‘Comfort Women’ Still Suffering

Unresolved story of the military sexual slavery by Japan

“Although the Japanese government insists that they have apologized numerous times, the victims of the military sexual slavery by Japan find it hard to accept its words as a “successful apology.” The present Japanese government never completely addressed the incorrect historical facts nor did it officially provide full reparation to the victims. The Japanese government has modified the statements of past leaders, distorted or concealed the truth regarding military sexual slavery, and deleted the factual information from the textbooks. Due to these actions that negate the government’s words, victims continue to undergo emotional suffering.”

World War II damaged people’s lives along with their rights. During the Holocaust, 6 million Jews suffered from mass murder, medical experiments on humans, torture and more. Imperial Japan committed the same atrocities as well. Imperial Japan forcibly colonized Korea, murdered the Korean Empress Myeongseong, and slaughtered thousands of citizens who opposed colonization. Japan also enforced a military sexual slavery that made Asian women serve Japanese soldiers during the war. What’s more, they caused damage in other parts of Asia, murdering 300,000 civilians in Nanking, China, for instance. In the end, the Allies defeated these two countries. Germany and Japan, through the Yalta Conference and the Potsdam Conference, had to return autonomy to the countries they had invaded and apologize for their wrongdoings.

During the process of reparations, Germany’s attitude was sincere and contrite. In 1970, then German Chancellor Willy Brandt visited the Warsaw ghetto and openly apologized for the Nazi’s shameful past. Recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel offered flowers to the victims of the concentration camps, thereby gaining support from the Jewish population. In addition, in 1969, Germany recognized the Oder-Neisse line as the border between Germany and Poland, giving 24% of Germany’s original land to Poland as liquidation of the past events. Germany’s acts of sincerity and thorough reflection, such as the payment of 100 million dollars to the Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and recording of Nazi’s brutalities in German textbooks, are highly acclaimed for their contribution to peace in present Europe.

Japan, however, took a completely different approach. The Japanese government has been threatening the peace in Asia by honoring the Japanese Imperialism of the past. Unlike the German chancellor, who fell to his knees during a commemoration to the Jewish victims, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been constantly visiting or donating to the Yasukuni war shrine, a symbol of Japan’s imperial military past. This act has been criticized internationally. Moreover, Japan’s foreign policy denies the existence of ‘comfort women.’ Though it had been more than 50 years since the war ended, the issue of comfort women has yet to be settled.

  • Japan's Initial Act

    During the end of the war, the Japanese government attempted to conceal the existence of the military sexual slavery. Mass murder of the comfort women was frequent in Southeast Asian countries. Juanita Hamot, a Filipina comfort woman, recalled the day when heavily armed Japanese soldiers raped numerous women for the last time then shot them down inside a church near Fort Santiago.

    Those who survived were abandoned and could not return home. The women were unable to receive any medical treatment and suffered from psychological trauma, PTSD, disease and injuries they developed as a result of their years of being comfort women. Jan Ruff O’-Herne, born in the Dutch colony of Java and a former comfort woman, was warned that if she ever spoke of what was done to her, her family would be killed.

    In addition, no reparations were made for the comfort women. When the Japanese-South Korean Basic Treaty was signed in 1965, Japan provided the South Korean government with monetary relief for damages they caused during the Second World War. This included any documented unpaid debts and specific damages. However, there was no mention of the comfort women issue. As the involvement of Korean activists, such as the Korean Council, increased during the early 1980s, public awareness on the issue of comfort women also rose. Japan’s stance, however, did not change, and they insisted that the government had not been involved in the establishment of the military sexual slavery.

    In 1992, Japan published a report about comfort women and announced that they would provide reparation to all former Korean comfort women as well as a general statement of apology to all countries. Yet this move is strongly criticized as “no more than an enumeration of data, something extremely insincere which does not mention the concrete content of injuries or the locus of command and responsibility.”

  • The Kono Statement

    In August, 1993, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono of the Japanese government acknowledged that the Japanese military was “directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of “comfort women.” In addition, Kono offered an apology for the atrocities the Japanese military had committed against “comfort women” during World War II. The full text of the so-called Kono Statement is as follows:

     The Government of Japan has been conducting a study on the issue of wartime “comfort women” since December 1991. I wish to announce the findings as a result of that study.

    As a result of the study which indicates that comfort stations were operated in extensive areas for long periods, it is apparent that there existed a great number of comfort women. Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day. The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.

    As to the origin of those comfort women who were transferred to the war areas, excluding those from Japan, those from the Korean Peninsula accounted for a large part. The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule in those days, and their recruitment, transfer, control, etc., were conducted generally against their will, through coaxing, coercion, etc.

    Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women. The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.

    It is incumbent upon us, the Government of Japan, to continue to consider seriously, while listening to the views of learned circles, how best we can express this sentiment.

    We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history. We hereby reiterated our firm determination never to repeat the same mistake by forever engraving such issues in our memories through the study and teaching of history.

    As actions have been brought to court in Japan and interests have been shown in this issue outside Japan, the Government of Japan shall continue to pay full attention to this matter, including private researched related thereto.

    At first, the Kono Statement seemed to be an acceptable recognition and an apology for comfort women issue. In response, the South Korean Foreign Ministry expressed that they “appreciate the fact that the Japanese offered an apology.” However, this did not lead to any further official reparation from the Japanese government, which angered the comfort women. Furthermore, in 2007, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe retracted the Kono Statement, arguing that the Japanese military did not force anyone to become comfort women during Second World War.

  • Post-Kono Statement

    The Japanese government has been denying legal liability from the “comfort women” issue, insisting that international human rights laws during the World War II were unstable, and according to such law, they are unable to compensate all individuals who suffered. In addition, they claimed that more than sixty years have passed – too long to press for further apologies.

    The Japanese public’s opinions of the comfort women issue also align with that of their government. Since 1992, many Japanese citizens have been swayed by the rightist movement and are against reparation for the comfort women. Many claim that all countries have shameful histories regarding sexual violence and that the issue is too outdated to revisit. One newspaper said that it was proper to “keep a lid on something smelly.” Another wrote that such reparation was unnecessary, because “if settlement is made in amounts acceptable to war compensation claimants, the present Japanese nation would probably have to shoulder a tax burden several times the current level.”

    In 1995, the Japanese government established the “Asian Women’s Fund,” with funding from private individuals and organizations. Most former comfort women, however, did not accept the fund as official recognition of the government’s legal liability for future reparations. Most have not even applied for the fund because if the government doesn’t cover the full payment, “the money is not a form of reparations or compensation for grievous wrongs, but rather a form of charity or welfare.” In response, Japan set up another government-funded reparations plan, but the fund only paid comfort women from the Philippines. In addition, this fund was once again paid by government welfare agencies, instead of directly by the government, bringing upon criticism for the lack of an official apology.

    Japanese textbooks covering the issue have also been enraging neighboring countries. Due to efforts during the 1980s, historical information about comfort women were present in Japanese history textbooks of the early 1990s. However information on comfort women was entirely removed from the textbooks in the mid-1990s, and the atrocities committed by the Japanese military during the World War II were greatly minimized.

  • Japan's Current Stance

    Amnesty International defines the successful apologies as follows:

    • Acknowledging what’s done wrong by clearly stating the offence and describing the effect
    • Accepting responsibility for what’s done
    • Expressing sincere regret and profound remorse
    • Promising that such action would not be repeated
    • Making reparation through concrete measures

    Although the Japanese government insists that they have apologized numerous times, the victims of the military sexual slavery by Japan find it hard to accept its words as a “successful apology.” The present Japanese government never completely addressed the incorrect historical facts nor did it officially provide full reparation to the victims. The Japanese government has modified the statements of past leaders, distorted or concealed the truth regarding military sexual slavery, and deleted the factual information from the textbooks. Due to these actions that negate the government’s words, victims continue to undergo emotional suffering.

    Research reveals the Japanese government’s involvement in the military sexual slavery and the sexual exploitation of comfort women from numerous countries. The military sexual slavery by Japan clearly violated international laws against enslavement and basic women’s rights through sexual, racial and economic oppression of women.

    Even now, more than fifty years after the end of the war, Japan insists that they have already apologized multiple times and that these past issues should not be brought up again. However, the countries that have suffered due to Japan, mainly China and Korea, criticize that Japan’s words do not align with their current actions. History textbooks in Japan do not contain details of the brutalities committed by Japanese imperialists, and rightists in the current Japanese government are driving movements to restore their national pride by visiting the war shrine periodically.

  • Initial Movement of the Comfort Women

    The comfort women issue was not publicly known right after the war due to the victims’ shame and Japan’s efforts to cover up history. One of the earliest efforts to raise public awareness and receive appropriate reparation for the system was realized in the Dutch trial in mid 1900s.

    In 1948, public trials judging Japan’s sexual confinement of Dutch women were held in Dutch Indonesia. It was the first war crimes trial against Japan involving the issue of comfort women. As a result, the high-ranking Japanese officers that took part in the comfort women system were found guilty and many were imprisoned and one was even executed. The military sexual slavery by Japan, however, still did not receive much public attention.

