Informational Backgrounder on the “Comfort Women”
[Japanese Military Sexual Slavery] Issue
January 12, 2017 Comfort Women Justice Coalition
Why should there be a Comfort Women Memorial in San Francisco, when the crimes involving them occurred in Asia during WWII?
- Global Relevance: Based on the study conducted by a UN Special Rapporteur, it has been concluded that the Japanese military sexual slavery system [“Comfort Women system”] constitutes a “crime against humanity.” This is a prosecutable criminal offense in international criminal law. As such, this is not merely Japan’s problem or that of the victim countries, but an issue of global justice.
- Local Impacts: Japan’s imperialist aggression throughout Asia-Pacific (in partnership with Nazi Germany and Italy) impacted millions of people, many of whom settled in San Francisco Bay Area, making an indelible mark on our City’s development and character. They, and their descendants, are a key constituency of this city, and we have a collective duty to educate everyone about this shared history.
- Moral Tradition: San Francisco has a long and proud tradition of honoring survivors of atrocities and violence, including the Holocaust Memorial at Lincoln Park. A memorial symbolizing the victims’ struggles for justice, and the honoring the resilience of the human spirit in seeking peace and reconciliation, is an asset to this City for which respect for human dignity is a defining creed.
- Ongoing Violation: Although the Japanese Military sexual slavery system ended after WWII, it remains a current, urgent, present-day issue. In July 2014, the United Nations Human Rights committee stated,
- “The Committee is…concerned about re-victimization of the former comfort women by attacks on their reputations, including some by public officials and some that are encouraged by the [Japanese] State Party’s equivocal position”;
- “The Committee is concerned by the [Japanese] State party’s contradictory position that the “comfort women” were not “forcibly deported”;
- “The Committee considers that this situation reflects ongoing violations of the victims’ human rights, as well as a lack of effective remedies available to them as victims of past human rights violations.”
- U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stressed, again in August of 2014: “This is not an issue relegated to history. It is a current issue, as human rights violations against these women continue to occur as long as their rights to justice and reparation are not realised.”
- In March 2016, in a joint statement, human rights experts insisted that Japan “should understand that this issue will not be considered resolved so long as all the victims, including from other Asian countries, remain unheard, their expectations unmet and their wounds left wide open.”
Why is it so important to remember Comfort Women now?
- Organized, official distortion and denialism: There is a systematic attempt at permanent erasure of WWII-era atrocities (including the Nanjing Massacre and Japanese military sexual slavery), spearheaded by Japan’s highest levels of government and the Prime Minister himself. The current government is actively working to distort its own troubled past in Japan and around the world, in particular, the ‘erasure’ of Comfort Women issue, as part of a global campaign to “improve Japan’s image.”
- Concerted Erasure of History: Japan’s move to delete references of its wrongdoing during WWII from its own textbooks has resulted in the removal of Comfort Women issue (and the Nanjing Massacre) from education curricula in Japanese Textbooks. There has also been pressure on US Publishers (McGraw-Hill) to do the same (which led to swift protests by prominent US scholars). In fact, the current Prime Minister argues that it has “robbed postwar Japanese of their pride.” In April 2016, CEDAW admonished Japanese leaders for ongoing disparaging statements about the comfort women and urged their reinstatement in junior high school textbooks.
- Historical Revisionism: A New York Times article corroborates that “Japanese conservatives like Mr. Abe have bridled at historical depictions of Japan as the sole aggressor in the war, saying that it fought to liberate Asia from Western domination.” The US Congressional Research Service noted that Shinzo Abe has attempted to discredit or undermine accepted historical relevant facts.
- Risk of Recurrence: Refusal to admit to past wrongdoing leaves open the chances of recurrence. Sexual Trafficking is an issue of global concern. These crimes afflict tens of millions each year globally, including in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we must remain vigilant. Rashida Manjoo, U.N. Special Rapporteur has stated, “The demand for acknowledgement, truth, justice and reparations for acts of violence against women, is a global challenge that my mandate continues to witness. The institutionalisation of memory is crucial, both to honour victims as well as to understand and avoid such violations in the future. It is my hope that civil society actors to continue to raise public awareness at the national and international level on this issue, and the need for acknowledgement, accountability and reparations”.
