How Beijing weaponizes ‘comfort women’ as propaganda tool
'Comfort women' are not just a relic of Japan's aggressive imperial history. They are today a key tool in Beijing’s disinformation strategy to isolate Japan and the USA in East Asia
The “comfort women” issue appears, on the surface, to be a bilateral problem between South Korea and Japan. In reality, it is deeper. The key player is increasingly not South Korea, but China, and the ultimate target is not Japan, but the United States, as the comfort women are co-opted by Beijing in its anti-American information war.
China has been waging this war since Beijing realized after the First Gulf War that it would likely be unable to the United States on the battlefield. As the document Unrestricted Warfare, published by two high-ranking Chinese military officials, makes clear, the Chinese have chosen to fight the US, and particularly the US-Japan alliance, using desinformatsiya rather than hardware and troops.
Chinese information warfare in the United States is a massive and multi-front campaign. In December 2017 the Washington Post alerted its readers to “the huge scope and scale of Chinese Communist Party influence operations inside the United States, which permeate American institutions of all kinds.” In May 2017, the New York Times reported that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of California-San Diego managed “within hours” to get the Dalai Lama uninvited as UCSD commencement speaker. The more than 150 Chinese students and scholars associations in the US, the Times added, are funded and influenced by Chinese Communist Party headquarters.
In January 2018, the Washington Post detailed that UT-Austin rejected funds from the China United States Exchange Foundation because the “Hong Kong-based foundation and its leader, Tung Chee-hwa, are closely linked to the branch of the Chinese Communist Party that manages influence operations abroad.”
But on-campus campaigns are just the tip of the iceberg. The comfort women issue represents arguably Beijing’s most aggressive information-war maneuver. It has been a source of serious friction between Seoul and Tokyo since the 1990s, and in the past three years, has threatened to upend the uneasy security relationship, triangulated through Washington, between South Korea and Japan. Rending relations between the three democracies is China’s premier policy goal in East Asia.
The South Korean government uses the comfort women issue mainly for domestic consumption – as a sure vote-getter or deflector of unwanted scrutiny. China’s ambitions are bigger. The CCP is much more interested in how this issue serves its global agenda; domestic politics runs a distant second. This is the difference and the reason that Beijing can operate on a much larger scale than Seoul on the comfort women front.
A three-front strategy
Globally, Beijing has so far moved through three main vectors: overseas Chinese networks; a largely compliant press; and the United Nations.
An example of the first is the comfort woman statue that mysteriously appeared in Manila in 2017. An investigation by the Sankei Shimbun revealed that the statue project was orchestrated by Overseas Chinese groups in the Philippines, including the Wai Ming Charitable Trust Foundation Company – long a front for politicizing the comfort women issue in mainland China.
Overseas Chinese groups have also pressed hard on the comfort women and Nanjing issues in the US and Canada: In San Francisco, Superior Court judges Julie Tang and Lillian Sing retired from the bench in order to co-found the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, which was ultimately successful in bringing a comfort woman statue to San Francisco. Chinese-American San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was himself a vocal proponent of the comfort woman statue. In Canada, Chinese-Canadian legislator Jenny Kwan has been pushing for a “Nanking Memorial Day” under the auspices of Canada ALPHA, a propaganda outlet run in-country by Hong Kong-born doctor Joseph Yu Kai Wong. Dr. Wong was one of the first, in 1997, to promote Iris Chang’s book Rape of Nanjing, a project which was, in turn, funded and coordinated by Chinese-American Ignatius Ding and his pro-China group Global Alliance.
A sympathetic Western media, for its part, has largely accepted South Korean and Chinese historical claims and repeats – without adding critical context – what Beijing’s spokespersons say. For example, speaking on January 10, 2018, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang “scolded” Japan about the comfort women issue, standing with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in pressing Tokyo to make yet another apology.
At the United Nations, China has been working to register the comfort women with the UNESCO “Memory of the World” program. Also at the UN, Beijing has repeated the talking points of “sex slavery” and “systematic rape,” demanding that Japan offer a full apology and reparations. In fact, China has partnered with North Korea in the registration efforts. It is notable that several prominent persons connected with Chong Dae Hyup, the most vocal comfort woman-related NGO in South Korea, have been arrested as North Korean spies.
The comfort women issue allows China, a country which leads the world in forced abortions, gendercide (sex-selective abortions of girls in favor of giving birth to boys), and draconian restrictions on a woman’s rights to have children, to deflect from its own women’s rights record. In portraying Japan as uniquely perverted, China hopes to isolate its perennial enemy from the world community while assuming the mantle of champion of gender equality.
The more China can convince the international community to believe the worst about the Japanese, the easier it will be for China to have its way in Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Bhutan, Nepal, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mongolia, and beyond. The comfort women are unwitting ground troops in China’s push to whitewash its own programs against Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, Falun Gong practitioners, Chinese girls, and dissident Chinese citizens, topple the United States’ base network in East Asia, and retain its title as the regional hegemon.
Comfort women: a nuanced history
None of this is to say that a comfort woman system did not exist.
In the Japanese Empire, time-tested Korean practices of buying and selling women as concubines to members of the elite yangban ruling class served as models for the Japanese military for contracting women to work at military brothels in Manchuria, China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific.
Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and was as much a part of the Japanese Empire then as Hawaii is part of the US today. Many women recruited from Korea were bought from their parents by Korean pimps or else were made vague promises by brokers—again, largely Korean—of employment prospects abroad. The Korean pimps and brokers simply repurposed the old yangban trafficking practice in order to deliver the Korean women to the “comfort stations” which the Japanese military used to combat sexually-transmitted diseases and prevent soldiers from revealing classified information to civilian spies posing as prostitutes in unlicensed brothels.
Many comfort women were professional prostitutes from Japan. Traditional Japanese pleasure quarters like Yoshiwara suffered from falling clientele as increasing numbers of Japanese young men were shipped to the front. Many prostitutes made the savvy business decision to go where the work was.
Some comfort women earned enough for their services (at rates set and enforced by the Japanese military authorities) to pay off the advance money given to their parents. Saving money was encouraged by the Japanese military, and accumulating large sums was hardly impracticable.
Now-deceased comfort woman Mun Ok-chu saved up a staggering 26,000 yen in three years (at a time when a sergeant in the Japanese army made between 23 and 30 yen per month). Mun made more money in 1943 – a lot more – than the Japanese lieutenant-general commanding all Imperial land forces in Burma.
More than history
Careful historians in South Korea, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere have repeated historical facts in an attempt to modulate the now-conventional rhetoric. But these historians have been mistaken in imagining that the comfort women issue as simply a historical question. It is not – it is another mode of Chinese disinformation.
But while comfort women propaganda is targeted at the US, a collateral benefit for Beijing lies in seeking revenge against Japan.
For example, in a recent policy speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed three new “State Memorial Days”: July 7, in commemoration of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident; September 3, in commemoration of the Japanese surrender to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces; and December 13, in commemoration of the Japanese advance into Nanking. In other words, China is invoking history in its direct confrontation with Japan.
China is, therefore, co-opting comfort women into the grand project of the CCP to re-assert its authority and to retake East Asia and beyond. What appears to be an issue between South Korea and Japan over history is actually a live-fire battle to draw East Asian states into satellite positions around the “Middle Kingdom” once again.
Jason Morgan is assistant professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan, and a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He holds a PhD in Japanese history from the University of Wisconsin, and an MA in Chinese Studies from the University of Hawaii, Mānoa. From 2014 to 2015 Morgan was a Fulbright scholar at Waseda University in Tokyo.