National Interest or Transnational Alliances? Japanese Policy on the Comfort Women Issue

By Ku, Yangmo | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2015 | Go to article overview

National Interest or Transnational Alliances? Japanese Policy on the Comfort Women Issue


Ku, Yangmo, Journal of East Asian Studies


When and why does a perpetrator state take a contrite stance on its past wrongs? More specifically, why do Japanese behaviors differ over time in addressing apology and compensation with regard to the comfort women issue? In this article I address these questions by testing two hypotheses, utilizing an instrumentalist approach and a transnational-political activism model. The former posits a perpetrator state is more likely to take a contrite stance on its past misdeeds when it calculates such action is in its security and/or economic interests. The latter hypothesizes that when transnational activism is powerful and a perpetrator state is led by a progressive ruling coalition, the state is more likely to adopt conciliatory policies toward historical issues. I find that the transnational-political activism model possesses more explanatory power than instrumentalism for within-case variations in Japanese behavior toward the comfort women issue. The two approaches are not, however, mutually exclusive and are complementary in some regards. The effect of transnational activism is heightened when the target state is faced with other geopolitical incentives and/or when the target state is led by a progressive ruling coalition and has weak conservative reaction. Keywords: instrumentalism, transnational-political activism model, comfort women, apology and compensation, postwar Japanese history policy

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During World War II, Japan forcibly drafted vast numbers of women from its colonized and occupied countries into military prostitution. These comfort women, (1) whose numbers are estimated at 50,000 to 200,000, were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops between 1932 and 1945 (Piper 2001). Comfort stations were first established in Shanghai around 1932, yet the outbreak of the Japanese-Chinese War in 1937 prompted the Japanese military to adopt the general policy of establishing military brothels in various occupied locations (Yoshimi 2000, 43-51). Despite the lack of accurate information, unearthed documents and testimony indicate 80 to 90 percent of comfort women were Koreans in their mid-teens and early twenties. The most commonly used method of recruitment was to deceive women with false promises of employment in Japan (Soh 2008, 107). Under harsh conditions, these comfort women suffered traumatic experiences during and after World War II.

In light of this historical background, the way Japan has addressed its past wrongs has varied significantly over time. Up until the late 1980s, the Japanese government denied any Japanese military involvement in organizing the comfort women system by attributing it to private enterprise. In the early and mid-1990s, the Japanese government issued somewhat apologetic statements regarding the comfort women issue, and also helped establish a nongovernmental fund, the Asian Women's Fund (AWF). However, the establishment of the AWF was not equivalent to full-fledged state compensation and apology (Soh 2003). The Japanese government did not move forward with these limited but positive changes with respect to apology and compensation in the late 1990s, and it has in fact regressed (Saaler 2005, 52-55). For example, high-ranking Japanese government officials made a series of provocative statements that either denied or whitewashed the wartime atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese against the comfort women. Additionally, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo denied Japan's coercive recruitment of comfort women in March 2007, although he reversed his stance on the issue a month later.

When and why does a perpetrator state take a contrite stance on its past wrongs? More specifically, why do Japanese behaviors differ over time in addressing apology and compensation with regard to the comfort women issue? I address these questions by testing two hypotheses using an instrumentalist approach and a transnational-political activism model. The former posits a perpetrator state is more likely to take a contrite stance on its past misdeeds when it calculates such action is in its security and/or economic interests. …

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