Comfort Women Dispute: The Pursuit of Justice Continues

By Nicole Hsu (SCR ’20)

The Japanese Imperial Army forced thousands of comfort women into sexual servitude during World War II. However, these women never received formal compensation nor an apology from the Japanese government for their suffering. Under international human rights and criminal law, the Japanese Imperial Army’s systemic facilitation of comfort stations was a form of wartime rape, and thus a war crime – yet few officials were found guilty of their crime. As a result, surviving comfort women still struggle to find their rightful places in society and come to terms with their identities. The Japanese government’s official apology in 1993 were viewed by many to be incomplete because it did not assume state responsibility for the comfort stations. This sparked the first wave of a national redress movement in South Korea, where the public stood in solidarity with survivors in demanding that the Japanese government issue “fair compensation” to survivors. In an effort to appease comfort women and to enhance diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye agreed to a “final and irreversible” solution to settle the comfort women dispute on December 28, 2015. The deal states that Japan would pay over eight million dollars to fund surviving victims, and in return, South Korea would refrain from criticizing the Japanese government in regards to the comfort women issue.

However, the South Korean public and protesters from other countries colonized by the Imperial Japanese Army fiercely criticized the deal, calling it a sell-out agreement designed to once again table the issue without forcing the Japanese government to admit its crime. Several comfort women refused to accept the deal, demanding a more sincere and complete apology from the Japanese government. This dissatisfaction sparked a second wave of comfort women’s redress movement. In order for this deal to come to fruition, President Park and Prime Minister Abe must overcome contrasting domestic interpretations of, and responses to, the agreement. In the short term, if Japan were to issue a formal, public, and “sincere” apology that acknowledges the Imperial Army as the root perpetuator in the comfort women dispute, then it may trigger political turmoil from conservative and right-wing ultranationalist parties in domestic Japan. But in the long run, the apology may lead to strengthened diplomatic relationships and military cooperation among South Korea, Japan, and even the United States.

The history of comfort women begins in World War II, when the Imperial Japanese Army colonized many Asian countries, including the Philippines, Korea, and China. The army justified its rapid expansion and colonization of Asian countries as an act of ‘freeing’ Asia from the West. Prior to Japan’s military expansion, prostitution and the the use of comfort stations were already widespread in Japan; these Japanese prostitutes indeed volunteered to provide such services. Thus, the Japanese Imperial Army deemed it logical to continue organized prostitution as a means to alleviate soldiers’ stress, limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and prevent rape crimes that may lead to turmoil between the military camps and the occupied areas.[1]

Despite the Japanese Army’s good intentions, the establishment of comfort stations in occupied territories actually aggravated instances of rape and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. When the army found itself short of Japanese volunteers, they turned to local populations and coerced women into serving at so-called “comfort stations” – where each woman was forced to have sexual intercourse with 50 to 100 soldiers a day against their will. Women and girls were either kidnapped or enlisted in overseas duties on the basis of false job promises as low wage factory workers. If the women refused, the Japanese Army carried out a ruthless Three Alls Policy of “kill all, burn all, and loot all,” where they systematically tortured and mistreated the local population until they gave in to their demands. Comfort women who worked at comfort stations were abused, raped, and beaten on a daily basis. In order to keep them quiet about these injustices, the Japanese Imperial Army imposed strict censorship; that is, if the comfort women spoke negatively about their experience or refused to comply with Japanese officials’ demands, Japanese officials would either kill the women on the spot or kill their family members.[2]

This facilitation of comfort stations was a violation of human rights and thus a war crime, one that continues to torment surviving victims. After Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945, eleven Japanese military officials who were involved in the facilitation of comfort stations received severe punishment by Japanese authorities. They were found guilty for violating the Army’s order to hire only voluntary women as comfort women, a verdict which proves that the Japanese Imperial Army is legally culpable for this systematic wartime sexual enslavement. Only eleven officials were found guilty when many more were involved; moreover, the verdict fails to acknowledge that the Japanese Imperial Army’s facilitation of comfort station is a form of wartime rape. Under international human rights law, rape constitutes a crime against the physical and mental integrity of the victim. Rape is not solely perpetrated through the use of physical force; rather, rape is any penetration committed by the perpetrator through coercion or through taking advantage of a coercive environment.[3] Because comfort women were coerced into sexual servitude against their will, the Japanese Imperial Army’s facilitation of comfort station was a form of rape. Moreover, according to the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 1820, rape is deemed a “tactic of war and a threat to international security”, and hence constitutes war crime[4]. Three quarters of comfort women have passed away, but remaining survivors are still affected by the lingering effects of war, including sexual trauma and sexually transmitted diseases.[5] These permanent scars continue to remind comfort women of the miserable suffering they had to undergo during the Imperial Japanese Army’s brutal colonization.

