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Chinese Comfort Women by Peipei Qui presents an historical account of the experiences of women who were subjected to the comfort women regime in World War II.1 Peipei makes an original contribution to an area of study that increasingly commands concern in the fields of both history and law. The book's scope ranges from a macro view of the system of sexual slavery down to the personal stories of twelve survivors. The relationship between the atrocities committed and the law--both at the time of their perpetration and in how the post-war world has redressed them--pervades the story, and by the book's end takes centre stage. While the book's critical legal insights occasionally lack nuance, Peipei largely succeeds in providing a comprehensive report of the ongoing legal dimension to this crime.

The book proceeds in three parts. The first gives a broad overview of the establishment of the comfort women system and the varying forms it took within both occupied cities and on the frontiers of the war. (2) The second part comprises individual accounts from twelve survivors, who recall how they came to be enslaved (through practices ranging from deception to direct coercion), the horrors of their experiences, and their lives afterwards. The final part of the book details the reaction to these atrocities after the war, socially, politically, and legally.

The book examines the particular effects of the comfort women system in China with a novel level of detail. (3) Peipei articulates the ways in which the sexual slavery in China differed from other regions under the control of imperial Japan. From highlighting the vast scale of the atrocities--of the approximately two hundred thousand comfort women, half were Chinese (4)--to setting out the particular stories of survivors, the book constitutes an original contribution to the broader literature on comfort women.

Peipei addresses the phenomenon of present-day denial of the crimes committed by the Japanese military. However, one aspect of denialism, which one would expect to warrant further discussion, are only seldom mentioned. Most notable is the common refrain that the Japanese authorities did not actively set up the comfort stations, and they were instead the product of private agents acting of their own accord. (5) Peipei only briefly addresses this excuse. (6) This gives the impression that the excuse is not employed with regard to the enslavement of Chinese women as often as it is put forward with regard to other instances of slavery imposed by imperial Japan (both sexual and otherwise). It is not clear whether this is in fact the reason for Peipei's comparatively brief engagement with the prevalence of this revisionist account. The history Peipei traces, and her characterisation of the modern movement redress movement, would have benefited from clarification of this issue.

Peipei effectively highlights the patriarchal social climate prevailing in many of the regions in which the wartime sexual assaults took place, and how that climate obstructed any sympathy from being shown to the survivors. Peipei points out how little national dialogue there has been in the People's Republic of China about the comfort women system, where discussion of such human rights issues was suppressed until the 1980s. (7) The individual survivors whose experiences are documented in Chinese Comfort Women recount how they were regarded as traitors who voluntarily slept with the enemy, and faced both official and unofficial punishment after the war. (8)

Additionally, litigation which seeks compensation for comfort women has progressed much more slowly within China than within other jurisdictions. Peipei summarises the cases launched in Korea, Japan and the United States. In the Korean cases, significant victories have been won, both before and since the book's publication, in the battle to hold Japan accountable for its wartime conduct (including the comfort women system). (9) In Japan and the United States, survivors have been able to initiate litigation, even though they have not ultimately succeeded. (10) In China, there has been comparatively little progress in obtaining a remedy in the courts, and Peipei rightly notes that the window for meaningful redress is closing as the number of survivors dwindles. (11)

Peipei points out the factors that are likely common causes of both the lack of support for survivors and the comparative dearth of litigation. Both plausibly stem from an undemocratic state regime (which wants to neither admit failures nor invite comparisons to its own behaviour) (12) and from a patriarchal social atmosphere that is unwilling to see victims as such. (13) Peipei makes this connection in seeking to explain why China did not pursue timely justice for the victims, (14) and in suggesting a possible motive for the lack of prosecution for sexual war crimes at the Tokyo Tribunal. (15) However, Peipei stops short of examining whether these factors explain the fact that present-day litigation within China drags behind that in Korea, Japan, and the United States.

The penultimate chapter of the book focuses on the lawsuits commenced by victims of the comfort women system seeking apologies and compensation. Peipei summarises the outcome of those court cases, recounting the predominantly procedural grounds--such as limitations periods, state immunity, and the previous resolution of all war claims via treaty--by which defendants have escaped liability. (16)

In commenting on the litigation, Peipei occasionally dismisses the opposing argument with too little consideration. No reasonable person can deny the fact that the comfort women system constituted a gross violation of human rights for which a legal remedy ought to exist. However, Peipei does not substantiate her claim that the procedural defences on which the defendants rely have been "refuted." (17) While the application of procedural defences in this case is rightly seen as making the world worse, the legal doctrines at play do have serious policy rationales underlying them. The stance that these procedural blocks should not apply is certainly a defensible position, but it is not an uncontroversial one. Only by presenting the Japanese government's defences at their strongest can they be properly rebutted and the substantive injustice of their workings be highlighted.

