Japan's military sexual slavery: whose agreement?

The South Korea-Japan agreement on Japan’s military sexual slavery was announced on 28 December, 2015, but it ignores the  efforts by the victim-survivors movement to seek justice for their suffering. 

Maki Kimura
20 January 2016
Student participants on the 1009th Wednesday Demonstration in Seoul, South Korea, February 15, 2012. JoonYoung Kim/Flickr. Some

Student participants on the 1009th Wednesday Demonstration in Seoul, South Korea, February 15, 2012. JoonYoung Kim/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

On Wednesday 6th January 2016, the 24th year anniversary of the weekly rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul by the Korean victim-survivors of Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery, solidarity actions were held at various locations in Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, UK and the USA. This was in response to a call from the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, which has organised and supported these rallies for many years. The solidarity protests were coordinated as a gesture of disapproval towards the Korea-Japan Agreement on the issue of Japan’s military sexual slavery (‘comfort women’) that was announced on 28th December 2015. In London, a dozen people turned up to join the protest in front of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea lead by the Korean community in London asking the Korean government to review the agreement and to actively support the women seeking for justice.  

The agreement was widely reported as ‘landmark’ and ‘breakthrough’ and was (initially) welcomed by many around the world who have been waiting for this long-lasting dispute between Japan and South Korea (as well as other Asian countries) to be finally and successfully resolved. However, as soon as the agreement was announced, survivor-activists and activist organisations in South Korea and Japan raised concerns and expressed frustration that this agreement is not only far from being a ‘breakthrough’, but in fact actually ignores all the 25 year efforts of the redress movement seeking justice for these women. The Korean Council issued a statement on 28th December claiming that this agreement is merely ‘a diplomatic collusion which betrays the demands from all’. The Japan Nationwide Action for Resolution of the Japan’s Military ‘Comfort Women’ Issue, an umbrella organisation of diverse groups and individuals that support victim-survivors of ‘comfort women’ system, also published its comments on the following day stating that ‘an “agreement” without the victim is no “solution”. The Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace in Tokyo also circulated a similar statement on 31st December. The initial media coverage of the agreement, presenting this as a landmark, indeed often contained inaccuracies and misinformation, and fell short of appropriately identifying its drawbacks. This clearly demonstrates how, despite all feminist efforts, both political negotiations and the analysis and reporting of them still fail to pay enough attention to gender perspectives. At the same time, it also clearly illuminated how the ‘comfort women’ issue and its complexity is not widely understood beyond feminist and other citizen groups and individuals that have been interested in the redress movement.


Former comfort woman Yong Soo Lee testifies in support of the Comfort Women Memorial. Credit: Steve Rhodes/Demotix. All rights reserved.

As I argued in my recently published book Unfolding the ‘Comfort Women’ Debates: Modernity, Violence, Women’s Voices, the development of this very system and the historical and political recognition of it (and the lack of it) has been heavily influenced by politics in East Asia during the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, namely that of orientalism, colonialism, post-colonialism, cold war and the US dominance in the region. While gender has, in fact, played a pivotal role in these politics, the suffering of women in general has long been ignored and/or has simply been used as a political tool in diplomatic negotiations without substantial engagement with the victims themselves. This is why many victims of this horrific sexual exploitation and violence during the Second World War could only come forward in the 1990s and also why the debates surrounding this issue have become so complex and entwined. The Korea-Japan Agreement has undeniably materialised within this very geo-political climate. The agreement was made under pressure from the United States whose prime concern was not for the human rights of victim-survivors, but rather for the security and the political stability in East Asia, which illuminates how the US power is still dominant in East Asia, as the Japan Nationwide Action precisely pointed out.