    Though over 70% of all comfort women were Koreans, the issue of comfort women did not receive much attention in Korea until the 1980s. In 1988, Professor Yun Chung Ok of Ehwa Women’s University formed a group that focused on the comfort women issue. In 1989, the group published the article, “In the Footsteps of the Voluntary Service Corps”, and increased awareness about comfort women.

    In 1990, after learning that the Japanese government was avoiding further investigation of the issue, South Korean women’s rights groups created the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Their goal was to challenge both the Japanese and Korean governments and resolve the comfort women issue, care for the surviving comfort women, and raise public awareness for the comfort women within the international community.

    The Korean Council wrote a letter demanding that the Japanese government admit their involvement in the military sexual slavery, compensate the survivors, and publicly apologize. The letter was delivered to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and to the South Korean government, but Japan continued to deny its involvement. The Korean Council is also known for holding demonstration every Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy for more than twenty years. In 2002, this so-called Wednesday Demonstration was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest demonstration on a single theme.

  • Public Appearances of the Comfort Women

    Women’s groups in Korea succeeded in raising awareness about “comfort women,” but under Japan’s constant objection, they could not make any further advancement. In addition, the Japanese government has continued to claim that there was no government involvement with the military sexual slavery and that the women were either volunteers or paid prostitutes. On August 14th, 1991, however, a former comfort woman, Hak Sun Kim, came forth to publicly testify about her experiences and take legal action.

    Hak Sun Kim, a Korean, was born in Manchuria and came under the Japanese army’s  control when she was 17 years old. She had been a comfort woman until a Korean merchant rescued her and married her. Her entire family passed away a few years after the Korean War. The loss of her entire family along with her deep sense of rage at the Japanese government’s denial moved her to publicly speak out.

    Kim’s action spurred two other former comfort women to join her in legal action. Many documents that confirmed the Japanese government’s involvement in the military sexual slavery by Japan were also published at this time, and the Japanese prime minister to responded with a formal apology. Yet both South and North Korean governments could not accept the prime minister’s words as an official apology from the government, mostly because their ‘words’ did not align with their actions. The Comfort Women Problem Resolution Council of South Korea wrote a letter to Prime Minister Miyazawa of Japan, insisting that the comfort women issue “involves the most inhuman, atrocious national crimes, unparalleled in the world,” and that they have “constantly demanded that the concealed truth of the mater be brought to light and that apology and compensation be made to the victims.” Later, other Korean comfort women, as well as those from other countries also filed legal cases.

    It was decided on April of 1988 that Hak Sun Kim and the two other anonymous Korean comfort women would be compensated by the Japanese government $2,300 each. However, the decision came too late for Hak Sun Kim, as she passed away on December 16th, 1997, due to ongoing problems from her days as a sexual slave.

  • International Opinions on Comfort Women Issue

    On April 10th, 2003, a United Nations Commission on Human Rights meeting was held in Geneva. During the meeting, the Japanese government was asked to directly compensate the victims of the comfort women system, which affected 200,000 women from many countries. The Japanese government once again denied its responsibility and refused to pay any reparation.

    United States, although it wasn’t a country with victims, hold negative views towards Japan’s attitude.

    On July 30th, 2007, the United States insisted that Japan “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner” by passing House Resolution 121. However, both the Japanese public and the Japanese government rejected the statement, asserting that sexual violence was common during the war and that the Japanese government had already apologized. What’s more, the Obama administration expressed its disappointment in Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine that commemorates the Japanese war criminals, in December 2013.

    In 2010, Korean-American organizations built a monument in memory of comfort women in Palisades Park, NJ. Additionally, a memorial for comfort women issue was installed in a public park in Glendale, CA in July 2013. Ever since, Japanese organizations in the United States have been holding petitions for the removal of such memorials under the claim that the memorials “are spreading false propaganda.” Although the U.S. government has attempted to remain neutral about the issue in order to maintain good terms with both countries, the fact that both memorials still stand in America is a strong statement of the United States’ support as well as its educational purpose to teach the future generations an importance of knowing the ‘truth.’

Though it is more appropriate to use the term “sexual slaves” to refer to the “comfort women”, this site used the word “comfort women,” because of the specificity of the term “comfort women” and due to the survivors’ psychological scars from being called “sexual slaves”. For more information, please refer to this site run by the Korean government. http://www.hermuseum.go.kr/eng/sub01/sub010104.asp?s_top=1&s_left=1&s_deps=4


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