How Japan tried to bury sex slave issue

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How Japan tried to bury sex slave issue


Japanese soldiers stand in a line awaiting their turns in front of a “comfort station,” or military brothel organized and managed by the military during World War II in China. The photo appeared in Moriyasu Murase’s “I Joined the China Front.” Provided by House of Sharing

The 1995 Murayama Statement apologized for “following a mistaken national policy” and the damage and suffering it caused through “its colonial rule and aggression.”

Investigations, documents and testimonies of multiple women support the claim that the Japanese military mobilized their victims by luring them with promises of work or coerced them through intimidation or violence, through human trafficking or even kidnapping.

These women rarely received money directly, but sometimes received military vouchers, though even these were managed by the operators of the comfort stations.

In dispute: The Korea-Japan 1965 normalization treaty and the Asia Women’s Fund

Japan’s official position is that all issues concerning wartime compensation, including individual claims, were acknowledged in the 1965 normalization treaty between the two nations; however, Korea claims that the comfort women issue was not included in those negotiations.

On June 22, 1965, officials from both sides finalized the “Agreement Between Japan and the Republic of Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation.” According to Article 2:1 of the agreement, Japan would provide Korea with a specific loan or amount of aid not confined to any particular purpose, which would serve “as a full and final settlement of issues related to the properties, rights and interests of the two parties and their peoples, as well as claims between the two parties and their peoples.”

In 2005, the Korean government disclosed diplomatic documents that showed that it had agreed not to press Japan for further compensation in return for approximately $800 million in grants and low-interest loans. Most of the funds were spent on national projects such as the building of expressways.

Some historians point out that Korea was under the authoritarian rule of the Park Chung Hee government - which did not fairly represent the plight of individual victims of colonial rule - that there was pressure from the United States for a settlement between Japan and Korea during the Cold War, or that Korea had settled on terms that were disadvantageous.

However, the compensation ignored Japan’s imperialistic wartime atrocities, including the sexual enslavement of Korean women.

“The issue of comfort women did not become recognized by Japan until 1992,” said Seo Hyun-ju, a researcher at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, a state-run research institute, and an expert on the issue. “In other words, these wartime atrocities were not reflected in the 1965 negotiations as a crime against humanity.

“So it does not make sense to say that compensation to the comfort women was already resolved through the agreement.”

The Japanese government also refers to the establishment in 1995 of the Asia Women’s Fund, a private sector initiative, as part of its efforts toward compensating the victims, which excluded those in China or North Korea.

But Korea maintains that civilian-raised compensation does not replace an official apology from the Japanese government or reparations, which is why most comfort women victims refused to take the money. The fund was dissolved in 2007.

Approximately 565 million yen ($5.52 million) from citizen donations were used to compensate 285 women in the three aforementioned countries. The fund claimed that it had compensated 285 former comfort women in the Philippines, Korea and Taiwan and provided medical welfare support in the Netherlands. The compensation was to be delivered with an apology letter signed by the prime minister.

“The 1995 Asia Women’s Fund was a laudable attempt, but the fund was built upon the premise of the 1965 agreement having resolved the issues,” said Nam Sang-gu, a Japan expert at the Northeast Asian History Foundation. “It doesn’t replace an official recognition of the issue by the Japanese government as a national crime and a crime against women.”

The fund was set up through the government’s initiative, but it was managed by civilian volunteers. The Japanese government says its operating expenses were paid out of public funds but that the money used for compensation came from civilian donations.

“Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono’s apology should have followed with the government’s legal reparations, but rather, we are still faced with [Japan indicating] that it will review or re-examine the Kono Statement,” said Ahn Shin-gwon, director of the House of Sharing. “That is why we demand an official apology and reparation, one that can’t be retracted depending on the changing of the prime minister.”

The House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi, was established in 1992 as a home for surviving comfort women. In 1998, it opened the adjacent Museum of Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Military, the first museum of its kind in the world that displays testimonials by victims from Korea and abroad, as well as other evidential documents.

