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critical reflections on "comfort women" 75 years on

Nothing About Us Without Us:

Recalling the strong voices of “comfort women” survivors

Mina Watanabe is Director of the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM) based in Tokyo. WAM focuses on violence against women in war and conflict situations, particularly on the issue of Japan’s military sexual slavery (euphemistically referred to as the “comfort women” issue), and conducts exhibitions, seminars and fact-finding research, in addition to participating with the survivors and supporters of victimized countries in actions for redress.

Nothing About Us Without Us:
Recalling the strong voices of “comfort women” survivors

Mina Watanabe (translated by Ryoko Nishijima)

On May 9, 2020, Japanese Military “Comfort Woman” survivor Lee Yong-soo held a press conference to criticize the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (hereinafter referred to as the Korean Council)1 and its former representative Yoon Mi-hyang. This news shocked the “comfort women” support groups in Japan, but reading Lee Yong-soo‘s remarks in their entirety, rather than listening to sensational soundbites in the mass media, we can glean what she meant to convey. Lee Yong-soo expressed the pride she felt in her own efforts, her criticism about the fundraising methods, and the need for mass education on this issue. However, the conservative Korean press launched an all-out attack on Yoon Mi-hyang, who had just been elected to the National Assembly on the ruling party ticket, accusing her of misappropriation and misuse of organizational funds during her work with the “comfort women”. Prosecutors quickly confiscated relevant documents in their ongoing investigation, but as of August 2020, nothing illegal could be confirmed. South Korean media have already begun to revise their previous reporting.

However, the Japanese media continues to reiterate the Korean conservative media without verification. In particular, “comfort women” deniers, who range from university faculty to former Foreign Ministry officials casting doubt on the victims’ testimonies and denying the historical facts of the Japanese military “comfort women” system, spread the claim that “the Korean Council has ignored the victim’s voice,” and that “they hindered the settlement of the ‘comfort women’ issue in order for the organization to survive,” perpetuating such misinformation among the Japanese public. Japanese history revisionists falsely claim that the so-called Japan-Korea Agreement in 2015 failed to settle the issue because of the Korean Council’s “interference,” but it was precisely at that time that the survivors themselves, who transformed from victims to human rights activists, strongly expressed that “it is unacceptable that irreversible decisions are made between governments without listening to our voices.” While the relationship between the Japanese “comfort women” movements and the survivors requires further exploration, here, I would like to point out that it was the voices of the survivors that overturned the 2015 “agreement”.

2015 “Japan-Korea Foreign Ministers Joint Announcement” 

The press event, in which the two foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan made a joint statement on December 28, 2015 regarding the Japanese military “comfort women,” is generally known as the “Japan-Korea Agreement.” However, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website correctly refers to it as the “Announcement by Foreign Ministers of Japan and the Republic of Korea at the Joint Press Occasion” (hereinafter abbreviated as “the announcement”), because no signed agreement actually exists. This is why we have to rely on press reports and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website for content of the so-called “agreement”. Furthermore, when the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs released verification in 2017 pointing out the existence of a non-disclosure agreement, the content of the supposed “agreement” became even more vague.

The December 28 live TV broadcast of the joint press announcement took about 15 minutes. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se each made a statement on how the issue would be handled in the future. Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida stated that the government of Japan is “painfully aware of responsibilities” and would contribute approximately 1 billion yen to a foundation the South Korean government would establish. South Korean Foreign Minister Yun stated that he would make efforts to appropriately deal with the Peace Monument (also known as Sonyeosang 少女像 or Comfort Women Statue), in front of the Japanese Embassy. They declared that with this announcement the “comfort women” issue would be resolved “finally and irreversibly.”

This “announcement” must have made no sense to the survivors. The next morning newspapers trumpeted headlines, such as “left behind,” “not satisfied” (Tokyo Shimbun), “I want to hear the apology directly” (Asahi Shimbun), “opposing voices from ex-comfort women” (Yomiuri Shimbun). Lee Ok-sun of the House of Sharing (housing and community center for “comfort women”) commented, “Why don’t they ask us? It’s about us” (Asahi Shimbun). The social sections of the newspapers, featuring the angry, disappointed faces of the survivors, were completely different from the front page and the political sections of the same paper, claiming that “Agreement Resolved Comfort Women Issue Between Japan and Korea,” along with celebratory comments by diplomatic officials and experts.

Taiwanese survivors visiting WAM

 

Nothing About Us Without Us

On the following day on December 29, 2015, South Korean Foreign Ministry officials paid a visit to the House of Sharing and the House of Peace operated by the Korean Council to explain the “announcement” to the survivors. The media reports on this event seem to have set the tone for what would follow. As First Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam entered the House of Peace with a mob of news cameras, Lee Yong-soo shouted, “Who do you think you are? Will you live my life instead? Shouldn’t you meet with the victims before (the agreement)? Are you ignoring us because you think we are old and understand nothing?” This footage of their encounter went viral through TV broadcasts and social media. At the House of Sharing, Kim Koon-ja questioned Second Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul, “Why did the government agree, even though we are the victims?” and Lee Ok-sun lamented, “Has the Foreign Ministry sold off the victims?” The source of anger for the survivors was that they were excluded from the decision-making process, despite the fact that they were the ones who had struggled over many years for their rights. In 1994 as the idea of the “Asian Women’s Fund” was being discussed within the coalition government, the survivors were on a hunger strike outside the Japanese Diet members’ building to oppose the idea of a private fund that would be offered as compensation. The “comfort women” survivors have been given no opportunity to directly express their opinions as the victims in the process of resolving the issue, forced to choose to “accept or not accept” within the limited scope of the Japanese government offers. Such policies further burdened the survivors with disagreements between victims, supporters, and families on the best course of action.

