Caroline Norma, ‘A forgotten record of Japanese comfort women: Ajisaka Miwako’s memoir’

Caroline Norma

Tomita Kunihiko ed, Senjou ianfu: Ajisaka Miwako shuki [Battlefield comfort women: The memoir of Ajisaka Miwako], Fuji Shobou, 1953.

The first published account of a wartime Japanese military prostitution survivor is almost never referred to in histories of the ‘comfort women’. (But historian Sachiko Tsukamoto does refer to it in a footnote of her book The Politics of Trauma and Integrity: Stories of Japanese “Comfort Women,” Routledge, 2022) The memoir of a Japanese survivor, pseudonymously named ‘Ajisaka Miwako’, was edited and published in 1953 by Nagasaki churchman Tomita Kunihiko. The book is reviewed here as an important source of information about the Japanese military scheme of prostitution during the Second World War. Why it is left out of the body of survivor testimony is lastly speculated upon.

‘Ajisaka Miwako’ was the only child of a woman who had worked in dance halls before meeting a wealthy Kyoto industrialist who then kept her as a mistress. While Miwako’s memoir does not record precise dates, it is likely she was born around 1927. She grew up in Kagoshima in relative affluence with a housemaid, but with her mother absent during sojourns to Kyoto. Whether because of her mother’s social status as a single mother, or because she was considered conventionally attractive, Miwako was the target of significant sexual harassment by male teachers at school. This escalated into an incident where she was kept overnight at a military police watchhouse for ‘seditious speech’, seemingly reported to wartime authorities by the school. Miwako was sexually harassed by kempeitai soldiers at the watchhouse before male teachers negotiated for her release the next morning.

It is not likely the male teachers had been altruistically driven to seek Miwako’s release; in fact, in the course of negotiating her release, they came to know of her mother’s relationship with the Kyoto industrialist, and on this basis extorted money from her. They promised Miwako they would put an end to the bullying she faced from students at school if her mother donated funds to them. Her mother duly gave money, and the bullying stopped. After this, Miwako became part of a friendship group with four other girls.

The raising of the Kyoto industrialist’s name at the watchhouse caused trouble, because his company relied on military supply contracts. Upon learning of the incident, he visited Miwako’s house, and threatened to dissolve the relationship with her mother. In response, her mother pledged to send Miwako away, perhaps by selling her to a geisha house. In fact, whether or not orchestrated by the Kyoto industrialist, she ended up arranging Miwako’s marriage to the son of another of his mistresses living in Hakata. At first, Miwako was flattered by this proposal, but, over time, she came to learn of the young man’s anti-war ‘communist’ views, and so told her mother she would not go through with the marriage.

On this, her mother moved out of the house without telling her daughter, and Miwako came home from school one day unable to open the front door. She was homeless, and spent the night on a park bench. During this time she was approached by a trafficker who was procuring women to be sent to overseas military brothels. He initially lured Miwako on the premise she would be sent abroad to help the troops with nursing and menial duties, but, once she stayed overnight at his house with other women awaiting travel abroad, she was told the truth. Even though Miwako, at age 17, could not comprehend what she had been told (about sexual matters), she nonetheless attempted to escape the trafficker’s house by running away. She was quickly caught, however, and inveigled through fraudulent debt to recruit her schoolfriends to accompany her abroad.

Miwako did persuade her four schoolfriends to accompany her to the trafficker’s house and agree to go abroad, but they were likely influenced by the frenzied social environment that had developed in Japan by the war years in which service to country and troops (as ‘tokkoutai’ suicide pilots) had taken on mystical value. Even though the five girls do seem to have been told that they would travel abroad to be sexually used by troops, they did not likely comprehend what this meant, and instead were swept up in a spirit of adventurism and patriotic service to country. In Miwako’s memoir, there is also suggestion that the girls—all around 17 years of age—romantically admired the troops and felt sorrow at their impending deaths. (By the early 1940s, conscription was undertaken in Japan on the understanding recruits were being sent to their battlefield deaths.)

A few days later, Miwako and her friends lost contact with the trafficker after Kagoshima came under allied bombing. But, extraordinarily, they nonetheless decided to board a Japanese naval ship headed for the south Pacific. This decision seems to have been influenced by the idea women left in Japan would be raped by invading American soldiers. Together with departing Japanese troops, they travelled on the military transport ship to the Ogasawara islands in the north Pacific where the Japanese military was stationed but under heavy allied attack.

The girls were not molested aboard the naval ship, and the captain took steps to dissuade their travel and question their intentions. Nonetheless, they disembarked on an island occupied by 400 Japanese soldiers and support personnel. Only upon arriving on the island did the seriousness of the situation appear to have struck Miwako, and she records in her diary having wished she could stay aboard the naval ship as it sailed further south. Once on the island and in the company of officers arranging the construction of the ‘comfort station’ brothel where she and her four friends would be held, Miwako began to experience feelings of terror and a sense of blood draining from her body.

Before the construction of the brothel, soon after the girls had arrived and were resting in an existing structure near the officers’ quarters, a soldier was bayoneted by a comrade stationed on duty to guard over them. The man had made his way inside their building and attempted to rape one of them. This incident was later laughed off by an officer who joked about the sexual deprivation of troops in his charge.

The girls were serially raped the next morning by officers (who were given priority access), and then in the afternoon by troops who lined up outside to use them one by one. This experience was so shockingly heinous and physically painful that the girls that evening decided to commit suicide, and made their way down to the beach to do so. At the cliffs, however, they seem to have resigned themselves to their fates, and the group suicide pact was not successful. For the next few months, they remained in sexual slavery. Miwako and another one of the girls were re-trafficked to another island within the Ogasawara chain.

