There's a fascinating tiff brewing between Japanese and U.S. diplomats after Hillary Clinton reportedly corrected a State Department official who referred to women drafted into prostitution by the Japanese during World War II by the widely used term "comfort women," asking that the Department instead call it like it is and say "enforced sex slaves."
The State Department neither confirmed nor denied the report that the Secretary of State had corrected the State Department official, which allegedly happened at a closed-door meeting, first reported Monday by South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper. No wonder at their reticence. The treatment of many, many thousands of women abducted from their homes and forced to serve at "comfort stations" in other countries through the war remains a sore point between Japan and countries like South Korea, China, the Philippines, and others whose women were drafted. The U.S., the paper noted, historically "has avoided getting involved in the painful history dividing Korea and Japan."
Japan wasn't exactly happy to hear about the potential new terminology. Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told reporters Tuesday, "If that is confirmed, I will tell her that it is an incorrect expression and explain to her the steps that we have taken, including an apology by the prime minister and the creation of a fund to support women in Asia in order to help comfort women."
There have indeed been apologies and reparations from the Japanese, though pointing that out doesn't exactly address the language we should use to describe these women. Language nerds could liken that question to a descriptive vs. prescriptive debate. Should we use the term that's been prescribed to them, "comfort women," or one that describes their experience, "enforced sex slave"?
Korean officials quoted in a Korea Herald report seem to walk the line, or at least lean slightly toward the prescribers. "[Comfort women] is an established term in Korea and is also used in laws. But if victims and their supporters want it to be changed, we will consider it," says "an official in Seoul" to the paper. In other words, "comfort women" is undoubtedly a euphemism, but it's one upon which we've heaped decades of debate, historical research, and apparently law titles, so people aren't really confused about its meaning. For an admittedly imperfect comparison, consider the feelings evoked by the euphemism "Final Solution." They're not happy ones.
It's also a debate that obviously loses some nuance in translation. The Korean Herald reports:
Kim Dong-hee, secretary general for a Seoul-based civic group Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sex Slavery by Japan, said that in Korean, the euphemism carries the connotation that they are the victims of forced sex slavery.
That's obviously not necessarily the case in English, except for those who are familiar with the history. The U.S. has remained sort of removed from this debate between their many Asian allies, so if it's true that Clinton is making a push for an official terminology change at the risk of annoying Japan, it shows a lot about how far she's willing to change things, even subtle things, to focus on her "signature issue" of women's rights worldwide. She is "interested in the issue and considers the treatment of the victims a serious human rights violation," Chosun Ilbo reported. On the other hand, if victims rights organizations aren't making a unified case that the term should be changed, perhaps she'd needlessly be creating a diplomatic headache, in which case, don't expect the State Department to go much further than they have in addressing the story.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.