In response to both international and domestic pressures, the Japanese government released a series of statements to apologize, offer compensation and most importantly justify their views concerning the comfort women dispute. Japan first attempted to publicly address the issue of comfort women in 1993, when Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a formal apology on the behalf of Japanese government – confirming that coercion was involved in the seizing of comfort women.[6] This was considered the first legitimate apology articulated by the Japanese government since Japan’s surrender in 1945, so was thus seen as a major diplomatic turning point. Although Kono’s candid and frank apology gained immense support from the international community, it also angered the Japanese right-wing constituency and triggered violent political turmoil. This was most clearly illustrated with the tragic shooting of Hitoshi Motoshima, the mayor of Nagasaki who was shot by right-wing fanatic for upholding the Kono Statement and publicly stating that Emperor Hirohito bore responsibility for Imperial Japanese Army’s behavior during World War II.[7] This violent response reflects the extent of historical whitewashing that the Japanese government implemented in the country’s public education system. Textbooks were forbidden from attributing responsibility to the Japanese government in regards to the comfort women issue, if it was even mentioned – had the textbooks accurately educated the public about Japan’s role in WWII crimes may have prevented such chaotic protests from taking place. Subsequently in 1995, during the 50th anniversary of World War II, Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a separate and renewed apology regarding the comfort women issue. On the behalf of Japanese government, he offered and extended his “most sincere apologies and remorse to all the comfort women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” [8] Yet Murayama’s statement was lacking even in comparison to the Kono Statement, because he did not apologize specifically for the forceful sexual enslavement carried out by the state. This implies that the Japanese government still denies responsibility for Japanese Imperial Army’s war crime during WWII, which is the root problem that inspires public condemnation from the victims, their advocates, and the international community.

In an attempt to formalize the sentiments of the Kono and Murayama statements into concrete compensation, the Japanese government set up the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) to offer monetary compensation to comfort women in South Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Netherlands, and Indonesia in 1994.[9] However, many comfort women rejected the payment offered by AWF, because though the organization was established by the Japanese government, the funds and donations came from private donors. Because the compensation was privately-funded and thus unofficial, survivors seeking apology and compensation directly from the Japanese government rejected the entire initiative. As a result, the fund dissolved in 2007.[10]

The surviving comfort women of South Korea also asked the Japanese government to provide compensation to survivors in other Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Taiwan. However, the current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argues that there is no evidence that the Japanese government had kept sex slaves, and therefore refused to issue a new apology. This led to the reexamination of Kono Statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshide Suga in 2014, which concluded that coercion was indeed involved in recruiting of comfort women. As a result, not only did the Japanese government uphold the Kono Statement, but they also did not apologize for the specific act of sexual enslavement. This sparked even more backlash from the Korean and Chinese comfort women.[11]

The December 2015 deal was supposed put a resolute end to this issue. Along with the aforementioned monetary recompensation to the remaining 46 registered comfort women survivors, and South Korea’s promise not to leverage this issue in international diplomacy, the agreement includes Japan’s acceptance of “deep responsibility” for the comfort women issue.[12]

The Japanese government’s negative response to the second redress movement, however, reveals why survivors still deem this apology insincere. Another provision of the deal had indicated that the Korean government would work with advocates to remove the comfort woman statue placed in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. In 2011, a figure of a young girl sitting next to an empty chair was erected there to symbolize the grassroots uproar against the Japanese government in Korea, as well as pay homage to those victims who have already passed away. [13] It was inaugurated at the 1000th Wednesday Demonstration, a weekly-recurring peaceful protest that aims to bring people of “different gender[s], age, borders, and ideologies together for the common objective” of demanding justice and compensation for comfort women. The Korean Council for Women, the founders behind this continuous public event, resolve to “keep protesting until Korea has considered rights and dignity fully restored to victims.”

