"The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War," by George Hicks. Illustrated. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 303 pages. $25 Once again, the Japanese government has sought to right a wrong of its wartime past - apologizing to the Asian women who were rounded up and forced into satisfying the sexual needs of the Japanese Armed Forces. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's July 18 acknowledgement of Japan's complicity in the sexual enslavement of the so-called "comfort women" is not the first apology offered to the victims, the majority of whom were Korean.
But Mr. Murayama's pledge to provide medical and welfare programs for the survivors may boost efforts to win compensation for the women's wartime wounds. As George Hicks' book aptly conveys, theirs has been an agonizing struggle.
An understanding of Japan today requires an understanding of its history and its culture. The Hicks book is a window into a singularly specific aspect of its wartime past. Serious students of Japan should include it in their library. But neither the book's treatment of the subject nor its prose demand the attention of the casual purveyor of Japanese society.
Mr. Hicks documents in horrific - and sometimes numbing - detail the abduction and systematic rape of tens of thousands of women by the Japanese Armed Forces. The women were deceptively drafted into service, lured by the promise of good money and a steady job. They were shipped to camps, military installations and the frontlines - like other wartime commodities needed to sustain Japanese soldiers. The comfort women could be found throughout the Pacific theater.
The women became virtual prisoners, confined to a numbered room in a "comfort" station or house and forced to have sex with as many as 20 soldiers a day.
Some chose suicide rather than submit. Many others suffered complications that prevented them from having children in the future.
And while some women volunteered for the duty (Japan had a legal form of prostitution), they had little, if any, control over their lives.
The strength of Mr. Hicks' account is the extent to which he details the Japanese government's role in establishing and supporting the comfort stations. As an example, he cites military regulations for the service, including the fee schedule and allotted time for the encounter. Medical exams were required of the women, condoms a must for the servicemen.
Japan has a history of denying the dirty secrets of its past. It is a country known for sanitizing its history; it is a nation reluctant to accept responsibility for its misdeeds.
That is why Mr. Hicks' book is important - it documents the government's culpability and chronicles its denials despite strong evidence to the contrary. Mr. Hicks relies on and credits the hard work of those who preceded him in this effort - including Japanese military men, journalists and academics who unearthed pertinent government documents.
The women's stories, told in an unadorned, narrative style, provide the best reading. Here are the voices that have been silenced by shame for so long. Mr. Hicks, however, uses the accounts as inserts to the narrative, a decision that works against the material.
While riveting and compelling, the personal stories relate similar experiences and appear repetitious.
Mr. Hicks does not concern himself solely with the war time events of 50 years ago. He follows the comfort women's story to the present, explaining its political consequences at home and abroad. He discusses the issue in the broader context of sexual exploitation and women's rights - a fitting conclusion to this serious and thoughtful depiction of the comfort system.
"It has taken half a century for these women's ruined lives to become a human rights issue," Mr. Hicks writes.
Ann LoLordo is a national correspondent for The Sun. From 1988-89, she studied Japanese history, culture and politics at the University of Hawaii as a Gannett Foundation Fellow in Asian Studies. She has traveled throughout Asia.