“In the case of the Asia Women’s Fund, many of the comfort women at that time refused [compensation] because it did not replace the Japanese government’s apology,” Ahn added. “The fund said that 60 Korean comfort women were compensated, but Japan would not reveal the list of the 60 people. And that 60, of course, are not representative of all the victims.”


A March 4, 1938 notice written by the adjutants to the Chiefs of Staff of the North China Army and Central China Expeditionary Army titled “Concerning the Recruitment of Women for Military Comfort Stations,” the first piece of documentary evidence discovered showing the Imperial Japanese Army established and ran so-called comfort stations where women were forced to serve as sex slaves.

Abe: No evidence to prove women were coerced

Seoul’s unease continues because Abe and other Japanese leaders continue to dispute the semantics of whether the women were indeed forcibly recruited into comfort stations, or whether there is concrete evidence that the Japanese authorized their mobilization.

Though those issues were brought up in the years following World War II, it only came to light in August 1991, when Kim Hak-sun became the first woman to publicly testify in a press conference that she was a “comfort woman” for the Japanese military during World War II. That December, Kim lodged a lawsuit against the Japanese government demanding compensation for the victims, which prompted others to speak up. She was the only plaintiff to use her real name. Kim died, however, in 1997 before seeing the case resolved.

The Japanese government initially denied involvement in setting up and operating comfort stations. But in 1992, Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a key Japanese historian who has become an active voice on the issue, unveiled key documents on matters concerning the recruitment of women to work in military brothels, which consequently led to the 1993 Kono Statement.

A key document Yoshimi found in the Defense Agency Library of Tokyo was a March 4, 1938 notice written by the adjutants to the Chiefs of Staff of the North China Army and Central China Expeditionary Army titled “Concerning the Recruitment of Women for Military Comfort Stations.” It said that “armies in the field will control the recruiting of women” and that this “will be performed in close cooperation with the military police or local police force of the area.”

Over the past two decades, Japanese, Korean, American and Dutch official documents have confirmed the existence of comfort stations, operated by Japanese officials in places including China, Hong Kong, French Indochina, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, British Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, Burma, Thailand, New Guinea and Russian Sakhalin.

But in February, in a weekend opinion poll jointly conducted by the Sankei Shimbun and Fuji News Network, 58 percent of respondents said the Japanese government should revise the Kono Statement, while only 23.8 percent said it should not.

This followed Japan’s remarks by top government spokesman Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in February that testimonies from 16 former Korean comfort women, which were used as the basis for the Kono Statement, were not reliable and should be “re-examined.”

“Such a poll shows that there is a wide gap in viewpoints between Korea and Japan, and it is important to reach out to Japanese society and earn the support of the international community to lead to a change in attitude from the Japanese government,” said Seo, who specializes in Japanese and Korean historical issues.

In September, Yoshimi wrote an opinion piece for the Asahi Shimbun arguing against Japanese politicians’ claim that there is “no evidence” of comfort women forced through violence or intimidation by military or government authorities.

He pointed to four rulings in the Tokyo District Court and the Tokyo High Court between 2001 and 2005 and filed by Chinese victims in Japan that said that the women were “forcibly snatched or taken away to be raped and kept in confinement where they were raped on a daily basis” by soldiers. He also referred to an investigative report released by the Dutch government in 1994 that cited nine abduction cases by military and government authorities, and even a 1948 ruling issued by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East that recognized that the Imperial Japanese Army deceived women in Guilin, southern China, into thinking they could work at a factory, but instead forced them to work as prostitutes at comfort stations.

Further medical documents for these comfort women, comfort station regulation guidelines and memoirs, and testimonies from soldiers also exist. China’s Jilin Provincial Archives recently completed researching and organizing approximately 10,000 documents left by the Japanese Imperial Army during its occupation of Manchuria, including documents from Japan backing its responsibility in the forceful mobilization of women through Japan’s National Mobilization Law (1938-45) as well as bank records on expenditures for comfort women.

“Korea should tell Japan, go ahead and reinvestigate the Kono Statement 20 years later, but to do it thoroughly,” said Nam. “This should not just be a re-examination of the 16 Korean victims, as the Abe administration is alleging it will do, but be a full-out investigation of all the testimonies of government officials and military officials, of Dutch and Chinese testimonies not included in the initial 1991 investigation by the Japanese government.

“How about an investigation to include the views of the 55 surviving comfort women in Korea?” Only two of the initial victims of the 16 who spoke remain alive, he said.


A group of Korean survivors of sexual slavery by the Japanese military under the protection of the American army at a U.S. war prisoner’s camp in the border area between Burma (Myanmar) and China preserved by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Provided by House of Sharing

International human rights issue

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN special representative for children in armed conflict, released a report in 1996 that backed Korea’s claim that the 1965 normalization treaty did not adequately address the issue of comfort women and regulates property claims but not personal damages. It advised Japan to “pay compensation to individual victims of Japanese military sexual slavery.”

A 1998 report by Gay McDougall, the UN special rapporteur, also stated that because “the Asian Women’s Fund does not in any sense provide legal compensation, a new administrative fund for providing such compensation should be established with appropriate international representation.”

The report also called on Japan to take legal accountability in employing “physical violence, kidnapping, coercion and deception” to procure its victims during the war.

Notably, in July 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution 121, which demanded the Japanese government apologize to its former comfort women. The budget bill this year signed by President Barack Obama also included language that encouraged Japan to heed the resolution and address the issue. Comfort women memorials have been erected in New Jersey and California as a sign of solidarity for these victims.

In August 2011, pressuring Japan, the Constitutional Court of Korea made a milestone ruling in which it stated that it is unlawful for the Korean government not to take action to resolve the disputes with Japan over its refusal to compensate Korean women mobilized as sex slaves during its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

On March 6, Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se called out Japan for the first time in a landmark speech at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. In his address, he focused on the comfort women issue, calling it “a universal human rights issue.”

Last month, Ahn, of the House of Sharing, led a group of victim on a trip to Nagoya, Japan, where he said approximately 530 people, mostly scholars and women’s rights activists, came out to meet them and hear their testimonies. “Some of them traveled very far to come to Nagoya, showing there are those who are very aware of the issue,” he said. “Last year, we made a similar visit to Tokyo and Kyoto. These people listened to the comfort women very solemnly, prepared many gifts and showed an apologetic attitude.”

Hirofumi Hayashi, a professor of modern Japanese history, and an expert on the issue, led a group of more than 1,600 Japanese scholars last month that signed a joint petition calling on the Abe administration to uphold the Kono statement and show greater sincerity. The group declared that “a re-examination of the Kono Statement, which is in reality the same as denying it, is creating serious tension in relations with the international community.”

“The crux of the issue is not about whether they were kidnapped, forcibly recruited, coerced or deceived. It’s not about whether the Japanese military directly recruited these women or used brokers to do so,” said Nam, who received his master’s and doctorate degrees in modern Japanese history at Chiba University. “The fact of the matter is, these women suffered great crimes, and as the world gains better awareness of the issue of violence against women, we want the Japanese government to recognize this as a national criminal offense.”

Nam referred to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II by the U.S. government as a case that Japan could refer to.

“The 1988 U.S. government compensated for the internment of the Japanese during World War II. They apologized for their wrongdoing, paid compensation and also ensured that such an incident would not be repeated. Japan should take this case as an example.”

On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-April, a group of more than 150 civilians rallied in front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul.

Each Wednesday, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a civilian organization, leads rallies in front of the embassy. More than 1,120 rallies have been held since Jan. 8, 1992, rain or shine.

“We were the daughters of farmers who didn’t know anything,” said Kim Bock-dong, 88, a member of the council and a former comfort woman who was brutalized by the Japanese military at just 14.

“We are not doing this because of money. The current Japanese government needs to legally apologize and repair the faults of the past. It is unfair that we were dragged away, but it is also unfair that we are still bearing the burden of proof.”

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