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

Article excerpt

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.


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.


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. "Our country was powerless. So we were forcibly taken by the Japanese and suffered," commented one former comfort woman, Chung Seowoon. For Korea, the official Japanese occupation of the nation, beginning with the 1910 Annexation Treaty, initiated a setting of Japanese cultural and political dominance in Korea. The Japanese Imperial Period saw the enactment of policies that aimed to "assimilate" Koreans as Japanese subjects. Examples range from Soshikaimei, the mandatory changing of Korean surnames to Japanese, to forced worship of Shintoism. However, far from equalizing the individual status of Koreans with those of Japanese nationals, these policies indicate a deeper sense of inferiority directed toward the colonized.

Yuki Tanaka, professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, posits that the three central purposes for creating military brothels were to provide leisure for army troops, reduce the spread of venereal diseases, and minimize civilian rape by soldiers. Information pieced together from available documents suggests that the first brothels exclusively for use by the Japanese military were established for the navy during the 1932 Shanghai Incident, a military confrontation used by Japan as a pretext for further control of China. Though in early years the military recruited prostitutes to staff such brothels, according to Tanaka, it soon became clear by 1938 that the "voluntary migration of proprietors and prostitutes from Korea to China could no longer provide the army with a sufficient pool of comfort women." While cases of abduction were not uncommon, the most frequent form of "recruitment" appeared either through "recruiting agents" directly selected by the Japanese army, or through subcontractors, sometimes aided by local Japanese police. Lured by promises of employment in jobs such as factory work, or nursing, the vast majority of women would not realize their true purpose until after being taken to the comfort stations and raped. Freedom for most comfort women in the brothels came with the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945, also symbolizing the end of the Japanese occupation of its colonized territories.

Difficulties in Memory

While prostitution is endemic to war, what set historical precedent in the case of Japan's comfort women was the active role played by the government in directing the military brothels. Yet, though Japanese imperialism plays an important role in the comfort women issue, framing the subject from a purely colonial perspective loses the social, cultural, and gendered factors crucial to understanding the depth of institutionalization of the comfort women system.

Economically, the majority of individuals' testimonials show the victims to have come from disadvantaged peasant family backgrounds. A study conducted by Jong Jingsong revealed that of the 170 Korean former comfort women studied, 105 had been "recruited" from rural regions of Kyongsang and Cholla, two Korean provinces. Furthermore, Volunteer women labor corps had also been recruited for the Japanese war cause at the time, causing additional confusion and ambiguity about the comfort women system as a form of consensual labor or institutionalized rape. While the comfort women issue was initially raised under the umbrella of the forcible drafting of Korean female labor corps, many former comfort women bristle against the term of labor to describe their experiences, and the United Nations and many international organizations describe the case often under the term "military sexual slaves."

Also complicating the issue are intermediaries who were involved in the process, frequently taking the form of fellow compatriots, functioning as pimps to exploit the more indigent classes; this often glossed-over actor underscores the level of local collaboration involved in sustaining the system with women. Activists for former comfort women tend to downplay the involvement to highlight the Japanese government's involvement in institutionalizing sexual slavery, while their counterparts point exclusively private war profiteers as the drivers of the comfort women incident.

Another contributor to wounded nationalism about the failure of redress concerns the variation of treatment between Asian comfort women and their European counterparts immediately after the war. A number of Dutch and British women were also rounded up for several comfort stations during Japanese occupation of Java; in 1948, a Dutch military court convicted seven officers and four civilian military employees of war crimes. However, no legal action was carried through for Asian victims. The American government, despite having collected evidence of sexual slavery by the Imperial army, was preoccupied in reconstructing a non-communist Japanese economy and had no intention of pushing the matter at the time. For East Asia, the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952 is seen by the Japanese government as having resolved all legal issues concerning comfort women, though human rights advocates are quick to note the absence of any mention of war crimes concerning comfort women.


As for the women, the fear of social stigma kept many victims from speaking out about their experiences. In fact, many women who testified about their victimization faced pressure by their communities and families to retract their statements or to downplay the extent of their abuse. Addressing a culture and generation dictated by Confucian chastity, advocates too initially worried that the shame of defilation and lost virginity would elicit ostracism and negative public reaction. While the general public in Asia has largely rallied behind the comfort women and their cause, the projected national image of comfort women as "forcibly conscripted virgins" presents the loss of virginity as the central injustice for demanding apologies and reparations, a point which feminist academics have criticized heavily. A well-known academic in the field, Sarah Soh, in her analyses of comfort women delicately brushes against the possibility that the cultural stigma in Korea of being soiled in fact shamed women more than the isolated act itself. The low marriage rate for surviving comfort women supplements evidence for a Korean "cult of virginity" that demands women's sexual purity. Again, to encapsulate the experience of comfort women in a language purely in terms of foreign colonizer/aggressor ignores the domestic aspect of former comfort women's sufferings.

