrust towards the present government. Keep sending the message that they are out of touch and that they will be in trouble come next election. A plunge in approval rating will give them a jolt. That just about sums it up.”

This is a former Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Liberal Democratic Party urging us to change the administration. Even within the LDP, there are members who fear that the Abe administration is out of control, not just on the ianfu issue but also on the creation of the state secrecy law, establishment of the National Security Council, and alterations of the weapons export rules and anti-war constitutional clause interpretation. Our sense of urgency just keeps getting stronger.


Koreans are generally shocked by statements made by young politicians such as Toru Hashimoto claiming that the ianfu were not recruited against their will. We are increasingly concerned that even the younger politicians of Japan have been unable to adopt a forward-looking attitude. How do you view this situation?


There are many conservative thinkers in Hashimoto’s generation. They are trying to protect what remaining pride they have based on their arrogant delusion of a powerful Japan. And their Achilles’ heel is the ianfu issue. Even among the young people of Japan, there has been a regeneration of this kind of (far right-wing) thinking.

It is said that those who do not learn history will suffer its retaliation. By not taking up modern history, it appears the history education in post-war Japan has perfectly served the purpose of the education ministry. But history education is always a battlefield. Debates continue in various parts of Japan over which history textbooks to use.  So far, use of The New History Textbook (Atarashii rekishi kyoukasho)[ii] has been limited to only a few municipalities, and residents have been pushing back on this (far right-wing) movement. I think Korea, China, and Japan need to cooperate on history education.


Even today, the ianfu issue of the Japanese army is voiced all too much as an issue of ethnicity in Korea. And there appears to be little change in the approach of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Do you have a message for the people of Korea?


Ethnicity has most certainly been a powerful ground for argument in instituting national movements around the issue of the ianfu. But we must take a long, hard look at both the good and bad of adopting that position. Neither a nation nor an ethnic group should stake a claim to the victims of sex slavery. Restoring the dignity of the victims is not the same as restoring the dignity of the Korean people. It is my hope that the people of Korea return to basics and revisit the question of what is really beneficial to the victimized women.

What would you like the Korean people to take away from your book?


The Japanese government used the victims of the North Korean abduction to promote Japanese nationalism. The ianfu issue is also used as a ground for Korean nationalism by the Korean government. Nationalism is a way of thinking that sets “us” against “them”. I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate that you don’t have to be a nationalist to empathize with the victims and fulfill your responsibility.

Adapted and translated by Naoko Hirose.

[i] According to Wikipedia, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono “acknowledged that the Japanese Imperial Army had been involved, either directly or indirectly, in the establishment of comfort facilities. On top of that, the comfort women were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., at times, administrative or military personnel directly taking part in the recruitments and lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kono_Statement, October 16, 2014)

[ii] According to Wikipedia, the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (新しい歴史教科書をつくる会 Atarashii Rekishi Kyōkasho o Tsukuru Kai) is a group founded in December 1996[1] to promote a nationalistic view of Japanese history. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Society_for_History_Textbook_Reform, October 24, 2014)

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