By Eva Cheng
Seven former sex slaves and other victims of Japanese atrocities in China were recounting their wartime plight to reporters during a press conference in Hepingli Hotel in Beijing on August 7 when the police broke in. The meeting was forcibly disbanded, on the pretext that it was "illegal". According to media reports in Hong Kong, the names of reporters present were taken down and their films confiscated. Campaign activist Li Dingguo was taken into custody. Tokyo continues to snub demands for redress and compensation from its victims who, 50 years after World War II, are — if still alive — increasingly frail and ageing. Mainly from China, Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, the surviving victims tried to gain a public apology from the Japanese government in June, but the demand was turned down once more.
But Tokyo's restored influence has won it new allies, most notably the regime in Beijing, which is autocratically running the country whose people were massacred or enslaved in large numbers during the 14-year Japanese invasion and occupation which ended in 1945.
The Japanese invaders employed chemical and biological weapons, and used the Chinese people as guinea pigs for brutal experiments. Rape was massively employed as a weapon of war with the apparent aim of demoralising and disintegrating the already war-torn population. Tens of thousands of Chinese women were forced into sex slavery in brothels run by the Japanese army.
The Chinese police action against the women in Beijing follows Beijing's conspicuous silence in the face of Tokyo's move in June to downplay in Japanese textbooks the scale of the massacre that the Japanese army committed in the infamous week-long 1937 invasion of Nanjing, from 200,000 — a long-used figure in Japanese texts — to "a large number". Even the old figure falls significantly short of the official count of the Chinese government, which revealed 300,000 deaths — in that single week — and 35 million during the 14-year invasion.
Just 10 days before the Beijing police raid, the Chinese government had reportedly confiscated the passport of Tong Zeng, who was organising a delegation of Chinese war victims to Japan to press for compensation, armed with a petition with signatures of 800,000 victims. The Associated Press reported that the police had told Tong to disappear from Beijing between August 30 and September 15, and specifically not to attend a discussion on "comfort women" — Japan's euphemism for the army's sex slaves — in the NGO forum of the UN Women's Conference.
Beijing relinquished claims for war reparations in 1972, when it restored formal relations with Japan, which has since become its biggest trading partner and creditor. But Beijing has conceded that private citizens retained their rights to seek compensation.
The Japanese government denied any involvement in organising wartime brothels until 1992, when Chuo University Professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi proved otherwise with the backing of incriminating military documents.
The International Commission of Jurists proposed earlier this year that the Japanese government compensate the surviving "comfort women" to the tune of US$4 million each. But Tokyo instead set up an "Asian Peace and Friendship Foundation for Women" which the "comfort women" can ask for loosely defined redress and which is to be funded partly directly by the Japanese people through donations.
In the parliament in June, the three ruling coalition parties tried to tone down the Japanese invasions in Asia, dismissing them as merely a part of a time in which "colonial rule and acts of aggression" were common.