Jung Yeon-Je / Getty Images

‘Comfort women’ shunted for geopolitical gain

Agreement between Japan and South Korea reopens old wounds

January 5, 2016 2:00AM ET

As South Korean and Japanese politicians shook hands behind closed doors in late December to resolve a long-standing dispute over Japan’s abuse of “comfort women” during the 1930s and ’40s, the figure of a young girl sat in steely serenity facing the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, waiting with infinite patience for the answer to an unspoken question. The bronze statue commemorates the women and girls who were dragged into sexual slavery under Japanese imperial rule. And standing in the background of a diplomatic deal that many deem inadequate, she serves as a reminder to the people of both nations that some war wounds were never allowed to heal.

The latest attempt by South Korea and Japan to resolve the “comfort women” issue has been announced as the final word on the long-standing diplomatic dispute. But for survivors, Japan’s official reconciliation deal — the full details of which have not yet been revealed — may inadvertently tear open old wounds.

Under the agreement, Japan will issue an expression of “heartfelt apology and remorse,” backed by an official donation of 1 billion Japanese yen ($8.3 million) to support survivors — a token offering in lieu of actual reparations and one that falls short of admitting culpability. In exchange, South Korea has agreed essentially to stop official discussion about “comfort women” forever, effectively submitting to a permanent gag order. The diplomatic finality of the deal has incensed the 46 remaining survivors (out of an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 victims across Asia, including many in China) who hoped for real justice in their final years.

Advocates for the victims worldwide have denounced the settlement as a calculated sham. They are disgusted by the opaque bilateral process leading to the arrangement, which was struck without consulting survivors. The deal between two right-wing leaders, South Korea’s Park Geun-hye and Japan’s Shinzo Abe, essentially presumes the consent of the women at the heart of the dispute. And attaching $8.3 million to the deal smacks more of an attempt at purchasing silence than of genuine recompense.

In the absence of honest historical reckoning, survivors will keep retelling the painful story that began 80 years ago, with the first “comfort stations” established across Japanese-occupied territories in East and Southeast Asia. The term is a euphemism for a network of coercive brothels where women were repeatedly raped by Japanese troops. Over the years, tens of thousands of women were lured into the system with promises of jobs or snatched away through raids in invaded territories. The isolated captives were systematically tortured and raped on a militarized scale, “serving” sometimes dozens of men daily. After the war, the women were isolated once again, by their own communities, stigmatized as shameful ravages of imperial conquest. The silence finally lifted in the early 1990s, as some survivors began speaking out about their trauma.

‘Why are you trying to kill us twice? … How could you do this, when we are alive as witnesses and evidence of history?’

Lee Yong-su

88-year-old survivor of sexual slavery

Setting aside their feelings of exclusion from the negotiations, survivor groups and human rights activists, including the pioneering Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, have decried the tepid phrasing of Japan’s acknowledgment of responsibility. The council calls for a full public admission that the Japanese state “had not just been simply involved but actively initiated the activities which were criminal and illegal.”

The current wording evidently channels Abe’s revisionism regarding the military’s direct role in the sexual enslavement; Japanese officials have retrenched from a key 1993 statement admitting the state’s wrongdoing. Advocates say the muted phrasing reflects Abe’s links to right-wing factions in Japan that have long downplayed the issue, even arguing that women voluntarily worked in the system.

Lee Yong-su, an 88-year-old survivor, has publicly denounced the agreement as a devastating insult not only to the women’s experience but also to the movement they have built in their campaign for justice. “Why are you trying to kill us twice? … How could you do this, when we are alive as witnesses and evidence of history?” she shouted in a confrontation with South Korea’s vice foreign minister.

The realpolitik behind the compromise is no secret: Seoul and Tokyo are under pressure from their friends in Washington to reconcile in order to form a pro-Western bulwark against an increasingly ambitious China and more strident North Korea.

With South Korea agreeing to cease forever the debate over Japan’s culpability, the new deal threatens the basic rights of civil society in any nation to know and grasp its past. The promise of enforced silence undercuts a critical demand of rights activists that the Japanese government not only apologize comprehensively but also engage in a long-term public education effort to inform future generations about the wartime atrocities. 

Meanwhile, the statue of the young girl facing the Japanese Embassy may soon disappear, as part of this gentlemen’s agreement. One provision of the document urges the removal of the statue, as a diplomatic courtesy. That politicians are so concerned about the impact of this modest monument speaks to the negotiators’ concern about protecting Japan’s public image as well as to the power of a single voice — rather, of a singular symbolic silence — to shake the conscience of even the most hardened rulers.

While this physical embodiment of the crimes against “comfort women” could soon fade from Seoul’s landscape, survivors and their communities will keep holding weekly protests targeting the Japanese Embassy and reminding the Japanese state that it has not yet provided a fair resolution on the women’s terms. Whatever their officials have agreed to on paper, the survivors’ voices will carry, leaving an indelible impression on an undeniable collective memory.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, an associate editor at CultureStrike and a blogger at The Nation. She is a co-producer of “Asia Pacific Forum” on Pacifica’s WBAI and Dissent magazine’s “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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