In December 2015, there was an “agreement” between and Japan. Doesn’t this settle the Comfort Women issue? Most importantly, this agreement:
- is repudiated by surviving Korean ‘Comfort Women’ and the global community;
- was produced with no consultation with victims, who were shut out of any part of the negotiations;
- leaves out ‘Comfort Women’ from other countries of the Asia Pacific;
- prohibits South Korea from ever raising the issue in international fora, including the United Nations, effectively leaving Korean victims without a governmental advocate; and
- demands the removal of existing comfort women statues.
UN human rights experts were so appalled by this ‘agreement’ and its terms, that they took the rare action of releasing a joint statement on this issue, followed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. The U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Hussein stated in his annual report on human rights around the world, reiterated that numerous UN mechanisms had questioned the terms of this ‘agreement.’ This ‘agreement’ drew the ire of CEDAW which regretted that Japan did not take a “victim-centered approach” and urged Japan to do more to solve this issue. It is also challenged whether this “agreement” really exists as such:
- no written or signed agreement has ever been produced to document or codify exactly what the agreement consists of
- Different interpretations of its content have been offered by Korean and Japanese governments
- the agreement was never ratified by the national assemblies of either country
- in all its ambiguity, inconsistency, and contradiction, it is very likely to be repealed or disavowed by any incoming Korean governments — in fact, many argue it has started to unravel already.
Hasn’t the Japanese government apologized?
- There has been no official government apology. Numerous “apology statements” have been made by individual government officials (see information packet prepared by Japanese Consulate containing excerpts of such statements here); however, unless an apology is adopted and ratified by the cabinet or the Parliament, they cannot be said to be official government action. The recent Abe “apology” (and others) are personal but not official, and as with other past statements are (and have been) subject to equivocation, disavowal, or flat-out contradiction.
- To date, the Japanese legislature has not passed a single resolution of acknowledging state responsibility for the “Comfort Women” or other atrocities committed by the Japanese military during WWII. The “1993 Kono statement” delivered by the Chief Cabinet Secretary was the closest admission of coercion by the Japanese Military. However, in June 2014, the Japanese Cabinet did submit a report stating that “there is no evidence of coercion,” effectively repudiating the Kono statement; thus, its disavowal is currently the official position of the Japanese Government.
- Because these apologies are not official, they are preceded and followed by contradictory statements, actions, and policies. For example, throughout the years that these ‘apologies’ were being issued, Mr. Abe has flat-out denied Japanese military responsibility for the comfort women system, and continued to insist on the Parliament floor and publicly that to succumb to such narrative about Japanese history is to be “masochistic”. US Congressional Resolution 121 condemned Shinzo Abe for these revisionist remarks, despite “volumes of evidence” to the contrary.
- In 2015, Japan tripled its global PR budget to $500 million to “improve Japan’s image,” including an elaborate global campaign to rewrite its role in World War II by denying its role with regard to “Comfort Women.” Japan’s demand to remove “Comfort Women” memorial erected near the Japanese Embassy/Consulate in Seoul and Busan, as well as Japan’s interference in various municipalities around the world (including here in San Francisco) to prevent remembrances of “Comfort Women” also speak volumes about where the government’s sincerity lies in its ‘apology.’ This is an important context within which to evaluate Japan’s apology.
Is the memorial “hateful” and will it subject the innocent people of Japanese ancestry to vengeful persecution?
- No. There have been no reports of actual incidents affecting people of Japanese ancestry. Numerous US towns have been subject to outcry among the Japanese MPs and citizens alike, in response to a continuous stream of news in Japanese media outlets reporting Japanese were being persecuted by Koreans due to the memorial (still ongoing in Japanese language media at present). However, police and even FBI databases on hate crimes and reports of suspected incidents in any of those areas have not once turned up any actual evidence. See here.