A metaphorical masterpiece that embodies the sentiment of comfort women’s redress movement, the “statue of peace” in front of the Japanese Embassy in Busan represents the comfort women coerced into sexual servitude during WWII and the hardships they have endured. The girl’s face conveys both anger at her treatment and determination to resolve the issue. Her clenched fists represent how the victims will no longer stay silent about Japan’s war crimes and want to reveal the harsh and bitter truth. The girl’s heels are unattached to the ground, which reminds us of the unstable lives of victims, as they are constantly regarded as “sluts” and are thus treated coldly by society. Similarly, the statue’s “shadow” is that of an old woman, which symbolizes the hardship that victims had to suffer all this time. Most importantly, the bird sitting on her left shoulder symbolizes peace, freedom, and liberation; it connects victims who “returned to the sky,” or comfort women who have already passed away, and ones who are still “left on the ground,” battling for their human rights and dignity as comfort women.[14]

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 9.21.09 PM

Although the statue was removed from Seoul per the agreement, it was quickly replicated and rebuilt in Busan by the end of 2016 to convey the Korean public’s rejection of the comfort women deal. In January 2017, the Japanese government negotiated to remove the new statue completely. Moreover, Japan responded by temporarily withdrawing its ambassador to Korea and suspending Korean-Japan talks on non-security issues and currency swaps because of the new statue.[15] This reflects Japan’s patriotic revisionist agenda and reveals its unwillingness to fully apologize for its war atrocities except to protect Japan’s international reputation and image.

Regardless of the Japanese and South Korean government’s agreement on the same solution—material compensation and an incomplete apology—they did not agree on the fundamental root cause of the issue: what the Japanese government is apologizing for. While the Korean public claims that young women and girls were forced against their will to work as sex slaves during World War II, the Japanese government claims lack of evidence for this accusation and continues to deny that its military forcibly recruited Korean women for its stations. Thus, no matter how many times Japan apologizes for and compensates the general suffering of comfort women, it will fail apologize for the specific act of forcible enslavement.

This agreement also further tarnished President Park’s already notorious administration. Park’s mishandling of the sinking of Sewol ferry incident in 2014, coupled with her corruption charges in the following years that led to her impeachment, sowed the seeds for the anger that erupted when Park signed the comfort women deal with Prime Minister Abe in December 2015. The signing of the deal gave South Koreans more reason to resent and criticize her already disliked administration, and galvanized public support for comfort women.

International organizations, such as the United Nations and Amnesty International, also support comfort women’s redress movement. Currently, Amnesty International is campaigning in countries where governments, such as that of Australia, have yet to officially support their cause.[16] In 2007, the United States House of Representatives passed Resolution 121 in 2007, which asks the Japanese government to redress the situation and incorporate “internationally accepted historical facts about comfort women” into their education system. In 2014, the United Nations called for Japan to “conclude investigations into violations of rights of comfort women… and to bring justice to those responsible and pursue a comprehensive and lasting resolution on these issues”. [17]

But the 2015 deal was in the foreign policy interest of the United States, which is to resolve past differences between South Korea and Japan in order to jointly address the security threats from North Korea and China. Theoretically, the signing of the treaty should have forced Japan and South Korea to move on from the notorious past of World War II, which had previously strained Japan and South Korean relations — thereby removing the stumbling block that prevented collaboration between Japan and South Korea. This would lead to expanded military cooperation amongst United States, Japan, and South Korea in terms of deterring the growing North Korean military and its nuclear threats.

Therefore, in order for the comfort women deal to come to fruition, both Park and Abe must overcome the differences in interpretation for the deal. According to international human rights law, the facilitation of comfort station constitutes wartime rape and is thus a war crime. Although Abe and Park had originally struck the agreement as a “final and irreversible” resolution to the comfort women dispute, the Japanese government’s apology is still lacking in that it fails to apologize for the act of forceful sexual enslavement, which further insinuates that the Japanese government denies the acknowledgement and responsibility of Japanese Imperial Army’s facilitation of comfort station as a form of war crime. If the Japanese government offers a renewed apology that fully acknowledges the Japanese state responsibility for the WWII sexual enslavement of women, not only would this enhance the diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan, but it would also reimage Japan as truly democratic, progressive, and forward-thinking nation in the region of East Asia. In essence, the long term benefits of truly resolved diplomatic relations and improved Japanese international reputation will more than outweigh the short term cost of electoral backlash. While the Japanese government’s issuing of renewed apology may trigger clashing opinions from different group of actors– such as the Korean NGOs demanding for more concessions from the Japanese government or Nippon Kaigi criticizing Abe for striking the deal with Park– it would most definitely enhance the military cooperation and facilitate the three way relationship between Korea, Japan, and United States.

