“Comfort Women”: Newly uncovered Japanese wartime military documents can finally settle the controversy once and for all!!!

In the morning edition of Tokyo Shimbun dated Dec. 07, 2019, I came across an article with a headline: “One Comfort Woman per 70 Soldiers: Foreign Ministry documents implicate the military’s involvement in supplying them.” According to the article, the Japanese government’s Cabinet Secretariat, which had been trying to collect information relating to the issue of “comfort women” among its archives, uncovered additional 23 documents in the old foreign ministry files. It said that the uncovered documents, which had been issued by Japanese consulates based in China during WWII, requested “one comfort woman per every 70 soldiers!”. The newly found materials clearly indicated the involvement of the foreign ministry and the military in supplying and transferring of “comfort women” or war-time sex slaves to different stations. The article stated, however, that the documents had been found in 2017 and 2018. The Japan Times, the main English daily in Japan, also reported the same in its Dec. 6th edition. I was not particularly shocked to read this as I had read something similar in my earlier history readings, but I wonder why this news was released only recently when the relevant documents had supposedly been uncovered a few years ago.

The issue of “comfort women” under the Imperial Japanese forces has been one of the most contentious and sensitive issues preventing genuine relationships to be forged between Japan and its Asian neighbors, particularly with the Republic of Korea (ROK). During the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula since 1910 and aggression into China, leading to and during WWII, many women from the areas controlled by the Japanese military were said to have been taken away from home and were forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese military. It’s not clear as to how many women were made to work as “comfort women”, but the number is estimated to be as high as 200,000 (https://www.bbc.com/japanese/35192235).

The women might not have necessarily been kidnapped at gunpoint, but many reported to have been deceived, and were eventually forced to become “comfort women” far from home in foreign lands (Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace in Shinjuku, Tokyo, exhibits the testimonies collected from 183 such women in or originated from the Korean peninsula).

The women in ROK who had survived the ordeal must have suffered trauma since WWII, but had to keep quiet mainly due to the political climate in the country till the late 1980s. They might have also been too ashamed or reluctant to reveal their past, not knowing how their coming-out might affect their families. However, Ms. Kim Hak Sun was the first person in ROK to come forward to reveal her past at a press conference in 1991, who later that year filed a law suit, along with two other women, with the Tokyo district court, demanding the restoration of their human dignity as well as apologies and compensation from the Japanese government for their suffering. Apparently, she was the only complainant from ROK using her real name (http://awf.or.jp/e2/survey.html). In 1992, more women from ROK, as well as from the Philippines, DPRK (North Korea), China, Taiwan, Holland and Indonesia followed suit (Rumiko Nishino et. Al: “Ianfu” bashing wo koete (or Overcoming the bashing against “comfort women”), published by the Research Action Center on Violence Against Women in War, Tokyo, Japan, 2013.). Considering their age, they might rightly have felt it was their last chance to share with the world their unspeakable experiences before it was too late.

Ms. Son Shin Do, born in present ROK in 1922 and the only Korean resident in Japan who revealed her past as having been a “comfort woman”, also filed a suit against the Japanese government with the Tokyo district court in 1993 (“Tonari-no-Son san”(or Ms. Son, a next-door neighbor), a photograph collection in memory of Ms. Son Shin Do, who filed a suit for having been victimized as a “comfort woman” and who lived through her life, produced by Shashinten jikkou iinkai, (or the executive committee which organized a photo exhibition on “Tonari-no-Son-san”), Tokyo, Japan (July 14-21, 2019). She testified that in 1938 when she was only 16, she was taken to China on a promise that she would get a better-paying job, but was forced to become a “comfort woman” in the area where she had no knowledge of the language spoken. She was taken around to several different “comfort stations” along the Yangtze river set up by the Japanese forces where she was subjected to constant sexual and physical violence.

Sadly, these plaintiffs lost their cases or their cases dismissed on appeal to the supreme court in 2003. However, many judges, having listened to their testimonies at cross-examination, acknowledged their experiences as being credible and true. The court dismissed their cases mainly on the ground that while the plaintiffs might have been “comfort women” catering to Japanese soldiers, the brothels were being run by private operators and that the military was not responsible for their recruitment and treatment during the war. The judges asserted there was no document to prove that the women had been coerced to work as “comfort women” (Nishino et al). However, it is a well-known fact that the Imperial Japanese forces destroyed as much documents as possible just before surrendering to the allied forces. The leaders made sure that no evidence would be left behind to implicate them in war crimes later on.