- Lisa Nakamura’s family suffered Japanese American Internment during WWII and fought for redress for Japanese Americans. A lifelong Bay Area resident and Japanese American community advocate, she is a clinical psychologist by day, deeply involved with teen girls and young women from the streets who had been trafficked and sexually violated. Read her widely circulated column here.
Remembrance As Resistance: “Comfort Women” and the US Pivot to Asia
First Published Jun 27, 2016, http://18millionrising.org/2016/06/remembrance-as-resistance.html
Miho Kim Lee, CWJC Coordinator,
The term “Comfort Women” is a euphemism for the young women and girls forced into the military prostitution system that Japan established and administered during World War II. Japan took approximately 400,0001 young women and girls as young as thirteen, with the majority of them from Korea, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia (then Dutch East Indies), and forced them into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers throughout the Pacific theater. These women “served” anywhere from 5-60 soldiers a day, resulting in an estimated fatality rate of up to 90%, compared to 27% of front line Japanese combatant soldiers.2 The “Comfort Women” system is “considered unprecedented in its cruelty and magnitude,” according to a bipartisan resolution The term “Comfort Women” is a euphemism for the young women and girls forced into the military prostitution system that Japan established and administered during World War II. Japan took approximately 400,000 young women and girls as young as thirteen, with the majority of them from Korea, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia (then Dutch East Indies), and forced them into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers throughout the Pacific theater. These women “served” anywhere from 5-60 soldiers a day, resulting in an estimated fatality rate of up to 90%, compared to 27% of front line Japanese combatant soldiers. The “Comfort Women” system is “considered unprecedented in its cruelty and magnitude,” according to a bipartisan resolution passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007 to call for formal acknowledgement and responsibility from Japan for perpetrating “one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century.”
A global campaign demanding justice and reparations for former “Comfort Women” of the Japanese military has grown ever since the existence of Imperial Japan’s military sexual slavery system came to light in the early 1990s, when silence was broken by former “Comfort Woman” Kim Hak-Sun of South Korea. But for just as long, the conservative ruling elites of Japan have conspired to discredit and silence former “Comfort Women.” The grandson of Japan’s first postwar Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (who was arrested on suspicion of being a War Criminal, though never convicted), Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s denialism and nationalism is seen as a revival of his family’s unfulfilled wartime aspirations to become a global imperial superpower. While a subculture of denialism and imperial nostalgia has long thrived among Japan’s far right in the margins of Japanese politics, Abe has made the denialist version of its history an official government policy. Today, the notion that the history of the Nanjing Massacre and “Comfort Women” is nothing more than a falsified scheme by China and Korea to undermine Japan is, as bizarre as it sounds, actually “mainstream” throughout Japan. Emboldened, Abe administration has launched a massive global PR campaign to “correct” the world’s understanding of Japan’s history. Hence, “Comfort Women” denialism has come stateside, hitting home for Asians and Asian Americans across the diaspora.
In 2015, the Japanese government requested authors and publishers of U.S. history textbooks to revise (or entirely remove) passages on “Comfort Women.” Such incidents prompted strongly worded statements condemning the attempted “suppression” of the history of Imperial Japan’s sexual slavery, by prominent historians of the American Historical Association as well as by members of the Association for Asian Studies. “It’s an insult to historians and the very scholarship founded on principles of historical inquiry,” says Eric Pido, an Asian American Studies professor at San Francisco State University, who worked with a pan-ethnic group of Asian American scholars and submitted a draft resolution “Standing with the ‘Comfort Women’: Resisters and Survivors of Japanese Historical Denialism” to the Board of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS). At the United Nations, various human rights bodies have unequivocally called upon Japan to remedy this issue and carry out its responsibility to educate the public rather than obscure or deny its history.