 

Support by Korean Civil Society

The Korean Council released a statement on December 28, 2015 calling the “announcement” a “fuzzy and incomplete agreement” that does not clearly acknowledge the “illegality of ‘comfort women’ crimes,” and criticized the South Korean government for issuing a “despicable condition for the removal of the Peace Monument.” However, the Council also judged that “the Japanese government finally recognize its responsibility.” Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida, meanwhile, revealed the true nature of the “announcement” to the Japanese media that the lump sum contribution of one-billion yen was “not a compensation,” and that it was his understanding that the Peace Monument in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul would be “properly transferred.” At the last 2015 Wednesday Protest (held every Wednesdays since 1992), held on December 30 as a memorial service for nine “comfort women” who had perished that year, Lee Yong-soo vowed to “fight to the end” for all the deceased victims. Following this memorial, students took turns to sleep in a tent in the frigid winter to protect the Peace Monument in front of the Japanese Embassy. Students from Ewha Women’s University and Korea University also made statements protesting the “announcement,” and on December 31, thirty students were arrested after posting bills of protest on the building where the Japanese Embassy is housed. After the New Year’s on January 6, solidarity demonstrations with the Wednesday Protests occurred in 41 cities in 13 countries around the world, and in Seoul, 1,500 people gathered in protest. Calling the “announcement” a “political collusion,” the Korean Council issued a statement demanding renegotiation. Criticism continued to intensify from then on.

map of comfort stations of Japanese military

Lost Meaning of Apology

The true colors of the “announcement” came through before long. At the plenary session of the House of Representatives in Japan on January 6, 2016, the MP Katsuya Okada (Democratic Party of Japan) pointed out that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself had never offered words of apology and demanded that he “clearly state it to the people of both Japan and Korea.” Prime Minister Abe replied, “I can’t burden our children, grandchildren, and future generations with the fate of having to continue to apologize. . . .This agreement was made to put this commitment into practice.” Contrary to an apology, he made clear that the agreement’s purpose had nothing to do with the survivors.

On January 18, during the House of Councilors Budget Committee meeting it was also revealed that the “painful responsibility” felt by the Japanese government was in fact empty. According to Prime Minister Abe, the announcement “does not mean that we admit, for example, to committing what may be considered a war crime.” He continued to claim that “there are no facts about sex slaves or that there were 200,000 victims.” Abe reinforced the point that “In the documents found by the government so far, we could not find any direct mention of the so-called forceful abduction by the armed forces or by the government…[so therefore] our position remains exactly the same.” This moment exposed as empty rhetoric the Prime Minister’s “apology”.

The fact that the prime minister of the assaulting country is repeatedly issuing denials, saying that there is no evidence of forced recruitment, is itself a form of on-going human rights violation. The survivors demand an apology that acknowledges the facts of their lives. Without this acknowledgement, the substance of the apology, that is, the very acts for which the Japanese government is apologizing, is never clear.

The developments around the 2015 “announcement” shows that it is essential for survivors to participate in the decision-making process. We have learned during the decades of postwar compensation movements in Japan that it is not easy for the victims themselves to come to an agreement on all the elements for reparations. Certainly, the experience of each woman who were victims of the Japanese military “comfort women” system and their paths after the war differ from one another. Between a woman who gravitated to the forefront of this long movement to become a human rights activist, and a woman who never appeared in public, wishing to live a quiet life, there may be differences in their understanding regarding what is necessary to recover from trauma and injustice. There may be various opinions regarding the amount of compensation and the proper apology. However, they all agree that it is essential that the Japanese government recognize what happened to them.

 

Our Responsibility Never Ends

Needless to say that the fundamental cause of Lee Yong-soo’s criticism in 2020 stems out of the current situation in Japan, where so-called “historical revisionism” continues to invoke a deeply embedded inner colonialism. Even after thirty years of struggle, justice has not yet been brought for the women who were enslaved by the Japanese military. The “comfort women” issue is not a bilateral diplomatic issue, but a problem of systematic crimes committed by the Imperial Japanese military, which sexually enslaved countless women throughout the Asia-Pacific. It is, therefore, a human rights issue that must be addressed politically. Even when all the victims have passed away, the issue of “comfort women” will never come to an end, but continue in the responsibility to remember and prevent its recurrence. The sexual violence by the Japanese military was erased from history for fifty years until the survivors came forward. As citizens of Japan, we must not allow this to happen again. At the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM), we will continue to protect the records and testimonies of Japanese military sexual slavery. We will continue our efforts so Japanese society at large, and the government itself, will come to fully accept the history of its past aggression and wrongdoings.

1. “The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan” is an organization that was established in July 2018  after two organizations “The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan” (established in November 1990) and “The Foundation for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan” (an outgrowth of the “Nationwide Action to Invalidate the Japan-Korea ‘comfort woman’ Agreement and to Resolve Justice,” established in June 2016 against the “Japan-Korea Agreement”) merged, and was reorganized and renamed. The abbreviation of the organizations in English remained the same.