However, some dimensions of the ongoing litigation receive more nuanced treatment. Peipei's rejection of the Japanese government's argument is on much stronger footing when she points out that Japan itself has taken the opposite position on the application of these procedural defences when arguing for reparations for its own citizens. (18)

However, Peipei also points to a cause for hope: even if the Japanese executive branch continues to deny guilt and fight the litigation, moderates within the legislature are aiming to provide for compensation by statute. (19) This carries a lesson for lawyers and advocates more broadly in the battle to redress human rights violations: it is important not to focus solely on litigation, but to explore other avenues for resolving grievances and obtaining compensation. This conclusion is counterintuitive, as the courts are typically viewed as the protectors of individuals who lack the support of public opinion.

Since the book's publication there have been developments in litigation relating to human rights abuses in China during World War II. In May, 2014, a class action lawsuit was commenced in Shandong against Mitsubishi for forced labour during the course of World War II. (20) While the plaintiffs in the action are seeking compensation for forced labour rather than sexual slavery, it nevertheless suggests that litigation for the redress of World War II era human rights abuses may be gaining steam in China. As the litigation continues, Chinese Comfort Women will be a useful resource for understanding how the historical background to this litigation differs from that in other countries, and also for why the Chinese redress movement for the comfort women system differs from the movement aimed at redressing non-sexual wrongs. (21)

Chinese Comfort Women is not a work of pure legal scholarship, and thus some lack of depth when discussing legal issues is understandable. Nonetheless, Peipei's analysis in Chinese Comfort Women occupies an important space at the intersection of law with history and political advocacy. While not always successful, Peipei addresses many of the legal challenges comfort women have confronted and continue to face. These legal insights are but an added benefit, however, to a book that drags into the light new details of one of the gravest crimes ever committed.

(1) Peipei notes that the euphemistic phrase "comfort women" is inappropriate, but accepts that it is the term by which this historical event has become known. Peipei subsequently uses this term without quotation marks. I follow this approach. See Peipei Qui, Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan's Sex Slaves (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013) at 1.

(2) Peipei, supra note 1 at 54-60.

(3) For earlier work on this particular topic, see eg. Hua-Lin Huang, The Missing Girls and Women of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012); Yoshimi Yoshiaka, Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995) at 47.

(4) Ibid at 6.

(5) Sue R Lee "Comforting the Comfort Women: Who Can Make Japan Pay?" (2003) 24:2 UPaJIntlLawEcon 509 at 520. One reason this is salient is that in the context of reparations for forced labour during World War II (as opposed to sexual slavery), private corporations are very much implicated, albeit not to the exclusion of the Japanese government, see eg. "Mitsubishi Ordered to Compensate Korean Women for Forced Labor", The Chosun Ilbo 4 November 2013, online:; Ju-Min Park, "S Korea Court Rules Against Mitsubishi Heavy on Forced Labor" Reuters 30 July 2013, online:; Choe Sang-Hun, "South Korea Court Tells Japanese Company to Pay for Forced Labor" New York Times 30 July 2013, online:; "South Korean Court Orders MHI to Pay Korean Women for Forced Labor" Japan Times 1 Nov 2013, online:; Jack Kim, Ju Min Park "S Korea Court Orders Nippon Steel to Pay for Forced Labor" Reuters 10 July 2013, online:

(6) See eg. Peipei, supra note 1 at 184.

(7) Ibid at 166, 168-170.

(8) Ibid at 5, 158, also eg. 101, 106, 129.

(9) See generally supra note 5.

(10) Shin Hae Bong, "Compensation for Victims of Wartime Atrocities" (2005) 3 JICJ 3187; Hisakazu Fujita, Isomi Suzuki & Kantaro Nagano, eds, War And the Rights of Individuals: Renaissance of Individual Compensation, (Tokyo: Nippon Hyoron-sha, 1999). For further reading on the success of these procedural defences in American litigation see Hwang Geum Joo v Japan 332 F (3d) 679 (DC Cir 2003); Hwang Geum Joo v Japan 413 F (3d) 45 (DC Cir 2005); William Gao, "Overdue Redress" (2007) 45 CLMJTL 529.

(11) Peipei, supra note 1 at 174-176.

(12) Ibid at 5-6.

(13) Ibid at 15.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ibid at 152-154.

(16) Ibid at 174-183. For further reading on the success of these procedural defences in Japanese litigation see supra note 10.

(17) Peipei, supra note 1 at Page 179.

(18) Ibid at Page 181.

(19) Ibid at 186-186.

(20) Sui-Lee Wee & Li Hui, "Hundreds of Chinese Families Seek Wartime Compensation from Japan" Reuters 12 May 2014, online:

(21) For further reading, see Karen Knop and Annelise Riles, "'As If Closure: Comfort Women Claims in the Conflict of Laws Style," Research Workshop on Legal and Diplomatic Responses to the Comfort Women Problem, Cornell Law School, June 19, 2014.
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Author:Husband, Sean
Publication:University of Toronto Faculty of Law Review
Date:Mar 22, 2015

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