Japan’s denialism is an unforgivable insult to the dignity of victims of Japan’s colonial aggression. But the “Comfort Women” issue also intersects with U.S. military and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Those concerned with U.S. militarism in Asia, dangerous “free trade” agreements, and economic imperialism abroad must see the role that U.S. complicity in Japan’s denialism plays in American geopolitical strategy.
The U.S.’s “pivot to Asia” policy seeks to “contain” the regional and global power of rival China, and “reinforce its military foothold” in the region. Also central to this strategy is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade deal between the U.S. and every major economy in the Pacific Rim except China. Such U.S. strategies have already intensified geopolitical tensions reminiscent of the Cold War. Fueled by rhetoric about the dangers of “rising” China and “rogue” North Korea, U.S. interests in Asia have even favored a reinterpretation (or, as experts and most Japanese see it, violation) of Japan’s “Peace Constitution” to allow for an expansion of Japanese military power that would enable the U.S. ally to foot more of the bill in fighting foreign wars for U.S. interests. The pivot to Asia has already exacerbated the severe burden of U.S. militarization throughout the region, pushing communities of Okinawa, and the whole of the Philippines, among others, against an even steeper uphill battle against U.S. military occupation and the economic, environmental, and gendered violence that comes with it.
But Asian and Asian American activists and allies continue to leverage trans-Pacific solidarity to resist U.S. militarism. Here in California last October, through the dedicated efforts of Okinawan community activists and allies, Berkeley City Council became the first municipality in the U.S. to adopt a resolution standing with Okinawa in opposing the construction of a new U.S. base. Across the Pacific, 65,000 people rallied last week in Okinawa to demand the ouster of U.S. military bases, prompted by the alleged rape and murder of a young Japanese woman by a U.S. military contractor.
However, grassroots peace activists aren’t the only forces hindering U.S. attempts to consolidate power amongst its Pacific Rim allies. The “Comfort Women” issue is one of several decades-old unresolved wartime sticking points between Korea and Japan, undermining U.S. efforts to fortify U.S.-Korea-Japan military cooperation as a key pillar of the U.S.’s pivot to Asia. Every time Abe or other Japanese politicians undermine or flat-out deny its WWII crimes against its neighbors, Korea strikes back, reviving resentment and suspicion that exposes the ongoing political volatility in the region, despite the supposedly peaceful “post-war” era it has entered.
But the U.S. has not shied away from choosing sides in service to its policy agenda. In fact, senior U.S. diplomats have actively participated in Japan’s historical revisionism. The U.S. has carefully stewarded a bilateral agreement struck between South Korea and Japan in December 2015, lauded as a “final and irrevocable” settlement of the long-standing “Comfort Women” issue. Six months later, the terms of this agreement, initially hailed by leaders and pundits around the world, have yet to be implemented. Eclipse Rising, a U.S.-based Zainichi Korean (descendants of Korean colonial subjects of the Japanese empire born and raised in Japan today) social justice organization, called the “agreement” an “unjust silencing of the victims…and turns its back on the fundamental understanding of women’s rights as human rights.” The agreement prohibits Korea from ever again raising the issue of “Comfort Women” in international forums, robbing Korean victims of a legitimate international platform. In addition, though English language press widely described Japan’s payment of $8.3 million as “compensation,” Foreign Minister Kishida has insisted to the Japanese media it is simply “a Korea-Japan joint venture” investment, reducing this payment to mere hush money and evading the culpability connoted by “compensation.” This so-called settlement also leaves out any requirement on the part of Japan for ongoing documentation and education of Japan’s responsibility for its sexual slavery system. Is it not clear, then, that the only thing final and irrevocable in the agreement may be the banishment of “Comfort Women” from history?
