The “Comfort Women” Controversy between Japan and South Korea

“Comfort women” were those who had provided “sexual services” to the Japanese military during the Asia-Pacific War. The military originally had set up “comfort stations” (ianjo) to prevent Japanese soldiers from raping Chinese women and contracting sexually transmitted diseases. The military had entrusted private contractors to recruit comfort women and manage comfort stations. Comfort women had been recruited from both Japan and its colonies, such as Korea and Taiwan. Some women had agreed to work at comfort stations, whereas others had been forced by deception or coercion. After Japan had started war with the Allied powers in December 1941 and occupied Southeast Asia, the military had increased its involvement in recruitment, with methods that became increasingly coercive. By 1942, about four hundred comfort stations had been set up across Asia.19

Comfort women first became widely known in South Korea in January 1990, when Yun Jeong Ok, an English professor at Ewha Womans University, serialized her reports in the newspaper The Hankyoreh. Then, in October, a total of thirty-s even women’s associations, including Korean Church Women United, submitted a petition to the Japanese government. In their petition, the associations demanded that the Japanese government should (1) acknowledge the fact that the government forced Korean women to serve as comfort women for the Japanese military, (2) offer an official apology, (3) investigate all facts related to the military-administered system of comfort women, (4) erect a memorial for victims, (5) compensate former comfort women and their bereaved families, and (6) incorporate facts about comfort women in Japanese history education so as not to repeat the same wrong in the future.20

In November 1990, these women’s associations formed the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.21 In December, JSP member Shimizu Sumiko, one of the contacts for the Korean Council, asked how the Japanese government was going to respond to the petition. An official from the Ministry of Labor refused to admit government involvement, citing a lack of evidence: “Our ministry has no documentation about Korean comfort women in the military. We also checked with people who used to work at the Ministry of Welfare . . . but they told us there was no government involvement.”22 According to the government, private contractors had been solely responsible for recruiting comfort women and setting up comfort stations.23

In the meantime, the Korean Council conducted anonymous interviews with former comfort women as part of its campaign to demand compensation from the Japanese government.24 Then, in December 1990, former comfort women, former soldiers who had served in the Japanese military during the war, and bereaved families—thirty-five South Korean plaintiffs in total—filed a joint lawsuit against the Japanese government at the Tokyo District Court.25 All of the plaintiffs were members of the Association of South Korean Victims and Bereaved Families of the Pacific War. With the help of Japanese tawyers from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, they demanded that the Japanese government should offer apologies and compensation for the damages that they had suffered.26 The Japanese government, however, continued to argue that all issues of compensation had been resolved upon the 1965 normalization, and that no evidence had been found to demonstrate government involvement in the recruitment of comfort women and management of comfort stations.27

Then, on January 11, 1992, Asahi shinbun reported as top news that Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki of Chuo University had found a document at the Ministry of Defense Library indicating military involvement in the recruitment of comfort women.28 The document was titled “On Recruiting Women for Military Comfort Stations” (Gunianjo jUgyofutou boshu ni kan- suru ken). In this document, the Japanese military gave its troops an order to cooperate with local police to oversee private contractors and prevent them from using certain methods of recruitment, such as kidnapping, that could harm the reputation of the Japanese military.29 The news came five days before Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi was scheduled to visit South Korea, and was immediately relayed to South Korea through major television and radio programs. This fueled the growing redress movement in South Korea. On January 15, a day before Miyazawa’s visit to South Korea, about three hundred protesters, including members of the Association of South Korean Victims and Bereaved Families of the Pacific War, gathered in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul and demanded apologies and compensation from the Japanese government.30 In Japan, too, women’s associations issued a statement calling for government compensation for former comfort women and a Diet resolution to offer an apology.31

At the press conference on January 17, President Roh Tae Woo stated that the future of Japan-South Korea relations should be built on Japan’s “correct understanding of and sincere remorse for its past history,” and Miyazawa expressed his “sincere apology” (chushin yori owabi) for former comfort women who had suffered from the “hardships beyond words” (hit- suzetsu ni tsukushigatai shinku)?2 Nevertheless, Miyazawa did not promise to compensate former comfort women but only to investigate historical facts regarding the issue. Miyazawa’s apology without a promise of compensation only angered South Korean protesters. As one of the former comfort women, Kim Hak Sun, put it, “Simply apologizing means nothing. I would like the Japanese government to fulfill its responsibility for compensation.”33 JSP chairman Tanabe Makoto also criticized Miyazawa’s apology as inadequate by arguing, “Apology without compensation is hypocrisy. Compensation without apology is strategic calculus. I propose that we discuss how Japan should compensate and apologize to war victims, including former military comfort women and forced laborers.”34

In the face of the international and domestic criticisms, Miyazawa’s government investigated archives of the various ministries and found 127 documents related to comfort women. These documents showed government involvement in the selection of private contractors and hygienic inspection of comfort stations, among other activities. The government continued to collect historical materials both inside and outside Japan and also interviewed sixteen former comfort women in Seoul.35 In light of the discovered documents and interviews, Kono Yohei, Miyazawa’s chief cabinet secretary, issued the so-called Kono Statement in August 1993. He acknowledged that the government had been involved, directly or indirectly, in the establishment and management of comfort stations and that, in many cases, women had been recruited against their will. He then went on to state: “The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women. . . . We hereby reiterate our firm determination never to repeat the same mistake by forever engraving such issues in our memories through the study and teaching of history.”36

Thus, in the early 1990s, the Japanese government began to commemorate Japan’s past wrongdoings in greater detail, even though the LDP, the longtime supporter of nationalist commemoration, continued to control the government. This change was caused by the growing pressures from the transnational network mobilized for comfort women and other foreign victims, as well as by the growing constraint of the international dimension of political opportunity. Just as the mobilizing structures and political opportunities for cosmopolitan commemoration expanded at the transnational level, an important political change occurred, pushing Japan’s official commemoration further in the direction of cosmopolitanism: the LDP’s loss of power.

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