In support of the plaintiffs’ fight against the Japanese government, many researchers and volunteer workers in Japan assisted them by painstakingly going through both public and private archives, both in Japan and abroad, trying to uncover any relevant documents. The government at that time also conducted a study on the issue since 1991 as this had developed into a sensitive diplomatic problem for Japan.

It culminated in the issuance of the Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the result of the study on the issue of “comfort women” released on Aug. o4, 1993 (http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9308.html).   The statement says “…Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day. 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 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 recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.”

What puzzles me is that the cases of former “comfort women” were all dismissed by the court around 2003 in spite of the statement made by Y. Kono in 1993. Another question I have concerns the “new” documents supposedly uncovered in 2017 and 2018, which were reported in newspapers only recently. Their content does not seem to be a huge new discovery from the documents which must have been considered in the preparation of Y. Kono’s statement. Perhaps the old documents that had been available to him might not have contained specific figures like the military requesting “one comfort woman per 70 soldiers”!!!

Shusenjo Leaflet(1)_ページ_1_画像_0001

Despite Kono’s statement issued in 1993, I am amazed and sad to see many leading politicians in the ruling party and their prominent supporters in Japan today are still unable to come to terms with the Japanese responsibility regarding “comfort women.” This was illustrated by two widely publicized events in 2019. One was a big controversy after the release of a documentary film “Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue.” It was a work of a first-time producer Miki Dezaki, a Japanese-American. He produced it by interviewing prominent figures on the issue as part of his project as a graduate student in Tokyo. He presented the assertions made by influential opinion leaders on both sides of the issue, juxtaposing the opposing views, along with relevant news footage. The spectators were able to come to own conclusions by comparing different opinions expressed on the screen.

Some of the opinions of well-known conservative and nationalistic figures were appalling and contradictory to the statement issued by Y. Kono in 1993. They included assertions like: “those women were prostitutes in the first place”, or “they responded to private recruiters and willingly moved around with the military to earn money” or “we have already apologized and compensated to them, so why would they keep coming back, claiming additional compensations?”, etc.

Some people take the position that Japan already paid compensation to ROK for the war-time suffering of the people at the signing of the Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea, 1965, which established diplomatic relation between the two countries. However, the issue of “comfort women” was not brought up at that time from either side, perhaps because it was a painful as well as shameful part of the history for the Koreans as victims as well as for the Japanese as aggressors (http://ironna.jp/article/2282).

In fact, there were two occasions when the issue could have been resolved satisfactorily to both sides if it had been dealt with properly. One was in 1995 at the establishment of the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) under Tomiichi Murayama, socialist prime minister who headed the coalition government at that time, joined by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the New Party Sakigake. The Japanese government’s position had “been that the issues of reparation, material restitution and the right to claim compensation for events in the war had already been dealt with by bilateral treaties and other relevant accords.” However, after the release by the government of the First Report on the so-called Comfort Women Issue in Dec. 1994, Japan decided to acknowledge moral responsibility for the women, resulting in the establishment of AWF (http://www.asahi.com/articles/ASG8L6FQ7G8LULPT00Y.html and http://awf.or.jp/e2/foundation.html).

However, AWF was criticized from the outset by the supporters of former “comfort women” in both countries. Although the Japanese government allocated \480 million for fiscal year 1995 to subsidize the project to finance medical and welfare programs, AWD’s main capital was to come from private donations. The women took it as an indication that Japan evaded its legal responsibility, making it to remain vague. To make the matter worse, the South Korean public misunderstood the objective of the fund when South Korean media translated the “atonement money” being paid by the fund as “iro-kin” or “bonus for special service.” In addition, the territorial issue becoming another contentious matter between the two countries made the problem complicated. In fact, those women who accepted the payment from AWF were castigated by those who were critical of AWF. The fund is reported to have finally paid to 61 out of 207 women who had been officially recognized by the ROK as former comfort women. It also paid to 13 women in Taiwan and to 211 women in the Philippines. In Holland, 79 women accepted only medical care expenses, while in Indonesia the project resulted in the establishment of a facility for the elderly due to the difficulty in identifying former comfort women (http://www.asahi.com/articles/ op.cit).

A letter from R. Hashimoto (prime minister from LDP who succeeded T. Murayama) accompanied the payment, expressing his sincere remorse for the war-time sufferings caused by Japan. Nevertheless, most former comfort women in ROK found the gesture by the government unsatisfactory as it did not accept its legal responsibility. They probably felt a gap between the Japanese government’s words of apology and its deed.