U.S. officials have gone so far as to urge Korean Americans to stay quiet on the failings of the U.S.-brokered settlement. In an interview with the Japan’s national broadcaster NHK TV, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken “called on Korean-American civic groups to support” the deal — immediately drawing the ire of Korean Americans and other “Comfort Women” advocates across the country. Curiously enough, Blinken’s comments do not align with the spirit of HR 121 that the U.S Congress adopted unanimously back in 2007.
HR 121 states that Japan should “educate current and future generations about this horrible crime,” echoing similar recommendations from the international community. But Blinken’s comments expose that at the end of the day, the U.S. will treat the movement for justice for “Comfort Women” as an obstruction of its interests. U.S. foreign policy in Asia that merely provides lip service to “Comfort Women” in order to advance its pivot to Asia strategy is not likely to listen to the ordinary people — and impoverished girls and women, as were most “Comfort Women” — of Okinawa, Philippines, the Pacific islands and beyond, whose very existence may stand in the way of U.S. regional interests.
But the Grandmothers are not waiting to be heard. They have broken the silence, and, in David and Goliath fashion, are standing up to their own governments, the U.S., and a world that to this day allows 20 million people to suffer in human trafficking each year. Our future generations are beneficiaries of their extraordinary activism: widespread and systematic sexual violence and rape would likely not have been established as a “crime against humanity” according to international law had it not been for the relentless advocacy by these Grandmothers, along with other women who survived wartime rape and systematic exploitation, from Yugoslavia to Rwanda and beyond. Criminalizing sexual violence as a central strategy of war for the first time in history is an extraordinary achievement. Finally, rape — at least under international law — can no longer seen as “legitimate spoils of war.”
Today, descendants of “Comfort Women” and their allies continue on the path towards truth and justice that these Grandmothers paved. At San Francisco State University, Ethnic Studies students recently engaged in hunger strikes to defend the critical discipline and preserve our communities’ own histories, on our terms. “This [Grandmother] could have been mine,” said a Chinese American student carrying a hand-written solidarity sign, referring to a Grandma Youngsoo Lee, who spoke in her class just six months earlier during her trip to the U.S. to support the “Comfort Women” memorial resolution in San Francisco. “If we can’t learn the truth, then how do we know to say ‘never again’? We demand to know our truths! Ethnic Studies now!”
San Francisco has become one of the highest-profile battlegrounds for Japanese historical denialists as the city adopted a resolution to support memorialization of “Comfort Women” and all victims of sex trafficking in September 2015. The Comfort Women Justice Coalition (CWJC) was established with great urgency soon after the resolution was introduced by Rep. Eric Mar. The intense lobbying efforts of historical denialists throughout the Bay Area sought to derail this resolution while preaching the “real truth” to save us from Chinese and Korean propaganda to “bash Japan.” The denialists, while appearing to be local constituents, were mostly from Japan, flown in from out of town or state, and claimed that Grandmothers are “liars” and “mere prostitutes” during public hearings — insults hurled directly at Grandmother Youngsoo Lee by Koichi Mera, a former USC professor and leading Japanese denialist. An onslaught of misinformation, consistent with the Abe regime’s narrative, brewed great confusion and tension within the local Asian American community.
CWJC therefore strives to be a “liberation zone” from competing nationalisms, grounded in pan-ethnic/racial and transnational solidarity. By creating spaces for healing, progress, and resistance, CWJC seeks to end Grandmothers’ ongoing suffering by the Japanese military sexual slavery system. Though the system ceased to exist seven decades ago, we know that as Navi Pillay, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated, “human rights violations against these women continue to occur as long as their rights to justice and reparation are not realized.”
Teaching “Comfort Women” history in our schools and erecting Comfort Women memorials all serve the long-term purpose of remembrance — itself a subversive act of resistance. As Michael James, a Bay Area popular education trainer once said, “if you don’t tell your own histories, then someone else who can will tell it for you.” So, let us fight for the right to remember our beautiful and enduring legacy of suffering, courage, survival and joy, which serves as a reservoir of strength to inform our cultural identities and visions for the world. In this light, “Comfort Women” are emissaries from the future, hailing to remind us all that that which we don’t fight for, we relinquish, and that we have the power to choose which path we pave for the next generation. Grandmothers’ messages are a clarion call to counter all forms of militarism, imperialism, and state-sanctioned violence against women — from Japan’s historical atrocities to the U.S.’s emerging pivot to Asia — with a force of our own: remembrance, resistance, and transnational solidarity.