Demands for a Meaningful Apology

The comfort women's demands are; one, a clear apology accepting the government's role in planning and maintaining sex slavery; and two, monetary reparations to be given to victims directly from the government as a symbolic gesture of taking responsibility for the harms caused. Of course, sufficiently fulfilling both requirements is not as straight-forward as it may initially seem. Figures such as Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama have released statements expressing remorse and apologies toward former comfort women and their suffering. But for such a significant issue, individuals cannot speak convincingly on behalf of a heel-dragging government. As of 2009, the Japanese Diet has largely been considered not to have extended formal acknowledgment, apologies, or acceptance of responsibility, going only so far as to concede the official position of the Kono Statement: "Solemnly reflecting upon the many instances of colonial rule and acts of aggression that occurred in modern world history, and recognizing that Japan carried out such acts in the past and inflicted suffering on the people of other countries, especially in Asia, the Members of this House hereby express deep remorse." This statement is then followed by: "We must learn in all humility the lessons of history, and promote peace in the international community, overcoming the various differences in ideology that exist regarding the understanding of history related to the war in the past."


Little variation over the following sixteen years has been taken by Japan from this position. The most recent inflammation from former conservative prime minister Shinzo Abe's controversial remarks to Japanese reporters in 2007 that there was "no evidence to prove there was coercion as initially suggested" brought a hailstorm of denunciations from international organizations and nations. In response, the leader took an about-face return to the official pose of the Kono statement several weeks later by retracting his comments in a series of apologies, though still voiced in vague language and carefully crafted wording. The absence of directly state-funded remuneration, the second demand of surviving victims, has kept the issue heated. In a collective gesture, many comfort women rejected the sum of 2 million yen offered by the Asian Women's Fund (AWF) in 1995, which was politically supported by the Japanese government but run on private donations from citizens as an alternative to direct reparations. Official organizations of representation demanded that no payments be accepted until officially given by the Japanese state. However, the women were not unanimous in their decision, and some privately indicated that they would be willing to accept the money.

In addition, the seven Korean "turncoats" who did accept funds from the AWF faced severe criticism for their defection. One is led to consider to what degree the issue was purely intended for the welfare of the victims, and not another cause for airing nationalistic anti-Japan ideologies. The politicization of the issue by activists, while well-intentioned, may have had the unfortunate effect of taking away the decision-making power of individual comfort women By 2007, it was estimated that only 40 percent of the surviving comfort women who had confessed had accepted money from the AWT.

One avenue for reconciliation on historical disputes has been the recent cooperation between Japan and its East Asian neighbors. The co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup between Korea and Japan, for example, marks a watershed overture of amicability between the two nations. Yet, this form of reconciliation without reparations or a formal apology is insufficient standing alone. In choosing to "wait it out," the Japanese government has miscalculated the extent of transnational activism on the issue, which stretches beyond East Asia to the international community as well. Also, the addition of a monologue on comfort women in 2006 to the repertoire of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" performances indicates dissemination of the issue cross-nationally through popular culture and the arts.

Contrary to popular belief, even Japanese society was not unaware of comfort women and the position they occupied during the war, as had been implied by the government's former denial of coerced sexual slavery before 1993. Japanese literature on comfort women was readily accessible; in fact, several Japanese books on Korean women became best-sellers in the 1970s. However, official history is a sensitive subject for the Japanese government. For Japan, the re-examination of history could incur either international condemnation for covering up "shameful memories," or internal criticism for portraying the nation in a negative light or taking what has been labeled by conservatives as a "masochistic view of history." Other issues that have tarnished Japan's record regarding the past and have inflamed the country's Asian neighbors include textbook controversies and former denials of the Nanjing Massacre. In South Korea along, academic Kiwoong Yang notes that there have been roughly 60 cases of friction involving history reported by South Korean media since 1990, most of which Yang finds as "developed in part by Japanese politicians through remarks that trigger a response from South Korea." It is in these related incidents that the comfort woman case often resurfaces, riding the social waves of other current headlines such as revisionist history or related women's issues.

Why the Waiting Can't Afford to Wait

Presently, the Japanese government's implicit strategy of relying on the "biological solution" serves as a double-edged sword. Of course, waiting for the remaining survivors--mostly in their eighties--to pass away presents little difficulty. But there are indications that now is a window of opportunity to positively address the demands of the living comfort women--before time runs out. The rapidly shrinking numbers of surviving comfort women ought to expedite apologies and reparations given by the entire Japanese Diet, and not simply by individual figureheads and private donors. Victims claim the injuries sustained during their internment still continue to cause pain and deteriorating health, and many remaining comfort women also live in poverty. While there are political ramifications to making reconciliations at the expense of a cleaner national image, it would cost far less than the international community's increasing disapproval of Japan's seeming unwillingness to "fess up."

Furthermore, it would be inaccurate to assume that all Japanese citizens subscribe to conservative revisionist history views. Three Japanese city councils themselves have passed motions calling for a more direct apology, and to other Japanese, incidents garnering international criticism such as Abe's comment, are a source of embarrassment. Rectification, if not welcomed with open arms by all, would nonetheless provide a more tolerable alternative to the constant fear of inflammation. Waiting for the issue to fade away with the deaths of former victims would not only be short-sighted, but also compound the crime in the eyes of supporters. It would be infinitely more valuable for survivors to be able to receive, and accept, an apology than it would be for families of the victims to receive a posthumous statement.

Ultimately, to issue an acceptable apology to the comfort women should not be a matter of propaganda, nationalism, or politics, but a sincere first step toward the healing process.

staff writer



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