Another missed opportunity for genuine reconciliation was the time when Japan-ROK Agreement on Comfort Women was concluded in Dec. 2015. In this agreement, too, Japan acknowledged the involvement of its war-time military authorities in handling of comfort women and expressed “anew its sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” This time the government of Japan contributed \1 billion to the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation established by the agreement for providing support for former comfort women. At the conclusion of the agreement, Japan also expected the removal of the Statue of Peace (or the statue of a girl dressed in the traditional Korean costume), symbolizing comfort women, placed in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul by citizens’ groups. Both governments also confirmed the resolution of the issue of comfort women finally and irreversibly (https://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/na/kr/page4e_000364.html).

Statue of Peace(Statue of Peace)

One of the conditions Japan imposed on ROK for the agreement to be implemented smoothly was the removal of the Statue of Peace, designed by the artist couple Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, placed in front of its embassy in Seoul. It kept exerting pressure on ROK to follow through what had been agreed on. However, ROK kept asserting that it was citizens’ groups, not the government, who put up the statue there in the first place. It could not therefore forcefully take it away if it was placed there legally. ROK respected its citizens’ freedom of expression. I found it childish on the part of Japan to have included this condition in the agreement and have persisted on having the harmless statue removed. This seems to suggest that Japan as a nation is still unable to accept the past and genuinely feel remorse, and that is what the former comfort women probably see.

However, the most serious error made by both governments in concluding the agreement, in my opinion, was the exclusion of the main stakeholders, the former comfort women in ROK in the first place, who were apparently left in the dark during the negotiation process. Citizens’ groups supporting former comfort women in both countries were therefore critical of the agreement. These days it’s a common knowledge in democratic countries to include all stakeholders from the early stage of discussion in pursuing any project. So why did the governments commit such a blunder regarding this sensitive issue? Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan, stated that we should not put burden on our children and grand-children to have to keep apologizing for our past deed. On the other hand, Park Geun-hye, president of ROK, announced that the agreement had to be concluded the soonest in view of the age of the former comfort women (https://www.bbc.com/japanese/35192235). Still, both governments should have consulted with those women or their representatives throughout the bilateral negotiation process to come up with measures satisfactory to all parties.

After the removal of Park Geun-hye from power and the election of Moon Jae-in into the office in 2017, the latter felt the inability of the Japan-ROK agreement of 2015 to resolve the comfort women issue. ROK then announced in 2018 the disbandment of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, though saying that it would not seek renegotiation with Japan regarding the agreement. Japan vigorously protested ROK’s unilateral decision to disband the foundation as totally unacceptable and illegal at the levels of international diplomacy. It should be added that the Constitutional Court of ROK declared the agreement as non-binding. It stated that a treaty normally went through the process of deliberations in the cabinet and in parliament before becoming a diplomatically sound document. It judged it simply as a political agreement that came about in the process of diplomatic consultations to resolve the issue of comfort women hastily (https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXMZO53900110X21C19A2EA30000/). So, sadly, the problem between the two countries drags on.

Let me get back to the topic of Shusenjo by Miki Dezaki. The film has turned out to be a great success. However, perhaps because of its huge success, the producer is now being sued by those figures with conservative and nationalistic views who were interviewed in the documentary. They claim that they were deceived by Dezaki. They said they agreed to be interviewed, thinking it was his research project, and never agreed to appear in a commercial film. Dezaki acknowledges that the film was produced as his academic project. He says, however, that the interviewees were informed of the possibility of the film being distributed commercially. He also says that he did not twist their words or cut them off, and that the views they expressed in the film are the same as what they have written in articles or said in events they appeared in (https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20190625/p2a/00m/0fe/028000c). They have been known for the views expressed in the film, and for that there were no surprises for the spectators.

Another widely publicized event that led to heated discussions regarding the issue of comfort women was the controversial art festival, the Aichi Triennale, held in Aug. 2019 in Nagoya. The art event had a section called “Non-Freedom of Expression; Thereafter”, where pieces of work which had been rejected for display in the past due mainly to censorship were presented. However, the section was abruptly closed only on the third day, mainly due to strong objections expressed by Takashi Kawamura, mayor of Nagoya, followed by many phone calls of protest. One of the displays he attacked was the statue of peace symbolizing ROK’s former comfort women. He strongly felt the statue trampled on the feeling of the Japanese people, trying to make them ashamed, and he could not accept it being displayed in a publicly funded event in his own city (https://www.huffingtonpost.jp/entry/kawamura-takashi_jp_5d9b0174e4b03b475f9c467d).

