Before and during World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army abducted young women in territories controlled by the Japanese Empire and coerced them into sexual slavery. These “comfort women” endured repeated physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Japanese soldiers throughout the empire until the end of the war. A significant number of comfort women had Korean origins.
The comfort women system’s legacy has been a thorn in Japanese-South Korean relations since the end of World War II. The South Korean government and surviving comfort women have criticized the Japanese government many times for not providing appropriate compensation or sincere apologies for Japan’s hideous transgressions. This conflict over Japan’s national memory of the comfort women issue is not unique: it fits into Japan’s inability to grapple with the war crimes committed by the Japanese Empire during its period of regional hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.
In recent months, disputes between Seoul and Tokyo over the issue have resurfaced in spite of a previous accord between the two nations aimed at settling the controversy. The severe flaws of the original deal demonstrate that the Japanese government does not understand that an authentic and sincere affirmation of guilt and responsibility is the only way for both nations to resolve the problem in a satisfactory manner. Shinzō Abe, the prime minister of Japan, is squandering an opportunity to help relations between South Korea and Japan move into a new era defined by cooperation and alliance instead of the constant relitigation of past crimes.
In late 2015, Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye completed a formal agreement aimed at settling the comfort women dispute. Japan agreed to pay one billion yen to establish a fund for the South Korean government to support surviving comfort women, while South Korea pledged to stop publicly attacking Japan over the issue and remove a memorial to the comfort women from outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. The Obama administration had also been pressuring South Korea and Japan to resolve the issue as a means of improving their trilateral relationship.
Though the two governments felt at the time that this accord could allow South Korea and Japan to settle the dispute, the decision was made with little public support in either country. Japanese conservatives criticized Abe for acquiescing and South Korean critics accused Park of exchanging the surviving comfort women’s dignity for short-term geopolitical benefit. Park’s impeachment in 2017 threw another wrench into what was meant to be a “final and irreversible” agreement: Park’s eventual successor, Moon Jae-in, attacked the deal after his election.
In late December 2017, Moon claimed that the agreement was flawed and could not adequately settle the issue for the people of South Korea or the surviving comfort women. Abe fired back in early 2018, stating that South Korea’s attempt to unilaterally revise the finalized 2015 accord was “completely unacceptable,” despite South Korea’s change in leadership. Moon called for a review of the accord, but his government has ultimately avoided shattering the deal entirely, instead calling on Japan to do more to win over the Korean public (which still overwhelmingly rejects the 2015 deal).
Moon was right, though: the accord between South Korea and Japan is fundamentally flawed, not just because the public decried it but also because the surviving comfort women were excluded from the negotiations. Abe did not make a public apology, and the Japanese government did not even consider expressing remorse directly to the survivors. The review Moon called for found that the victim-centered approach “established as an international standard when it comes to women’s human rights during war, was not sufficiently reflected during the negotiation process.”
Abe’s government wanted to put the issue to bed with as much secrecy and as little strife as possible, and Park’s government took the bait. It is not surprising that Moon has dragged the comfort women issue back into the spotlight between South Korea and Japan. Doing so is not only politically popular for his government but also the morally correct course of action for the surviving comfort women (to whom Moon, unlike Abe, has personally apologized). That being said, Moon has not sought to overturn the 2015 agreement outright because he understands the importance of continuously improving relations between Japan and South Korea to jointly oppose North Korea.
The Japanese government’s incredulity over the continued comfort women debate would be laughable if their treatment of the historical injustice they perpetrated were not so egregious. Abe should be thankful that Moon did not scrap the 2015 accord entirely, which was a justifiable option for him. The lack of compassion and empathy in a deal that pays money to effectively silence traumatized women who were forced to provide sexual services to Japanese military men is an unfortunate reflection of the Japanese government’s lack of sincerity. Abe wants to take a utilitarian and politically calculated approach to the comfort women issue. Therein lies the problem.
Abe and his government need to realize that the surviving comfort women, the South Korean public and Moon’s administration are not looking for financial compensation (as if money could compensate for indescribable dehumanization). Half-hearted and insincere apologies or promises of financial repayments miss the point entirely. South Korea wants Japan to lead a victim-centric process that expresses real regret and remorse for Japan’s past crimes, takes legal responsibility and places the needs of the comfort women and their communities as its number one priority. Such a course of action would be tremendously politically unpopular for Abe because it would require Japan to come to grips with its role as an active state perpetrator of sexual crimes.
The Japanese political establishment has always trod carefully around the comfort women issue and other crimes committed by the Japanese Empire in World War II; openly apologetic or empathetic statements are few and far between. Prior to 1993, the Japanese government did not even acknowledge imperial Japan’s direct role in the comfort women system at all. The very fact that the survivors are referred to as “comfort women” is due to the widespread adoption of a Japanese euphemism. The harsh and uncomforting reality is that they were sex slaves, but Japanese nationalists and historical revisionists have elided the truth in their portrayal of what happened. For some in Japan, it may well have not happened at all.
There is no “easy” way for Japan to move past the comfort women issue with South Korea. A legitimate solution to the problem would require a national sense of humility and accountability in Japan that is long overdue. But it is also the only way for Abe to usher South Korea and Japan’s relationship into a new era unburdened by the past. Indeed, if Abe were to reverse Japan’s policy position on the comfort women accord it would likely be met with praise from the international community, which would much rather see the issue laid to rest appropriately than shoved aside in secrecy as it was.
Of course, Abe could also wait for the surviving comfort women to pass away and continue to delay any legitimate healing of the issue in the meantime. After all, very few remain with us—only thirty-five as of September 2017. But if Japan and South Korea do not agree to terms before the comfort women pass into history, resolving the issue will become much more difficult than either side can currently anticipate. The comfort women issue is already deeply embedded in the South Korean national consciousness and in its relationship with Japan.
If Japan’s government postpones a worthwhile solution to the issue until the surviving comfort women have passed away, it will have only allowed South Korea to completely memorialize them in the nation’s history. Any Japanese attempts to negotiate a solution will then appear hollow at best—and rightfully so. The opportunity to mend old wounds could disappear entirely.
As Japan’s leader, it is up to Abe to stand against domestic rebuke, see the bigger moral and international picture and do the right thing.
The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.