 

Works Cited

Anna Fifield. “South Korea Starts Lifting Sewol Ferry, Almost Three Years after Disaster.” The Washington Post, 2017, 5 Apr. 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/south-korea-starts-lifting-sewol-ferry-almost-three-years-after-disaster/2017/03/22/4c7a109e-0f74-11e7-b2bb-417e331877d9_story.html?utm_term=.c32374c0a3aa.

Anna Fifield. “Former South Korean President Arrested in Corruption Probe, 3 Weeks after Impeachment.” The Washington Post, 2017, 5 Apr. 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/south-korean-court-to-rule-on-presidents-impeachment-over-corruption-charges/2017/03/08/04d7d866-0443-11e7-9d14-9724d48f5666_story.html?utm_term=.90294fda278b.

Chang-Jin Lee. “Comfort Women Wanted” Comfort Women Wanted, 2008, 30 Mar. 2017, http://changjinlee.net/cww/index.html.

“Comfort Women Statue.” Comfort Women Monuments, Friends of Peace Monuments, 2011, peace.maripo.com/p_comfort_women.htm.

“Closing of the Asian Women’s Fund.” The Comfort Women Issue and Asian Women’s Fund, 2001, http://www.awf.or.jp/e2/foundation.html.

Eric Johnston. “‘Comfort Women’ Demand Formal Apology, Redress for All Survivors Worldwide.” The Japan Times, 2017, 2 Apr. 2017, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/11/04/national/comfort-women-demand-formal-apology-redress-survivors-worldwide/#.WP1-olPyu9Y.

“Establishment of AWF.” The Comfort Women Issue and Asian Women’s Fund, 2012, http://www.awf.or.jp/e2/foundation.html.

Han, Sol, and James Griffiths. “Why This Statue of a Young Girl Caused a Diplomatic Incident.” CNN, 2017, 3 Apr. 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/05/asia/south-korea-comfort-women-statue/.

  1. Res. 121- 11th
    Congress (2007-2008)” Congress.gov, 2007, 4 Apr. 2017, https://www.congress.gov/bill/110th-congress/house-resolution/121.

“International Criminal Court: Clarifying the scope of the crime of rape.” Amnesty International, Jan. 2009, 31 Mar. 2017, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library.

“Japan Recalls Korean Envoy over ‘comfort Women’ Statue.” BBC News, 2017, 31 Mar. 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38526914.

Joseph Yi. “The Korea-Japan ‘Comfort Women’ Failure: A Question of History.” The Diplomat, 2017, 1 Apr. 2017, http://thediplomat.com/2017/02/the-korea-japan-comfort-women-failure-a-question-of-history/.

Katherine Brookes. “The History Of ‘Comfort Women’: A WWII Tragedy We Can’t Forget.” The Huffington Post , 2013, 9 Apr. 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/25/comfort-women-wanted_n_4325584.html.

Kevin Gerard Neill. “Duty, Honor, Rape: Sexual Assault Against Women During War.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 2000, 28 Mar. 2017, 2(1), 43-51.

Minataro Oba. “Japan’s Terrible Mistake on ‘Comfort Women’.” The Diplomat, 2017, 4 Apr. 2017, http://thediplomat.com/2017/01/japans-terrible-mistake-on-comfort-women/.

“Nippon Kaigi: Right Side Up.” The Economist, 2015, 4 Apr. 2017, http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21653676-powerful-if-little-reported-group-claims-it-can-restore-pre-war-order-right-side-up.

“Subject: Wartime sexual slaves – ‘comfort women’” Amnesty International: EU Office, 2009, 7 Apr. 2017, http://www.amnesty.eu/static/documents/2009/B906ComfortWomenSwedPres.pdf.

