The Politics of an Apology: Japan and Resolving the "Comfort Women" Issue

By Chang, Mina | Harvard International Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Politics of an Apology: Japan and Resolving the "Comfort Women" Issue


Chang, Mina, Harvard International Review


Last August, Australia's Senate considered a motion calling for Japan's full acceptance and adequate compensation for "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery during World War II (WWII). While having failed at vote, the resolution would have added Australia to the list of various other bodies such as the European Union, Canada, and the United States, that have pressured Japan concerning the Imperial Government's involvement in institutionalizing wartime sexual slavery. Despite what the Japanese Embassy describes as having "acknowledged the comfort women issue and extended official apologies on many important occasions," most survivors and their advocates reject such statements on the grounds that these gestures were short in both legitimacy and reparations. The subject matter lives on as a contentious topic in social and political dialogue between Japan and other East Asian countries, and while some activists may overemphasize its individual political clout in foreign relations, it has been a hot-button issue in the Far East that continually simmers in the background, proving easily volatile in conjunction with other current events. Sixty-four years after the conclusion of WWII, the "comfort women" question remains largely unresolved, going beyond the realm of human rights and striking deeper chords of nationalism, memory, and the politics of apology.

Background

Euphemistically labeled "comfort women," between 80,000 and 200,000 women are estimated to have been coerced into supplying sex for Imperial Japanese soldiers during WWII. With approximately 80 percent of the victims ethnically Korean, the issue has largely been associated with Korea, but numbers include women from other formerly occupied Japanese territories such as China, the Philippines, and Indonesia. A distinctive element to the incident has also been the relative youth of the victims, mostly under the age of 18, and thus considered under-aged even for consensual prostitution. Conditions under which the women were forced to operate were often inhumane and physically and psychologically traumatic, survivors charge. But while Asian society was implicitly aware of the incident, social stigma led most survivors to bury the issue under silence for several decades after the war. Despite the media coverage the issue garners today, it was not until August 1991 that a public testimony in Korea was given, when former Korean comfort, woman Kim Haksoon acknowledged her victimization by holding a press conference about Japanese "comfort stations" of WWII. By 2001, some two hundred Korean former comfort women had testified, as well as women from other countries such as the Philippines and Taiwan. The Japanese government initially denied direct involvement in the recruiting of comfort women, giving a statement in 1990 rejecting any official connection to the brothels. Instead, the government attributed the coordination to solely private contractors. However, after historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi discovered government records in the Japanese Defense Agency library in 1992 proving a direct role in managing the brothels, the government released the guarded Kono statement acknowledging the partial involvement of the Japanese government, which, while accepting some contribution to military-servicing brothels, evaded legal responsibility toward the comfort women. Thus, the Japanese government, by first denying, then continuing to diminish, the state's position in institutionalizing sexual slavery during the war, failed to satisfy the demands set forth by former comfort women.

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Causes and Colonialism

Discourse on comfort women follows a largely postcolonial framework. As previously mentioned, the composition of the victims was primarily of women from occupied Japanese territories. Testimonies of former comfort women also repeatedly refer to the colonization of their country as the reason for their enslavement and suffering. …

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