Between 1932 and 1945 it is estimated that approximately 300,000 women were forced into sexual slavery for the purposes of ‘entertaining’ the military troops serving in the Japanese Imperial Army.
The comfort women system was established for the purposes of maintaining troop loyalty, preventing the rape of female citizens within the areas in which the troops were serving and subsequently avoid hostility in the areas in which they resided. With efficient organisation, comfort women stations were erected in areas with mass military presence and worked similarly to brothels whereby prostitutes could be hired and used as a means to facilitate their ends. In fact, in a 2013 statement issued by Toru Hashimoto, the Japanese politician regarded the women as ‘necessary’ and should be rewarded for their contribution to the ongoing war effort.
During the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, whereby Japanese military leaders were tried and punished by the US for their heinous war crimes committed in the course of World War Two, it is well documented that all victims of the organised and systematic mass sexual slavery were provided with no mechanism for legal redress. Their accounts were disputed, not sufficiently investigated and widely ignored. The failure to include or even acknowledge the comfort women was primarily a cultural factor in a time where women’s rights were not on the political agenda. Furthermore, at the time of trial rape and sexual slavery in the context of armed conflict were not recognised as legitimate war crimes.
The US therefore focused on the crimes committed directly against them such as the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Academics and historians have also argued that the failure to recognise the women was politically driven in order for the US to retain its victorious position. Members of the US Army also used the comfort stations after invading areas where the Japanese military resided. It would therefore be counterproductive for the US to find Japanese military officials guilty of a crime which US soldiers facilitated and participated in. In addition to this, the women were simply not believed. Their accounts were widely contested on the grounds that they were assumed to have been prostitutes and therefore willing to participate in sexual acts. This was even the view of Yumiko Yamamoto, president of the Japanese Women for Justice and Peace who publicly dismissed the accounts of sexual violence in a 2014 appeal to the United Nations stating they were merely ‘wartime prostitutes’. It is also necessary to note that the first public testimony of a comfort women’s true ordeal appeared in 1991 by Kim Hak-soon, 45 years after the Tokyo Tribunal served its final judgement. This was a crime masked in secrecy and shame.
The battle has therefore been a long and arduous struggle with little chance of reconciliation on the horizon. This viewpoint however dramatically altered in December 2015 when Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, offered his “most sincere apologies” to the comfort women who were subjected to any form of sexual violence and offered rewards of compensation to each survivor. The compensation money currently stands at 1 billion yen (£5.6million) which will be paid directly by the Japanese government to the remaining 46 comfort women still alive, all of whom are in their 80s and 90s. Some survivors have however rejected this settlement.
Lee Ok-sun, 88 and Kang Il-chul, 87 have publicly criticised the agreement stating that the deal has made them ‘look like fools’. The two victims have asserted that the deal has trivialised their inhumane, degrading and abusive treatment through agreeing to a settlement without necessarily admitting blame or guilt for what happened to them. They have been recognised as merely a collateral damage of war with no direct responsibility associated to their enslavement. Whilst Abe expresses his ‘most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds‘, he does not admit legal responsibility for the events which have occurred. Instead, it is merely presented as a humanitarian gesture. Moreover, the agreement appears to be entirely politically motivated. Abe is primarily concerned with strengthening Japan’s relations with South Korea, and the comfort women issue was regarded as a substantial obstacle when improving ties with one other.
The comfort women have also spoken against their lack of involvement in the proceedings. The women were not consulted in the negotiation proceedings and were not aware a settlement was being constructed. Hiroka Shoji, a researcher for Amnesty International, has supported the rejection of such an agreement:
Today’s agreement must not mark the end of the road in securing justice for the hundreds of thousands of women who suffered due to Japan’s sexual slavery system… the women were missing from the negotiation table and they must not be sold a short deal that is more about political expediency than justice.
Currently we await the fate of the gold statue erected in Seoul located in front of the Japanese embassy which symbolises the honouring of comfort women. Will the girl remain and instead represent the horrors the women endured, or will it be removed in a bid to hide further shame on Japan’s already strained past? The political motivations cannot be ignored however, it is necessary to accept that sometimes some justice in the form of state recognition, an official apology and compensation is better than no justice at all. This will be immortalised on the historical record that they are victims, and this is what Kim Hak-soon wanted.