The sudden decision to close this section of the art event was severely criticized by the artists concerned and the public in general. After heated discussions of all parties involved, this section of the event was reopened in Oct. only for a few days at the end of the entire art event, but only those with prior bookings were allowed to enter for “security” reason. The issues regarding this art event have not yet been resolved, particularly because the Cultural Affairs Agency has withdrawn a grant of \78 million ($712,800) it had pledged for the event. The reason for the withdrawal was that the organizers had failed to provide necessary information that the display could stir protests when applying for the government subsidy. The organizers found this reasoning rather vague and far-fetched. The mayor of Nagoya has also refused to pay the city’s contribution to the event, arguing that the comfort women statue should not have been displayed at a publicly funded event. He said that its presence could give an inaccurate impression that Japan accepts ROK’s claim that the women were forcibly taken by the Japanese military (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/20198/national/aichi-triennale-many-faults-).

Despite the fact that the government of Japan has issued a number of statements, expressing remorse and apologies regarding comfort women, I do not understand why some people still react the way they do to such a harmless statue of a girl. I only see their reaction as a sign of still not being able to accept our past history, though such people tend to keep repeating that Japan already apologized for the past deed and does not need to keep apologizing forever. However, the problem seems that there is a gap between the words of remorse officially expressed by Japan and how some prominent political figures keep asserting their views contrary to it without being criticized by the government. No wonder, the former “comfort women” and their supporters cannot accept the remorse and apologies expressed in words as genuine.

Japan is often compared with Germany with regard to how it has dealt with its history. The stance of Japan, having been mostly ruled by LDP during the last several decades, is such a contrast to that of Germany. Richard von Weizsacker, former president of Germany, is well respected by many Japanese, too, for the speech he delivered in May, 1985 at the 40th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism, in which he stressed that “those who close their eyes to the past will remain blind regarding the future” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/02/Richard-von-weitsacker). This position is maintained by Angela Merkel, long-serving and current chancellor, who was reported to have said that the Germans must not forget Nazi’s crime against humanity during her visit to Auschwitz in Dec. 2019 (https://www.tokyo-np.co.jp/article/world/list/201912/CK2019120702000137.html). Likewise, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, current president of Germany, reiterated the same stance during his recent visit to Jerusalem by expressing “our obligation to not look away from the horror of our past” (https://www.dw.com/en/german-president-steinmeier-meets-with-holocaust-survivors).

Holocaust memorial-Berlin

In comparison, a number of leading politicians, mainly from the governing party LDP, and their supporters, either still deny Japan’s history around WWII or accept it half-heartedly, but are anxious to forget it as soon as possible. That is why Japan insisted on the finality and irreversibleness on the issue of comfort women in the Japan-ROK agreement of 2015. S. Abe’s position that we should not have to keep apologizing may be understandable if Japan has expressed remorse from the bottom of the heart. However, as those German political leaders keep reminding the people, we should not look away from our past. For that reason, I find it remarkable that Germany has built the holocaust memorial in the middle of Berlin (see the above photo) as a constant reminder of its past. If we genuinely express our remorse and apologize whole-heartedly on the issue of comfort women, I would like to suggest that a statue of peace be placed in front of our parliament building or at the gate of Yasukuni shrine, where fallen soldiers who fought in the name of the emperor are enshrined as “heroes.”  This would keep reminding us of our past and could finally lead to a true reconciliation between Japan and ROK and bring peace to the former “comfort women.”

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1 Response to “Comfort Women”: Newly uncovered Japanese wartime military documents can finally settle the controversy once and for all!!!

  1. angelgaret says:

    Hello, I’m looking for Professor Nakahara, my favorite teacher at Waseda as an overseas student in 1996. She introduced me to this topic and remains my hero. I would like to say hello and to thank her for being so outstanding that I cannot forget her and her teachings. I just came across her picture in your excellent article. It moved me deeply, and as an expert on Japan, I understand the frustration of this continuous failure to acknowledge history. Progress is embarrassingly slow for conscientious individuals to accept, yet your work highlights the injustice of this—an extremely valuable effort to honor the humanity of all who suffer(ed).
    Thank you so much,
    Brian Bogart, with the support of Noam Chomsky
    Master of Science
    Creator, Interdisciplinary Peace Studies 7-year Program
    University of Oregon 2009
    Specialization: Department of Defense Oversight
    happy for Taro & Tomi

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