Not long after, however, the intensity of allied bombing led to their evacuation, and the five girls were repatriated to the Korean peninsula aboard a military transport ship. Before they embarked, soldiers entrusted them with money, wills, and letters for families back in Japan, on the premise they would be shortly killed. (Indeed, most subsequently were.) This money was useful once the girls reached Korea, because it allowed them to make their way north from Mappo where their ship had docked after stopping in Cheju. On the ship, the girls had heard that the Japanese emperor was being relocated to Manchuria (the northeastern Chinese prefectures occupied by the Japanese military), and so they aimed to travel there to seek refuge and assist the military as nurses.

One of the girls died of pneumonia soon after arriving in Korea. The remaining four were determined they would never be prostituted again, and would restore themselves by working as nurses for the Japanese military. But they learned of Japan’s defeat while travelling in China, and so began to make their way back to the Korean peninsula to seek passage home. They set off on a long journey with other Japanese refugees via Changsha to arrive in Kaifeng by late August 1945. From there, their journey continued in extremely harsh conditions, and included temporary detention by a unit of the nationalist Chinese army whose commander offered protection in return for sexual favours. The girls refused and managed to escape, and continued their journey as far as Jinan. In Jinan, they were, astoundingly, recruited into the red army for menial work on the promise of full provisions and protection, but no passage back to Japan. The girls accepted this offer, and their service with the red army seems to have continued for more than five years.

During these years Miwako received commendation as a military nurse, and expresses the view in her diary that the red army’s organisation was relatively ‘democratic’ and so not unpleasant. She even fell in love with a Chinese comrade who wanted to marry her, but ultimately turned down his offer. Instead, five years later, she married a Japanese man also working with the red army (as a technician). Soon after this, one of her remaining three friends was admitted to hospital and died. Miwako returned to Japan in March 1953, nearly ten years after having left.

This extraordinary story of Ajisaka Miwako’s wartime experiences, and the fact her memoir appeared in publication so soon after the war’s end, raises questions about why she is not known as a ‘comfort woman’ survivor, and why her testimony is not discussed alongside other published accounts. Most different from these other accounts, of course, is her nationality: Miwako was a Japanese victim of military prostitution, and very few accounts of Japanese women are found in the wider literature. Notions of volunteerism mostly exclude them, on the view it was only Korean and foreign women who were coercively trafficked and enslaved. To be sure, in Miwako’s case, her memoir indicates ambivalent feelings about her wartime fate, and records feelings of patriotism and empathy for Japanese servicemen. Miwako and her friends even protested their own evacuation from the Ogasawara islands on the wish they should stay and fight alongside the soldiers. Her diary in its last entries reflects on her sexual use by soldiers as having comprised a contribution to Japan’s war effort, and an experience not wholly one of regret.

This kind of sentiment is unusual among testimony by former military sexual slaves, even of Japanese nationality. It has likely dissuaded historians and advocates from drawing on Senjou ianfu in their discussions. However, it must be remembered that the bulk of survivor testimony drawn upon in these discussions was collected from elderly victims many decades after the war’s end. Miwako’s edited memoir, in contrast, comprises a record of victim experience compiled soon after the time of its occurrence. Miwako was still in her 20s when it was published, and there is no record of her subsequent life in Japan after the book’s release. There is no doubt from her testimony of the horror the five girls endured in the Ogasawara island brothel in 1944-5, and the later death of two of the girls is similar to the mortality rate of victims as a whole. Their hardship as refugees in China upon evacuation, moreover, is not unlike the post-war situations facing other women escaping Japanese military brothels who had to find passage home. Whether or not, decades later, after time to reflect on her childhood experiences, and opportunities to hear the stories of other wartime survivors, Miwako might have become less sympathetic towards the Japanese military, and more critical of its sexual exploitation, can never be known. Her testimony was published decades before any such reflection was possible.

Whatever the jingoistic and naive sentiment expressed in her published memoir, the facts of Miwako’s homelife before entering military prostitution are valuable for showing aspects of Japanese wartime society that uniquely contributed to the sex trafficking of local children into the military. The extent to which the Japanese population, by the early 1940s, had been swept up in a fever of worship of military personnel, and self-sacrifice in their service, appears to have made young women like Miwako vulnerable to exploitation. Miwako had already become, of course, a target of traffickers through homelessness at age 17. This outcome was indirectly the result of her mother’s vulnerability as a woman connected to the entertainment industry and thereby forced into a concubinage relationship as a single mother. While the sexual harassment that Miwako sustained at school did not directly preface her trafficking into military prostitution, its prominent description in her diary suggests it was an unfortunately formative experience.

Whatever the details of Miwako’s wartime experience and her uncritical reflections on having been trafficked into prostitution, most important about her account is its revelation of beliefs circulating in Japanese society during the late war years that women might contribute to the war effort through military sexual service. Repeatedly expressed in Miwako’s memoir is a belief in the battlefield success of troops as secured through morale building in the form of prostitution. This ideological construction—that the opportunity to inflict sex acts upon women emboldens men and encourages the success of their projects—is an overlooked component of Japanese grassroots wartime fascism. It was an ideology that led Japanese men to betray their countrywomen (and others) in the most horrific of ways. This betrayal is not lessened by the patriotic stories victims told themselves to make sense of their traumatic experiences. Their stories reveal, in turn, the exceedingly low social status of Japanese women and girls in the early 1940s that was taken advantage of by their countrymen to prosecute a war that brought only degradation and suffering to female populations throughout Asia and the Pacific.

投稿者: appjp



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