TOKYO — As the world marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, Japan continues to reckon with the consequences of its military policies in World War II.
The issue of Japan’s comfort women has again stirred controversy when, on August 5, the Asahi newspaper retracted articles citing the personal account of since-deceased author, Seiji Yochida. The paper has deemed the testimony of Yochida’s experience abducting these women false, but acknowledges other evidence of the Imperial Japanese Army’s involvement in the system of sex slavery to be true.
Conservatives in Japan refuse to believe or accept the accusations against the Japanese military despite the 1993 Kono Statement in which the chief cabinet secretary formally apologized for the system that resulted in the victimization of nearly 200,000 – mostly Korean – women during World War II.
“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 Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will,” admitted Secretary Kono.
In 1994, Japan founded the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) with the purpose of compensating the victims of the comfort system, but the funds came from the private sector which has drawn criticism as a means to boost the government’s image while avoiding legal liability. Despite these efforts, in 2007 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied his country forced these women into sex slavery, and Japan has never accepted legal responsibility for the alleged crimes.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said on August 6, “it pains me to see that these courageous women, who have been fighting for their rights, are passing away one by one, without their rights restored and without receiving the reparation to which they are entitled.” The women of whom she spoke, include those who protest weekly outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Eleven years ago, one-third of the surviving victims of Japan’s comfort system had already passed away. The pursuit of justice for these women was delayed for decades following the end of the war. Reparations for the victims was not a priority for those brokering peace, as the majority of these women were from the lower class and the political elites were occupied with the Korean War.
Former comfort women were hesitant to fight the injustice, as publicizing the rapes they endured would have brought shame in a culture that values female chastity. The first woman to speak out, Kim Hak-sun, did not come forward until 1991 when she had no loved-ones left to whom she would bring shame.
Her testimony, and the testimony of those who followed, shocked the world. One victim who spoke before the U.S. Congress claimed to have been the victim of rape up to 40 times in one day. From 1932-1945, procurers kidnapped, threatened and deceived thousands of young women usually from rural areas.
Lawyer Sue Lee wrote in 2003, “Extreme poverty coupled with a general devaluation of women even led some parents and husbands to sell their daughter or wives to procurers working for the military.” Sexually transmitted diseases, violence, forced abortions and endless sexual abuse plagued the service stations. The army prevented the possibility of suicide with threats against the victims’ families, but as the war came to an end, in some stations soldiers forced comfort women to join them in committing suicide rather than surrender.
The women who survived these conditions, experts report, suffer from the long-term effects of STDs and mental illnesses. To those who remain, a formal apology adopted by the parliament and Japan’s acceptance of legal responsibility is more valuable than any monetary reparation. While Japan appears nowhere close to meeting these demands, activists hope to at least spread the accounts of these women as a testament against gender-based violence and inequality.