The Burden of History: The Issue of "Comfort Women" and What Japan Must Do to Move Forward

By Kuki, Sonya | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Burden of History: The Issue of "Comfort Women" and What Japan Must Do to Move Forward


Kuki, Sonya, Journal of International Affairs


Japan's rapid succession of prime ministers in recent years--current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the seventh in less than seven years--is indicative of an indecisive and unsettled Japan that exists amid an evolving geopolitical landscape in which its neighbors, including a rising China and a belligerent North Korea, have experienced a resurgence of anti-Japanese sentiment. Central to this trend is the haunting and persistent wartime legacy of imperial Japan that continues to hinder regional cooperation nearly seven decades later The contentious issue of Japanese wartime transgressions is perhaps no better represented than with the issue of "comfort women"--women throughout Asia who were forced into sexual slavery to serve Japanese troops during the Second World War

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The comfort women issue has been a key linchpin in Japan's relations with neighboring countries, particularly with South Korea. Various points of disagreement persist and both sides' inability to arrive at a resolution has led to a recent deterioration of relations. The degree to which this issue is deeply entrenched in the cultural and political conscience of the people and identity of South Korea reflects the complexity of this issue and its unconventional diplomatic challenge. It is one that cannot be easily dismissed in the pursuit of a viable Japan-South Korea partnership. The depth of this issue is indicative of the significance of gender policy in the greater context of regional relations. Efforts to rectify the injustice endured by women of comfort is a critical precedent for necessary regional cooperation.

The Japanese government--heretofore referred to as Tokyo--has thus far failed to fully comprehend the importance of the comfort women issue to reconcile its wartime past and should properly acknowledge the abuse of these women. In the long run, for Japan to overcome impediments to its own security and prosperity, which are inherently linked to its regional relations, it should fully acknowledge the symbolism of the comfort women issue and implement appropriate measures to address existing concerns. (1) If it fails to do so, the political and economic consequences could be considerable for Japan; further deterioration of relations with neighbors like South Korea could disrupt an already fragile regional security paradigm riddled with territorial disputes, and a belligerent North Korea.

HISTORY AND THE EMERGENCE OF THE COMFORT WOMEN ISSUE

The comfort women institution operated expansively in tandem with Japan's Asia-Pacific War (1931 to 1945), involving an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 women. (2) They originated from China, Japan, Indonesia, the Korean peninsula, the Netherlands, the Philippines, and Taiwan, though Korea was the main source of recruitment for these women. (3) Part of the rationale behind choosing to institutionalize comfort stations for Imperial Japanese soldiers included the need to spark their fighting spirit and provide an outlet for the rigidity of hierarchical military life. (4) Subsequently, this enterprise expanded to meet the increased demand resulting from the onset of expanding Japanese military activities in the region. (5) As this demand multiplied, prostitution on a voluntary basis was no longer sufficient, and authorities and private brokers began to lure women with deceptive promises of well-paid and attractive work, misleading them with the express intent to recruit them into comfort stations. When these efforts were insufficient still, women were violently abducted, shipped off, and coerced against their will to serve Japanese soldiers, sometimes on the front lines. (6) This enterprise evolved rapidly into what essentially became a sex-slave trade sanctioned by the government of Imperial Japan.

When the comfort women issue came to light in the early 1990s, the Japanese government's initial response especially infuriated South Koreans. In a Diet session in June 1991, Tokyo denied the involvement of the state in the comfort system and rejected demands for apologies and compensation, arguing that the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 and other bilateral agreements with its neighbors had settled all postwar claims of compensation--although none of the above specifically addressed comfort women. …

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