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South Korea/Japan: “Comfort Women” as a Political Football?

The tragic case of Japan’s WWII sex slaves.

March 5, 2016

The tragic case of Japan's WWII sex slaves.

The “comfort women” issue has been a bone of acute contention between Seoul and Tokyo for many years. On December 28, 2015, the two governments reached an agreement that is meant to “solve” the issue once and for all.

The agreement, however, was hammered out by the two countries’ foreign ministries without any consultation with or indeed any form of reaching out to the few surviving former comfort women.

No humanity, just realpolitik

In essence, this deal reflects a perceived imperative for a rapprochement between Tokyo and Seoul to counter China’s growing regional power.

Both Tokyo and Seoul are important American allies in the Asia Pacific Region and were pressured by Washington to reach an agreement. This was not an act of humanity, but a cold-blooded geopolitical tactic.

Enlarge Statue of the girl

“Comfort women” (ianfu (慰安婦) in Japanese) is the degrading euphemism used to refer to the young girls forcefully recruited into Japanese military brothels during World War II.

There were an estimated 100,000 to 200,000, mostly from Korea, but also from Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and other territories colonized and conquered by Japan. They were often subjected to numerous rapes daily.

(Note as well that the term “comfort women” continued to be used after the war to describe the Japanese women “provided” by the Japanese government to the U.S. Military Occupation forces.)

Looking at the WWII context, treating these women held as sex slaves not as humans, but as pawns on a geopolitical chessboard means that December 28, 2015 is a day of shame for the two countries’ governments.

But the event also reflects broader and deeper existentialist questions for humanity generally. It provides a tragic variation on the seemingly eternal global theme of man’s inhumanity to woman.

Inhumanity throughout history

All “civilizations” have been responsible at one time of another for acts of inhumanity. Just consider slavery, the genocide of indigenous Indians in both North and South America, the holocaust, not to mention the numerous wars, torture, etc, etc.

A contemporary variation on the deplorably well-known theme of man’s intolerance and inhumanity to man is currently being played out in ghoulishly gruesome fashion by the jihadists of ISIS.

Looking at the infernal spectacle of humanity’s inhumanity, man’s inhumanity toward women is especially noticeable and intolerable. In its least brutal form it consists of discrimination and degradation, as can still be witnessed in much of the Arab world today.

The more brutal extreme involves physical and psychological harm, notably rape, whether spontaneous or, as in the case of the “comfort women” systematic. It has been a common feature of war.

Until very recently, rape in such a context has generally been perceived as no more than collateral damage, as if “naturally” arising from conflict.

It was only declared a crime against humanity in the late 1990s following the massive rapes of women and girls (estimated at 250,000 to 500,000) that occurred during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

An “excluded” war crime!

When the Tokyo Military Tribunal for the Far East (TMFTE) was convened in 1946 in order to try Japanese accused of war crimes, the crimes against the sex slaves were not included. Among the “reasons” was that rape was not considered a war crime!

Seven decades on, we finally must come to a proper reckoning. While the case of the WWII sex slaves concerns Tokyo and Seoul, it also has much broader regional — and even global — implications.

When the Japanese Emperor and Empress paid an official visit to the Philippines in January this year, the Filipina former sex slave survivors – also known as “comfort women” – had hoped the imperial couple might meet with them and offer a token expression of sympathy; but no such meeting took place.

Unless the issue is properly resolved, it remains a major stain on Japan’s standing and reputation in the world.

The attempt by the Japanese government, following Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s “apology”, to impose a de facto gag order on Korea for further discussion of the issue is precisely the wrong reaction.

A global issue

If the tragic tale of the Korean sex slaves is brushed under the carpet, it will have harmful implications not only for the human dignity of the former “comfort women” themselves, but for the global cause of seeking to redress the repugnant syndrome of man’s inhumanity to woman.

As things stand, the Japanese government pursues a cynical attempt to run out the clock. The few “comfort women” survivors are now in their eighties and nineties.

If you want to take a closer look at the personal tragedies involved, Maki Kimura has produced a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the saga in her book book “Unfolding the ‘Comfort Women’ Debates – Modernity, Violence, Women’s Voices” that is highly recommended.

Tokyo continues to play hardball
In Japan, three main protagonists on the “comfort women” issue can be identified:

1. Civil society and especially women’s groups, including the Violence Against Women in War Research Action Center (VAWWRAC), which have championed the case for greater recognition, justice and inhumanity for the victims, but have been politically marginal.

2. The government, a handful of members of which (including former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono and former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama) expressed remorse in the 1990s. But Tokyo has basically been unresponsive and emphatically lacking in compassion and human empathy (Ninjō 人情) in Japanese.

3. Violent extremist right wing racist groups, influential politically and that formed the hate Koreans campaign known as Zaitokukai. The tenor of the second and third protagonist groups has been essentially one of denial.

Denial on several fronts, but primarily consisting of arguing that the issue is much exaggerated, the Japanese government/military were not involved, and in any case the girls were not innocent victims but common prostitutes.

Will Japan ever learn?

In 2011, a statue of a young girl was erected outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul as a monument to the “comfort women”. In its recent agreement with the Korean government, Tokyo has demanded that the statue be removed.

The proper act of humanity, of ninjô, would have been for Prime Minister Abe (and other eminent Japanese, including the Emperor) to emulate the gesture of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970.

Visiting Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto Memorial, Brandt spontaneously fell on his knees without a word. That was a strong signal of humanity nad a genuine apology – where no words could really have done justice.

As it is, the act of ignoring the women and reaching an arms’ length government agreement and insisting on removing the statue represents one more episode in the Japanese strain of the sad saga of man’s inhumanity to woman.

For that reason, among many others, pressure must be brought on both Tokyo and Seoul to respect the statue, leave it where it is, and have it stand as a global symbol for the intolerable suffering of women at the hands of men. That might give a small ray of hope that the female condition might improve.

Editor’s note: This article reflects the author’s remarks at a public symposium on “The Uncomfortable Truth of Comfort Women” organized by the Korea Future Forum (KFF), which was established by the Korean students association at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2011.


Rape was only declared a crime against humanity in the late 1990s during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Ignoring the women affected by violence and reaching an arms’ length government agreement about it is cruel.

Humanity, not realpolitik, should guide any resolution between Japan, Korea on "comfort women".