The comfort women tragedy in Japan-South Korea relations
– Arianna Bianchin –
It is highly probable that the majority of people have never heard about comfort women even if the events in which they were involved represent one of the most dramatic episodes in human history. The label comfort women, indeed, is historically used to refer to those sexual slaves who were abducted, trafficked and brutally exploited inside military brothels, which can be compared to some real prostitution camps, set up for the advantage of the Japanese Imperial Army in those areas occupied by the country during the Pacific War, which took place from 1931 to 1945, so partly overlapping with the Second World War. The extent of this tragedy is enormous since it involved a number of victims included between 200,000 and 400,000 (1), most of them coming from Korea, but also from China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Malesia, East Timor and Burma.
The comfort women system qualifies as a case of generalized and organized policy by the Japanese Army leaders who, in turn, were directly instructed and supported by the Ministry of War. The painful testimony given by the victims and the governmental documents found in years (2) confirm the responsibility that the Imperial government and military had denied. They then tried to justify the creation of such a system, which, according to them, was necessary to preserve their soldiers’ physical and psychological health in order to ensure the positive outcome of their Sacred War. The sexual subjugation of these women, indeed, was used as a means to control both victims, on whose bodies
Japan reaffirmed its role as a colonizer, and their combatants whose access to sexual activities had to be regulated and monitored in order, on the one side, to prevent mass rapes (3) from being perpetuated, which would have exacerbated the anti-Japanese sentiment among the local population, and at the same time to avoid the diffusion of venereal diseases that could have compromised the performability of their soldiers while, on the other side, providing them with some form of “leisure” from the pain they suffered in war (4). Equal if not worse, however, was the pain to which these women were subjected and this is why they should be reasonably defined as actual sexual slaves of whom soldiers disposed as if they were “goods” on whom they thought they could claim an illusory right to property.
Most victims of this system came from Korea (5), a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1951, whose women and young girls, often still minors, were abducted by the so-called recruiting agents and convinced to leave by false promises of employment and education in Japan but ended up being trafficked and taken to a comfort station (6). The comfort women tragedy has, therefore, played and continues to play a relevant role in the historically complex relations between Japan and Korea and became even more relevant when, starting from the ‘90s, many victims of this form of enforced prostitution found the courage to come to light and publicly testify the violence they had suffered, so bringing their story to the attention of the entire international community.
In 1991, in fact, on the occasion of a press conference held in Tōkyō to present the class-action sued by a group of victims against the Japanese government, the former Korean comfort woman Kim Hak-sun became the first victim to ever tell her story as a sexual slave for the Japanese Military, so breaking the silence that had been covering these women for years (7). The year before, because of the reticence of the Japanese government to carry out an investigation on the matter, a group of female South-Korean activists had also founded the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan: it is the first association born right for the purpose of supporting the victims cause and it is not a case that it was set up in the country where most of them came from. The Korean Council aimed to make Japan take its legal, economic and moral responsibility for the damages and the physical and psychological pain it had imposed on these women (8), who had to be recognized as real sexual slaves but whom the Japanese negationist movement adamantly continued to portrait as voluntary prostitutes.
It is important to note that, in the context of relations between these two countries, the comfort women issue final resolution has always been hampered by both negationist and revisionist opinions in Japan, on the one side, and an equally strong South-Korean nationalist sentiment on the other: the former is considerably rooted in the country as well as shared and supported by prominent representatives on the political scene, while the latter, still remembering its past as a colonized subject, has often ended up ignoring the victims’ requests so as not to take a step back in the relations with the other Part, but, at the same time, placed its own economic interests and the necessity to create fruitful relations with the Japanese ally above the victims’ rights.
They asked for the just economic compensation to all the physical and psychological damages which they had suffered and of which they continued to suffer the consequences; this because Korean comfort women had been excluded by every form of reparation established by the Post-War treaties. Those war reparations that Japan undertook to pay to the countries that had signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty on September 8, 1951 did not include Korea seen that it was considered as one of the enemy combatants against the Allied Powers being a colony under the Japanese Empire during the war. Until the mid-21st century, moreover, Japan remained convinced of the fact that not only had the Normalization Treaty and the Economic Agreement both signed between
Japan and South Korea on June 22, 1965 re-established diplomatic relations between the two Parts, but, more important, all disputes concerning reparation claims and the interests of their respective citizens had been completely and finally resolved (9): even if the Agreement did not directly name them, Japan still claimed that it had completely and finally settled the comfort women issue, too. Reaffirming this position, the Japanese government made no reference to any form of compensation towards the victims of this enforced prostitution system not even in the famous Kōno Statement: this is the first time that, in August 1993, the then Cabinet Secretary Kōno Yohei, on behalf of the Japanese government, has recognized the direct and indirect role played by the Japanese Armed Forces in the setting up of comfort stations and in the recruitment, also by coercion, of comfort women (10).
The South-Korean government, for its part, had already decided to make independent arrangements and in May of the same year, indeed, the National Assembly had passed the Social Security Law for the Comfort Women by which the government committed itself to support the victims providing them with economic help, health insurance and priority of government housing. In 1995, then, the Asian Women’s Fund was created and Japan seemed to have finally resolved to take the economic responsibility for the damages caused to the victims. It was the Japanese government who had wanted to create this economic fund, which, during its activity from July 18, 1995 to March 31, 2007, succeeded in gathering almost 2 million yen for each victim. This project, however, hid a remarkable internal contradiction seen that the governmental commitment was limited to finance the operational costs of the fund and the welfare and medical services offered to the victims. The actual economic compensations, by contrast, came from voluntary donations by Japanese private citizens: their government unfairly asked them to take that legal and economic responsibility with which it was trying not to engage in any possible way. The definition of this project in such terms was strongly criticized by the Korean Council which partly caused its failure by asking South-Korean comfort women to refuse the money they were being given and that the Council considered as unsatisfactory; those victims who still decided to accept these donations, fearing this would be the only form of compensation they could have ever enjoyed before dying, were even treated as traitors (11)
Japan-Republic of Korea relations got progressively worse in the years following the creation of the Asian Women’s Fund also due to the at least disputable comments released in March 2007 by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe: as a reaction to the Resolution that was being discussed at the American Congress (12), he claimed that there is a difference between coercion in a narrow sense and coercion in a wide sense, adding that the Japanese Armed Forces could not be blamed for the former, whose only responsible were brothel owners and recruiting agents, most of them of Korean nationality (13). The South-Korean government expressed its indignation for these words and, in response, wasted no time to pass a Resolution, similar to the American one, in which it urged Japan to take the full responsibility for the atrocities it had committed, to officially apologize and to arrange for adequate economic compensations. Even more important was the 2011 judgement handed down by the South-Korean Constitutional Court which compelled the government of its own country to take all the necessary measures as soon as possible to reach the comfort women issue resolution with Japan; this resolution had been made impossible until then due to a dispute on the interpretation of the Economic Agreement attached to the 1965 Normalization Treaty and that, according to the Agreement itself, had to be settled through diplomatic channels (14). Japan, however, refused the new possibility of a discussion suggested by the South-Korean government to resolve a dispute that Japan thought had been completely and finally settled by the 1965 agreements. Far from accepting suggestions coming from Republic of Korea, the Japanese Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko also demanded that the comfort women bronze statue was removed: this monument honouring the memory of South-Korean victims had been placed on December 14, 2011 right opposite to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (15) and, according to the Japanese government, it impaired the dignity of its diplomatic mission in South Korea.
The 2013 election of the South-Korean President Park marked a further negative phase in relations between the two countries. The President’s ultranationalism and her adamant will to assert her country’s interests without taking a step back in relations with Japan coped, at the same time, with the revisionist and negationist beliefs by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. He had inaugurated his second political term with the intention to revise the Kōno Statement, which he thought had done wrong assuming that the Japanese Military had coercively recruited comfort women, a method for which they should not be blamed. Hostilities between the two countries’ highest representatives were so manifest that the Comfort Women Issue Resolution Agreement reached on December 28, 2015 took everyone by surprise. For the first time since the war ended, Japan had accepted to take the moral responsibility for the physical and psychological pain caused to the South-Korean victims of this sexual slavery system, therefore contributing to their healing by economic donations, this time coming directly from the national budget (16). Unfortunately, this apparent success turned into a new disappointment when the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs rushed to specify the fact that these donations should not be considered as a form of legal reparation. So, the Agreement became a reason of immediate critique in South Korea since, once again, Japan had managed to escape from taking the legal responsibility for the atrocities it had committed. The Korean Council condemned the South-Korean government for reaching an agreement which, in addition to being unsatisfactory, had overtly ignored the victims’ rights and requests: these women, in fact, had been totally excluded from the discussions which had preceded the agreement approval. The government of South Korea had once again postponed the victims’ interests to its own economic and diplomatic interests by signing an agreement for the only purpose of securing fruitful relations with its greatest Asian ally, also in the light of the North-Korean threaten. As in 1965, furthermore, the South-Korean government had accepted to sign an agreement by which Japan considered the comfort women issue as finally and irreversibly resolved (17): the Japanese government had once agreed to revise its position but this newly reached agreement left no space for any future modifications.
Far from being final, this resolution was immediately denied by the new South-Korean President Moon Jae-in who had succeeded President Park in May 2017. From the beginning, he expressed his will to amend the 2015 Agreement, which he claimed as “flawed” right because it had been reached without consulting the victims and the sentiment of a people that had been asking for justice for their brutally exploited fellow citizens for years (18). Rather than finally settle the issue, as the Agreement aimed to, this announcement, on the contrary, ended up exacerbating the debate between these two countries.
The most recent developments trace back to the first months of 2018 when the South-Korean government, even if saying it did not want to renegotiate the Agreement, still urged that the Japanese government takes the full responsibilities for what had happened and that it renews its most sincere apologies to the victims. It then added that it wants to arrange for the creation of a survivors’ further economic fund to which it will personally contribute (19). As normally as could be expected, the Japanese government wasted no time to react: as well as judging the South-Korean attitude as unacceptable, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe reaffirmed the intention of his government not to renegotiate the 2015 Agreement which, on the contrary, must be considered as a promise between these two nations on which new future oriented relations are to be built. Even if welcoming the invitation that the Prime Minister had expressed during a meeting prior to the Winter Olympic Games inauguration in Pyeongchang, President Moon once again marked the need for both countries to engage concretely so that the victims’ wounds will be healed (20). Hope is that these women’s requests and will, too often submitted to economic and political interests, will return at the centre of the debate and that Japan will finally respond to the appeal rising from the entire international community for it to take the full legal, economic and moral responsibility of a tragedy whose fault is no more possible to deny or debunk.
1 Even if the majority of scholars studying this phenomenon set around these numbers, some other thinkers ended up reducing the extent of this tragedy to just tens of thousands of women. As C. Sarah Soh (The Comfort Women. Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2008, p.50) underlines, the first category includes Chinese and Korean historians whose figures, being fellow citizens to the comfort women, can be explained by their will not to exclude any woman from the victims; it is not a case, by contrast, that the second group is mostly made up of Japanese researchers having revisionist and negationist opinions.
2 The most significant among them are those discovered by the Japanese historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki in Tōkyō at the Library of the National Institute for Defence Studies in 1992: these six official papers were produced by the Defence Agency at the time of the Pacific War and testify that the Imperial government and military leaders were involved in setting up, implementing and maintaining the system.
3 It was the episode tragically known as Nanjing Massacre that actually convinced government and military leaders that comfort stations had to be opened in all occupied areas. During their six week advancing towards the city, the Imperial Armed Forces had committed the mass rape of a number of local women included between 20,000 and 80,000.
4 Yuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women. Sexual slavery and prostitution during World War II and the US occupation, Routledge, Oxon, 2002
5 Different and diverse are the reasons why Korean women were preferred to those of other nationalities: Korean girls could be more easily sacrificed since they belonged to an inferior race colonized by the Japanese; most of them, who had become prostitutes to run from the serious economic crisis inaugurated by the arrival of the Japanese colonizers, were already working in those brothels that they fellow citizens had decided to transfer in the territories occupied by the Japanese Military to exploit these potential clients; moreover, the Korean cult of female virginity that these girls had to respect made them less likely to have ever contracted venereal diseases to transmit to Japanese soldiers.
6 Yuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women. Sexual slavery and prostitution during World War II and the US occupation, op.cit., p.38
7 For further information and details on the testimony by Kim Hak-sun, see C. Sarah Soh, The Comfort Women. Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, op.cit., pp.127-130
8 For further information on the creation and the goals set by the Korean Council, see Stephanie Wolfe, Chapter 7: Redress and Reparation Movements (RRM) in Response to the Japanese Comfort Women System, The Politics of Reparations and Apologies, Springer Science+Business Media, New York, 2014, pp.247,248
9 Article II: “The Contracting Parties confirm that [the] problem concerning property, rights and interests of the two Contracting Parties and their nationals (including juridical persons) and concerning claims between the Contracting Parties and their nationals […]is settled completely and finally”. (JAPAN and REPUBLIC OF KOREA Agreement on the settlement of problems concerning property and claims and on economic co-operation [with Protocols, exchanges of notes and agreed minutes], signed in Tōkyō on June 22, 1965).
10 “The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitment. […]”. (Stephanie Wolfe, Chapter 7: Redress and Reparation Movements (RRM) in Response to the Japanese Comfort Women System, The Politics of Reparations and Apologies, op.cit., p.251)
11 For further details on the Asian Women’s Fund, see Stephanie Wolfe, Chapter 7: Redress and Reparation Movements (RRM) in Response to the Japanese Comfort Women System, The Politics of Reparations and Apologies, op.cit., pp.263-265,275
12 Resolution 121, whose discussion had been proposed by the Japanese-American congressman Michael Honda in January 2007, was unanimously passed by the House of Representatives of the American Congress on July 30 of the same year: it urged Japan to take the full responsibility for the exploitation of these sexual slaves who were rightly entitled to receive an official apology from the government; moreover, the latter should have finally refused any negationist statements and take measures for a conscious education of future generations. (House Resolution 121, U.S. House of Representatives, July 30, 2007)
13 For further details on the comments by the Prime Minister, see Koji Teraya, “A Consideration of the So-Called Comfort Women Problem in Japan-Korea Relations: Embracing the Difficulties in the International Legal and Policy Debate”, Hein Online, 6 J. E. Asia & Int’I L. 195, 2013, pp.197,200
14 Article III: “Any dispute between the Contracting Parties concerning the interpretation and implementation of the present Agreement shall be settled, first of all, through diplomatic channels”. (JAPAN and REPUBLIC OF KOREA Agreement on the settlement of problems concerning property and claims and on economic co-operation [with Protocols, exchanges of notes and agreed minutes], op.cit.)
15 The Comfort Women Peace Monument portrays a young Korean woman sitting with clenched fists on her knees and staring towards the Japanese Embassy. Next to her there is an empty chair as a reminder of all those women who passed away having never received an adequate apology and a right compensation for all the physical and psychological pain that they had suffered. Even if the message this statue embeds is not clearly “threatening”, its body position and the place in which it is located are a manifest reproach to the Japanese government, so that it will act as soon as possible.
16 See Full text of joint announcement by Japan, South Korea over landmark deal over comfort women, December 28, 2015
17 “[…] the Government of Japan confirms that this issue is resolved finally and irreversibly with this announcement […]”. (Full text of joint announcement by Japan, South Korea over landmark deal over comfort women, op.cit.)
18 Joyce Lee, Hyonhee Shin, “South Korea says ‘comfort women’ deal flawed, but Japan warns against change”, Reuters, December 28, 2017
19 Daisuke Kikuchi, Tomohiro Osaki, “South Korea will not seek renegotiation of ‘comfort women’ deal with Japan”, the Japan Times, January 9, 2018
20 “Japan PM tells South Korea’s Moon that 2015 ‘comfort women’ deal is final”, Reuters, February 9, 2018
- Full text of joint announcement by Japan, South Korea over landmark deal over comfort women, December 28, 2015
- House Resolution 121, U.S. House of Representatives, July 30, 2007
- JAPAN and REPUBLIC OF KOREA Agreement on the settlement of problems concerning property and claims and on economic co-operation [with Protocols, exchanges of notes and agreed minutes], signed in Tōkyō, June 22, 1965
- Daisuke Kikuchi, Tomohiro Osaki, “South Korea will not seek renegotiation of ‘comfort women’ deal with Japan”, the Japan Times, January 9, 2018 URL:https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/01/09/national/politics-diplomacy/south-korea-will-not-seek-renegotiation-comfort-women-deal-japan/#.WoatMOQiHIU
- Joyce Lee, Hyonhee Shin, “South Korea says ‘comfort women’ deal flawed, but Japan warns against change”, Reuters, December 28, 2017 URL:https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-japan-comfortwomen/south-korea-says-comfort-women-deal-flawed-but-japan-warns-against-change-idUSKBN1EM056
- C. Sarah Soh, The Comfort Women. Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, University of Chicago, 2008
- Yuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women. Sexual slavery and prostitution during World War II and the US occupation, Routledge, Oxon, 2002
- Koji Teraya, “A Consideration of the So-Called Comfort Women Problem in Japan-Korea Relations: Embracing the Difficulties in the International Legal and Policy Debate”, Hein Online, 6 J. E. Asia & Int’I L. 195, 2013
- Stephanie Wolfe, Chapter 7: Redress and Reparation Movements (RRM) in Response to the Japanese Comfort Women System, The Politics of Reparations and Apologies, Springer Science+Business Media, New York, 2014
- “Japan PM tells South Korea’s Moon that 2015 ‘comfort women’ deal is final”, Reuters, February 9, 2018
This dossier is the English translation of the Italian “Il dramma delle comfort women nelle relazioni tra Giappone e repubblica di Corea”. Read the Italian version!
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