1 – The numbers are highly contested; however, more recent study by Peipei Qiu of Vassar College has revealed that a heretofore unaccounted 200,000 girls and women were taken into the system from China alone. Qiu, Peipei, Zhiliang, Su, and Lifei, Chen. Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, Vancouver, CA: UBC Press, 2014, p. 6.
2 – “Investigations into the fate of Korean comfort women suggests that 75 to 90 percent of them became war casualties. The casualty rate for Chinese comfort women is likely even higher.” Ibid, p. 73.
Miho Kim Lee is co-convenor and coordinator of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition and founding member of Eclipse Rising. She is currently co-editing an anthology on Asian Americans remembering “Comfort Women.” As a Zainichi Korean, a survivor of Japan’s colonial policies of forced assimilation, she found home in the Bay Area almost two decades ago. Since, she has partnered with oppressed communities to advance political, cultural and spiritual strategies for liberation and cultural sovereignty through grassroots organizing, community-led research, campaign support and training.
The term “Comfort Women” is a euphemism for sex slaves from the 1930s throughout the duration of World War II, when Japan invaded its neighboring countries. The Imperial Japanese Army engaged in the systemic trafficking of hundreds of thousands of girls and young women, with the majority from Korea, China, the Philippines, Indonesia (then Dutch East Indies) and forced them into sexual servitude for the Japanese soldiers. These women served anywhere from 5-60 soldiers a day resulting in a fatality rate of approximately 87%, compared to 27% of front line Japanese combatant soldiers (Qiu, Peipei, Zhiliang, Su, and Lifei, 2014).
House Resolution 121, unanimously passed at the US Congress in 2007, notes the “Comfort Women” system is “considered unprecedented in its cruelty and magnitude, included gang rape, forced abortions, humiliation, and sexual violence resulting in mutilation, death, or eventual suicide in one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century.” Historians state that this is the single largest case of institutionalized sexual exploitation committed by a government entity (Japan) in modern history.
Sexual violence and rape against women and children during military conflict are “crimes against humanity.” To this day, the Japanese government has not issued an official (cabinet- approved or ratified by the Diet), unequivocal and direct apology to the survivors of the “Comfort Women” system. On December 28, 2015, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea held a joint press conference (http://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/na/kr/page4e_000364.html) in which each foreign minister made an announcement, respectively, wherein Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed “apology and remorse” without acknowledging the legal responsibility of the Japanese government and promised to donate approximately $8.3 million to the S. Korean government to set up a foundation that would “assist” the “Comfort Women” victims. The Japanese government made clear that the monies should never be directly distributed to the victims or their families because direct payment would mean legal compensation. In turn, the South Korean government would remove the “Comfort Women” memorial statue from in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and never again bring up the issue of “Comfort Women” in the international community, including the United Nations. Further, that the South Korean government would acknowledge that the “Comfort Women” issue is “resolved finally and irreversibly.”
The “Comfort Women” survivors and their supporters around the globe immediately rejected the “so-called agreement”; decrying it as a “backdoor deal and a sellout” that completely ignored the voices and demands of the victims. Prominent “Comfort Woman” survivor turned activist Grandma Lee stated, “This agreement seems to have been made without having the victims in mind. I dismiss it in its entirety.”
Citation: Qiu, Peipei, Zhiliang, Su, and Lifei, Chen. Chinese Comfort Women. Vancouver, CA: UBC Press, 2014.
Below is a list of resources you can reference to learn more about this issue:
Herstory (Animation based on a survivor’s testimony. Junki Kim. 11 min)