“The Life in Comfort Stations.” The Comfort Women Issue and Asian Women’s Fund”, The Asian Women Fund ,2012, http://apjjf.org/-Wada-Haruki/2653/article.html.

Toko Sekiguchi. “Kono, Murayama Criticize Abe Over 70th Anniversary War Statement.” The Wall Street Journal, 2015, 2 Apr. 2017, https://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2015/06/09/kono-murayama-criticize-abe-over-70th-anniversary-war-statement/.

Tomiichi Murayama. “Statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama “On the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the War’s End” (15 August 1995).” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan , 1995, 3 Apr. 2017, http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/press/pm/murayama/9508.html.

“U.N. classifies rape as a ‘war tactic’.” BBC, 20 June 2008, 29 Mar. 2017, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7464462.stm.

“U.N. issues fresh call to Japan over World War II ‘comfort women’” The Japan Times, 2014, 7 Apr. 2017, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/08/30/national/u-n-issues-fresh-call-japan-world-war-ii-comfort-women/.

Yohei Kono. “Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the Result of the Study on the Issue of “comfort Women”.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 1993, 1 Apr. 2017, http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9308.html.

[1]Katherine Brookes. “The History Of ‘Comfort Women’: A WWII Tragedy We Can’t Forget.” The Huffington Post , 2013, 9 Apr. 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/25/comfort-women-wanted_n_4325584.html.

[2] Chang-Jin Lee. “Comfort Women Wanted” Comfort Women Wanted, 2008, 30 Mar. 2017, http://changjinlee.net/cww/index.html

[3] “International Criminal Court: Clarifying the scope of the crime of rape.” Amnesty International, Jan. 2009, 31 Mar. 2017, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library.

[4] “UN classifies rape as a ‘war tactic’.” BBC, 20 June 2008, 29 Mar. 2017, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7464462.stm.

[5] Kevin Gerard Neill. “Duty, Honor, Rape: Sexual Assault Against Women During War.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 2000, 28 Mar. 2017, 2(1), 43-51.

[6]Yohei Kono. “Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the Result of the Study on the Issue of “comfort Women”.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 1993, 1 Apr. 2017, http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9308.html.

 

[7] “Nagasaki mayor is shot and killed” The New York Times, April 17 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/17/world/asia/17iht-nagasaki.5.5325169.html

[8] Tomiichi Murayama. “Statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama “On the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the War’s End” (15 August 1995).” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan , 1995, 3 Apr. 2017, http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/press/pm/murayama/9508.html.

[9] “Establishment of AWF.” The Comfort Women Issue and Asian Women’s Fund, 2012, http://www.awf.or.jp/e2/foundation.html.

[10] “Closing of the Asian Women’s Fund.” The Comfort Women Issue and Asian Women’s Fund, 2001, http://www.awf.or.jp/e2/foundation.html.

[11] “Nippon Kaigi: Right Side Up.” The Economist, 2015, 4 Apr. 2017, http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21653676-powerful-if-little-reported-group-claims-it-can-restore-pre-war-order-right-side-up.

[12] “Japan Recalls Korean Envoy over ‘comfort Women’ Statue.” BBC News, 2017, 31 Mar. 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38526914.

[13] Motoko Rich. “Japan Envoy, Recalled Over ‘Comfort Woman’ Statue, Is Returning to Seoul” The New York Times, 3 Apr. 2017, 9 Apr. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/03/world/asia/japan-ambassador-south-korea-comfort-woman.html.

[14] Han, Sol, and James Griffiths. “Why This Statue of a Young Girl Caused a Diplomatic I

ncident.” CNN, 2017, 3 Apr. 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/05/asia/south-korea-comfort-women-statue/.

[15] Han, Sol, and James Griffiths. “Why This Statue of a Young Girl Caused a Diplomatic I

ncident.” CNN, 2017, 3 Apr. 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/05/asia/south-korea-comfort-women-statue/.

[16] “Subject: Wartime sexual slaves – ‘comfort women’” Amnesty International: EU Office, 2009, 7 Apr. 2017, http://www.amnesty.eu/static/documents/2009/B906ComfortWomenSwedPres.pdf.

[17] “H. Res. 121- 11th Congress (2007-2008)” Congress.gov, 2007, 4 Apr. 2017, https://www.congress.gov/bill/110th-congress/house-resolution/121.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s