Since Kim Hak-sun gave her testimony about her ordeal in August 1991 and became the first publicly known ‘comfort woman’ in South Korea, many women from countries including South and North Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Holland, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, and East Timor have come forward as the victims of this system.  The Japanese government’s unwillingness to engage with the ‘comfort women’ issue and a strong presence of ultranationalist/revisionist voices in Japan that deny the active role played by the Japanese authorities in organising and maintaining the ‘comfort women’ system is well acknowledged. Nevertheless, it is a sweeping generalisation to claim that this has always been the dominant social and political attitude in Japan. In the late 1990s, all seven history textbooks approved by the then Ministry of Education to be used in junior high schools, made a reference to ‘comfort women’. Feminist and citizen groups in Japan have worked tirelessly with victim-survivors both living in Japan and other countries and collaborated transnationally, supporting their fight for justice and promoting research into the ‘comfort women’ system. Meanwhile, although the Japanese government has never fully recognised its legal responsibilities, in 1993, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei admitted the Japanese authorities’ involvement (albeit limited) in the operation of the ‘comfort women’ system and acknowledged that some level of coercion was used in recruiting women and in comfort stations. Under the Murayama government, in 1994, as part of the governmental plan of war reparations, a charity fund was proposed to support victim-survivors. The Asian Peace and Friendship Fund for Women (the Asian Women’s Fund) was established the following year as a public-private initiative, but subsequently caused a huge controversy and a divide within the redress movement; it tried to provide and did actually provide ‘atonement money (provisional compensation)’ to victim-survivors, not from the governmental budget but from private contributions and donations. Many women in South Korea refused to accept the money not seeing this as representing an official apology and compensation. During this period, however, a certain political commitment by the Japanese government was present, acknowledging its responsibility towards these victim-survivors of the ‘comfort women’ system. Therefore,  Prime Minister Abe’s statement announced as part of the agreement was not an entirely new move.

Women protest at the 'Comfort Women Protest' in Seoul, South Korea, September 8, 2009. Jennifer Yin/Flickr. Some rights reserved

Women protest at the 'Comfort Women Protest' in Seoul, South Korea, September 8, 2009. Jennifer Yin/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Nevertheless, feminist and citizen groups at least see that it is  an achievement of survivor-victims and their continuing struggle that Abe Shinzo who at one point attempted to withdraw the 1993 Kono Statement has now clearly stated the Japanese government’s responsibilities (not merely as a humanitarian gesture as often reported) and expressed his sincere apologies and remorse as Prime Minister of Japan. What they are extremely dissatisfied with, however, is that victim-survivors were neither consulted nor present in the negotiations. Therefore, for example, recommendations for the Japanese government to genuinely resolve this issue, that were proposed by victim-survivors and their supporters who participated in the 12th Asian Solidarity Conference on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery in June 2014, have hardly been taken into account in this agreement. In this proposal, victim-survivors demanded that the Japanese government: recognise the active role it played in organising the ‘comfort women’ system and that the system was a grave violation of human rights; and take various measures for legal reparation including apologising to individual victims, accounting of the truth and developing preventative measures against future re-occurrence. While the establishment of a public fund to support victim-survivors was announced in the agreement, the measures suggested by the Japanese government to engage with this issue are, thus, falling a long way short of meeting what the victim-survivors have been demanding and this has disappointed and enraged victim-survivors and other activists.

President Ma attends opening of 11th Solidarity Conference for the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, December 9, 2012.

President Ma attends opening of 11th Solidarity Conference for the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, December 9, 2012. 總統府/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

However, what was possibly more shocking to them was the Korean government’s attitude to the agreement. The Korean government provided financial support to the women in 1997 so that the women could choose not to receive the ‘atonement money’ from the Asian Women’s Fund and to seek further justice from Japan, but they along with the Japanese government have long held a position that the 1965 Agreement between them resolved all wartime claims. However, after the ruling of the South Korean Constitutional Court in August 2011 that the failure of the Korean government to pursue an avenue for Japan to compensate ‘comfort women’ victims was unconstitutional, activists expected that the Korean government would be more supportive to victims in their seeking compensation from the Japanese government. Therefore, they were furious when it was revealed that not only had the Japanese government failed to address clearly how they would develop preventative initiatives against future re-occurrence such as implementing commemorative activities, but also the Korean had still accepted this and agreed to work towards settling the ‘dispute’ over the Peace Monument in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul following the removal request from the Japanese government. This statue of a girl in gold sitting next to an empty chair, erected in 2011, has been considered as the symbol of the struggle of victim-survivors, which is the property of civil society and the spirit of the victims. Survivors and other activists felt that the Korean government betrayed them by yielding to the Japanese government’s request, when they do not even have any authority over the statue.

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