Friday, December 15, 2017


Window of the Wen-meng Municipal Brothel

Over the years, I like to think that my knowledge of Taiwanese current affairs and history have both deepened, and as a result some of my opinions have changed. At times, these are changes in my entire worldview. At other times, they are small updates to well-worn beliefs that turned out to have less basis in reality than I had thought.

One such change in belief has been over the "comfort women" issue, although perhaps my feelings have simply become more nuanced.

At first glance, the issue seems fairly cut-and-dried: Japanese-era "comfort women" (a euphemism for women forced into prostitution for Japanese military officers during World War II - in fact they were sex slaves) have received neither an apology for their treatment nor any form of real justice. Obviously, they deserve this, although there are only two known Taiwanese comfort women still alive.

Also at first glance, it would seem to be a good thing that there is a women's rights group in Taiwan pushing for compensation and recognition from the Japanese government for its exploitation of comfort women in Taiwan (link above), and that a museum detailing their history was opened in 2016.

It might even pass the sniff test to the casual observer that the KMT, and former president and creepy mannequin rescued from a department store fire Ma Ying-jiu in particular, sure have a lot to say about the importance of justice for Taiwanese comfort women. After all, they are one of two major parties, and the DPP doesn't seem terribly bothered about the lingering historical injustices of the Japanese era. Besides, the KMT - thinking they are the One True China - still sees Japan as a historical enemy in a way the more Taiwan-centric DPP does not. 

But then the questions start piling up.

Why is the KMT so bothered about Japanese-era comfort women, but doesn't seem to have much to say about ROC-era comfort women, despite a movie having been made about this very issue?

In fact, is there more to the story of the Wen Meng Municipal Brothel than my slim volumes on Taipei's historical buildings let on? (Cue my "sarcastic surprise wow" - of course there is. The twin books were published by the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs.) How many of these 'licensed sex workers' were slaves - not by the hand of the Japanese government, but instead the ROC?

In fact, back when the whole kerfuffle over former sex workers being told to vacate the premises despite its having been named a cultural heritage site took place in 2012, the KMT was in power both in Taipei and nationally. Although the courts are of course supposed to be independent of the elected government because that's how an independent judiciary is meant to work, I doubt there's nothing the city government could have done to ensure the preservation of the building (which is still standing as far as I know as the dispute rages on). Why didn't the KMT-run city government care enough to do something, if they care so much about comfort women?

And why is it that despite this museum having been open for a year, I've never seen it advertised locally, although there are three reviews on TripAdvisor? Why does this museum to comfort women exist, while its founders ignore the pleas of activists trying to save the Wen Meng Municipal Brothel?

Could it be - and I know I'm about to shock you - that the people banging pots and pans over justice for Taiwanese comfort women...don't actually care about comfort women at all?

I'm not the first person to make this case, though I can't find a comparable redux of the issue in English. It seems likely that the conclusion alluded to on The View from Taiwan is correct: the 'comfort women' issue was likely devised as a political cudgel to attack the more Japan-friendly DPP (the KMT, thinking they are the bearers of the One True China, seems to take their assumed obligation to hate Japan seriously) and to try and push Taiwanese voters into hating Japan as much as they seem to hate the Chinese government. Of course, to them it is right and correct that we should spend all of our energy hating a democratic ally, freeing up more headspace to stop worrying and love our Chinese overlords, the Chinese Nation Which Is Rightfully The ROC Including Taiwan its and 5,000 6,000 years of Chinese culture.

Okay, so, case closed, the comfort women thing is fake news, it's all a ruse, time to wash our hands and go home, right?


First, I was curious about the background of the group that pushed for the creation of the comfort women museum, the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation (formerly the Taiwan Women's Rescue Association or 台灣婦女救援協會). It grew out of the Awakening Foundation, whose most prominent founders were Lee Yuan-chen and former DPP vice president Lu Xiu-lian (Annette Lu) - known for being a vocal feminist but also for saying all sorts of problematic things.

I could go into this more deeply, but it's well after midnight and frankly there's no need. I was mostly curious if the opening of the comfort women museum was yet another political cudgel, meant to sow division between Taiwan and Japan to serve the KMT's interests. Yet as far as I can tell, the TWRF grew out of an association that did not have ties to a specific party - Lee was born in China, yes, but I can't find anything on her political affiliation. Lu is, of course, one of the greenest of the old-school greens.

Although I should point out this passage in Doris Chang's Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan, just as something to chew on:

Most of the Rescue Foundation's members were middle-class professionals from the ethnic Chinese majority. Like the Chinese gentry scholars of the traditional past, members of the Rescue Foundation perceived themselves as the moral-intellectual elite that should offer assistance to the less fortunate members of the society (p. 121). 

I don't know what to make of that vis-a-vis the comfort women issue, though my instincts tell me that the members of this society either come from 1949 diaspora backgrounds and therefore don't want to center the treatment of women by the government they came with (the ROC), or they are from upper-class stock with a longer Taiwanese history who just don't want to rock that boat, because it would seem too "political" to take up this kind of issue while it's still strongly in living memory. Japanese-era comfort women are a safer topic. 

Secondly, I can't just let it go at "this is a purposefully-designed KMT political wedge and you'd best ignore it" - as a woman who cares about justice issues for women...I just can't.

I can't help but think that as much as this issue is being flapped around like an limp puppet by the KMT - who don't actually care enough about the issue to add a little padding to their argument or do anything meaningful - that as a result of it being shambled around by one side, it is being purposely ignored by the other.

A case could reasonably made that Taiwan needs all the allies it can get - even perhaps historically problematic ones like Japan - and as such, that pursuing the comfort women issue is far from the highest priority. It is also notable that even when Japan has "apologized" for its treatment of comfort women, that the agreements are more for the political gain of certain groups or parties and are not really for the comfort women themselves: those who survive often remain dissatisfied. It could be argued that an issue being used for political gain by one side ought not to be touched by the other.

I agree with all of that, and yet...

It feels once again as though women are getting screwed.

One side is using a women's issue for their own gain and doesn't seem to care much at all about the actual women involved, and the other side wants nothing to do with any of it, and will prioritize other matters over justice for less than a handful of extremely elderly women.

It stings because "other matters" always get prioritized over women. We always get told our issues are not the most important ones, if they are acknowledged to be issues at all. Both the Japanese-era and ROC-era comfort women get cheated.

The KMT - the closest thing Taiwan has to a 'conservative' party although the label doesn't fit perfectly - can't be expected to do much better. After all, they are who they are. The DPP - the closest thing we have to a liberal party and yet it's not really despite having "progressive" in their name - is failing us just like every other liberal group seems to. We're important, sure, but never quite important enough. There's always something more pressing. Someone else always needs justice first.

So yes, Ma Ying-jiu is once again being a douche by using an issue neither he nor his party actually cares about to advance some other political agenda. But by then pretending as though the issue is therefore unimportant, the other side is failing women as well. A tool used by one side, ignored by the other. 

As it always has been and as it feels like it always will be. 

No comments: