“Comfort Women”: The Unresolved Issue Between Korea and Japan

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A demonstration in Seoul over Japan’s WWII treatment of comfort women. Courtesy Joonyoung Kim / Flickr.

On December 28, 2015, for some people, an important step forward was made in regard to the relationship between South Korea and Japan, and for others, a hasty negotiation was concluded which left many people dissatisfied. The two countries reached an agreement over the long-standing issue of “comfort women,” a euphemism used to describe sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II.

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a formal apology, expressing “his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” He additionally set up a 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) fund, provided directly by the Japanese government, which would be divided among the 46 “comfort women” still alive, most of whom are in their late 80s and early 90s. The Japanese government also conceded that its military authorities were involved; its statement said, “The issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honour and dignity of large numbers of women, and the government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective.”

Korea, in turn, agreed that this deal would resolve the issue “finally and irreversibly” and promised to refrain from bringing up the “comfort women” issue and making critical remarks regarding the matter at the UN and other international forums. The South Korean Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-se, also suggested that South Korea was willing to negotiate the removal of a statue of a girl symbolizing the comfort women that stands outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Of the many war crimes committed by Japan during WWII, the “comfort women” issue especially has been at the very forefront of much controversy and conflict between the two countries. During Japan’s imperial wars in Asia, the Japanese Army forced tens of thousands of girls and women, as young as 14, into sexual slavery, allowing them to be raped by Japanese soldiers up to 60-70 times a day, while being locked up in rooms only three by five feet. While there has been ample evidence that this in fact happened in a very systematic and official manner, the Japanese government, for various reasons, has refused to claim responsibility, with some Japanese right wing politicians even claiming that this matter is fiction. Korea, along with several other Asian countries, has repeatedly requested a formal apology for this war crime, which was never properly addressed. And thus, 70 years passed since the war without appropriate closure.

With such a history in mind, some have considered this agreement as a landmark deal, in that this is the first official apology and acknowledgment of the war crime of its kind by Japan, and by the Prime Minister himself. The closest Japan had come to apologizing was the Kono Statement in 1993, but this was immediately refuted within Japan, with politicians making sure to point out that the involvement of the Japanese military and government was still a controversial question. Policy-wise, it is considered a strengthening move for the relationship between Korea and Japan, in light of the regional situation in Northeast Asia, where China’s power has considerably risen and North Korea is still quite unstable and unpredictable.

As much support as there has been for this agreement, there has also been much dissatisfaction, especially from the groups representing the cause of the “comfort women.” There are many factors of the agreement that are considered wanting by these groups, which contend that the amount of money provided by the Japanese government is insufficient and that former comfort women were not sufficiently involved in the diplomatic process. But the major problem the detractors have with the agreement is that as much as Japan may have taken a large step in admitting its wartime wrongs, it did not assume full legal responsibility for the comfort women issue.

Japan admitted only that the country’s military authorities were “involved,” not directly in charge of the Japanese military brothels. Furthermore, the money offered by Japan was presented as a humanitarian contribution, not as a form of official reparations, which would carry an acknowledgment of legal responsibility. In that regard, many people believe that the South Korean government has caved in to Tokyo in this agreement.

Without delving into the political reasons for the Japanese government failing to assume full legal responsibility, which are varied and complicated, the legal reason for Japan’s strategy might be because the government is afraid of a “deluge of potential claims.” Women from many different countries, besides Korea, were victimized as comfort women; many men were also forcibly rounded up for involuntary servitude, with thousands dying from malnutrition and other ill-treatment in the process. This is particularly a problem for Japan: in contrast to Germany and the famous Nuremberg trials, Japan never fully resolved its WWII issues at trial with the countries that were harmed through Japan’s actions.

While such consequences are certainly daunting for Japan, it is disappointing that Japan is acting in such a way, because most of the victims ultimately want to receive a proper apology, not to pave the way for future lawsuits; in their eyes, this agreement is just another incident in a long history of Japan avoiding an expression of guilt. It does not help Japan’s case that Germany was and has been very open about the fact that it has committed unforgivable crimes in World War II and constantly asked for forgiveness; many supporters of the comfort women in fact refer to the “Warschauer Kniefall,” where the Chancellor of Germany knelt in front of a WWII monument, as what they desire.

In that respect, people arguing for admission of legal responsibility may be satisfied with, at the risk of sounding too simplistic, just that: a sincere apology. It’s easy to say “what if,” but with all legal technicalities aside, if Japan had immediately and sincerely apologized for their actions after WWII, maybe the dissent to this agreement would have been more muted; it is because so much resentment and anger has piled up over the years in seeing Japan’s reluctance and sometimes downright hostility to addressing this issue that so many people are still left infuriated with this diplomatic gesture made in seemingly good will.

Whatever action both countries might have taken, there is a high possibility that there would have been controversy regardless.  Germany might be the exception in constantly and consistently admitting its past wrongs; it has never shirked from showing penitence. Japan might feel that it has done quite enough with this agreement. However one cannot help but imagine what would have happened if Japan decided, like Germany, to be an “exception” and set an example for countries that have committed war crimes in the past. One can only hope that this agreement is just a step in breaching the gap between Japan and Korea and not a conclusion.

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