The enduring comfort women controversy continues to strain relations between Tokyo and Seoul since the early 1990s. However, it is worth noting that Japan’s wartime network of “comfort stations” or military brothels was predominantly located in China. While China’s Communist Party has utilized the “Patriotic War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression” for patriotic education, Beijing has shown hesitation and ambivalence on this issue.
The advocacy for comfort women emerged as a product of the feminist movement in post-Cold War East Asia, often intersecting with anti-Japanese nationalism. Throughout the region, the modernization drive led to institutionalized discrimination against women at a significant cost. East Asia’s lowest fertility rates today can be partly attributed to women’s dissatisfaction with a developmental model and employment practices that rely on their unpaid labor.
In the early 1990s, feminist groups in South Korea fervently embraced the cause of comfort women, hoping it would spark a broader debate on institutionalized misogyny. Both South Korea and Japan saw the phenomenon as a powerful symbol of women’s oppression. However, campaigns on behalf of comfort women have been stifled by the influence of patriarchal institutions and nationalist agendas in South Korea, Japan, and China. The politics of entrenched misogyny have shaped the narrative, avoiding a deeper examination of the underlying class-based and gender inequalities that enabled exploitation and subsequent neglect of the victims.
China, in particular, has seen a nascent feminist movement quashed by intensified repression from the Chinese Communist Party. Even as the long-standing one-child policy has given way to natalist efforts to combat demographic decline, the authorities continue to exert control over women’s fertility.
Documentation of the experiences of former comfort women and advocacy for their cause owes much to grassroots campaigners and activist scholars, both in China and elsewhere. However, their efforts have faced numerous obstacles, such as government obstruction and lack of support for elderly survivors living in poverty.
In 2012, as Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the CCP and Chinese-Japanese relations worsened, the comfort women issue took on a new dimension. Xi’s nationalist stance found a counterpart in Japan’s Shinzo Abe. The sensitivity of Abe and his supporters to criticism on the comfort women issue prompted CCP propagandists to exploit it. With most survivors either deceased or incapacitated by age, the focus shifted from seeking redress for the violated to matters of heritage and commemoration. Chinese authorities seized the opportunity to appropriate the narrative for their own purposes.
China strategically framed the comfort women story, emphasizing its uniqueness to underscore Japanese immorality. However, the CCP has shown little interest in fostering critical reflection on the ongoing abuse of women in contemporary East Asia.
The CCP’s focus on wartime heritage has been primarily geared toward diplomatically isolating Tokyo. After successfully securing UNESCO Memory of the World listing for a Nanjing Massacre archive in 2015, Beijing lent its support to an international coalition seeking registration for comfort women documents. The coalition aimed to ensure that the experiences of the last surviving comfort women would not be forgotten. However, Japanese diplomats, determined to prevent UNESCO approval, threatened to withdraw funding, leading to the suspension of all new Memory of the World registrations in 2017. When the scheme reopened in 2021, new rules gave national representatives the final say, effectively blocking the path to UNESCO registration for the comfort women archive.
While state media in China sporadically highlights the issue, the CCP’s commitment to campaigning for international recognition of the comfort women’s experiences has diminished. Japan’s successful maneuvering plays a role, but the changing dynamics of China’s relations with its neighbors, driven by concerns of Chinese expansionism, have eclipsed residual anger over Japan’s wartime atrocities.
Despite the hopes placed in activism for comfort women by feminists to garner public support, the overall picture across the region remains discouraging. The 2022 Global Gender Gap Index ranks South Korea, China, and Japan at alarmingly low positions of 99th, 102nd, and 116th out of 146 countries, respectively. Patriarchal structures continue to persist across East Asia, even as attitudes gradually evolve.
By shedding light on these complexities, it becomes evident that addressing the comfort women controversy necessitates challenging both nationalist agendas and deeply ingrained patriarchal institutions across the region.