‘Comfort Women’ Haunt Japan-Korea Relations

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Former ‘comfort women’ protesting in Seoul. Image: bittermelon/flickr

While long denying having subjected Korean women to forced prostitution during Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean Peninsula, in 1992 the Japanese government officially recognized its involvement in the ‘comfort women’ issue and apologized for having committed war crimes. Since then, every Japanese prime minister has further reaffirmed and expressed Japan’s official apologies to South Korea.

The issue remains however far from being resolved and continues to damage Japanese relations with the Republic of South Korea and other countries in the region. The dispute became more visible in December 2011 when the South Korean government established a monument for ‘comfort women’ directly adjacent to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.  In addition, South Korea now uses the question time of the Human Rights Council meeting as a venue to force Japan to provide answers to this painful chapter of the two countries’ shared history. In what follows, we will further explore the issue and place the ‘comfort women’ within the broader context of ongoing tensions between Japan and South Korea.

The South Korean perspective

In Korea they are known as “halmoni” – grandmother, the Korean women who had been forced into prostitution by members of the Japanese army during the years of occupation. Many of the so-called ‘comfort women’ never married or had children after having endured years of torture and abuse. Every Wednesday, the victims protest outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul and demand compensation, an official apology from Japan, and punishment for the perpetrators.

South Korea refuses to regard the dispute as being settled, neither through Japan’s compensation package of 1965, nor through the subsequent apologies in the years that have followed. Even the establishment by the Japanese government in 1995 of an “Asian Women’s Fund” didn’t appease anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, due to it being interpreted by many there as an opportunistic move by Japan to restore bilateral ties for the future, rather than as well-intended compensation for past wrongdoing.

Korea has pleaded this issue during the question time of meetings by the Human Rights Council, emphasizing that the comfort women issue still must be resolved. In addition to demanding further for an official and honest apology from the government, the victims also call for Japanese society to sincerely debate their war history and to account for their past crimes. For many Koreans, proof of Japanese acceptance of culpability would be exhibited for example through a revision of controversial Japanese textbooks. The latest apologies are seen as too nationalistic and unilateral, and for many Korean victims as wholly insufficient. Finally, the past sexual abuse of the nation’s women is seen by many in Korea as damaging to national pride, with the events bringing shame to the nation as a whole.

As Japan waits for the issue to finally settle, in Korea, the mobilization of the comfort women movement is spurred on by fears of the wider populations in both countries forgetting these events of the past, and the diminishment of the need for greater acknowledgement of this historical injustice.  The aging of the victims makes the calls for compensation more urgent, as currently, only 63 of the as many as 200,000 primarily Korean victims are still alive today.


The view from Japan

Japan stated in its reply to Korea at the 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, 27 February 2012, that it ‘has recognized that this was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of a large number of women. It has thus extended its sincere apology and express remorse to all those who suffered immeasurable pain and un-healable psychological wounds as so-called war time comfort women’. Secondly, it reminds us that ‘the issue of reparations, properties and claims pertaining to the second world war, has been legally settled with the countries that are parties to the San Francisco peace treaty, bilateral treaties and agreements and instruments concluded after the war’.

The country has moreover ‘established the Asian Women’s Fund in July 1995 to facilitate actual support to former so called comfort women, who had by then reached advanced age’. According to the government, Japan has furthermore ‘extended maximum support to the projects of the fund including assistance for health and welfare projects as well as payments of atonement money’.

The views expressed in this official statement are by no means shared by the whole population. While the Japanese political left has made considerable efforts to answer to Korean demands, even setting up a privately owned fund to support Korean comfort women and fighting to publish more balanced history books, the Japanese right has generally sparked conflict with undiplomatic moves and remarks. Former Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi, for instance, regularly visited the highly controversial Yasukuni Shrine (which honors war victims yet also houses some war criminals) in efforts to please his nationalistic constituents.

Some voices from the right wing of the political spectrum go as far as to bring in to question certain facts surrounding the numbers and experiences of comfort women. Conservative historian Ikuhiko Hata for example refutes the validity of statements by historians such as Dinah L. Shelton, arguing that Shelton is wrong to suggest that between 100,000 and 200,000 women worked as comfort women for the Japanese Army. Hata argues that the number was only 20,000. In addition, he asserts that many of them were not ‘kidnapped and raped’ as Shelton states, but instead ‘sold to brokers by their parents’.

Furthermore, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated in 2007 that the so-called ‘comfort women’ were not coerced into becoming sexual slaves of the former Japanese Imperial Army. He went on to argue that ‘there was no evidence to prove that there was coercion as initially suggested’. Yoshihisa Komori, the Editor in chief of the Japanese conservative daily Sankei Shimbun, said in an interview with Fareed Zakaria that the bar seems to be set higher at every positive move Japan makes, suggesting that this may be due to racism on the part of the US.

Despite these many areas of conflict, diplomatic tensions and political infighting appears little to affect the average Japanese citizen. Although there have been some anti-Korean protests related to the growing influence of Korean popular culture in Japan, also known as the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, Korean artists and series remain extremely popular throughout the country, as seen through strong Korean music sales and the preponderance of Korean series on the Japanese television network Fuji TV.

The Way Forward


The ‘comfort women’ dispute is but one of several issues hindering the improvement of relations between the two countries. Sovereignty over the Dokdo (Korean)/ Takeshima (Japanese) Islands, or even the name of the body of water in which the islands reside in, continue to be areas of heated disagreement. Furthermore, rising nationalism has significantly increased the significance of these relatively minor historical and territorial issues, affecting relations between the two countries in other areas as well. For example, in June 2005 then-South Korean President Roh Moohyun devoted nearly three quarters of a two-hour session with his Japanese counterpart Prime Minister Koizumi to questions concerning historical matters, leaving little time to discuss pressing issues such as the North Korean nuclear threat.

The comfort women issue illustrates how difficult it can be to find solutions to historical injustices and how these issues can continue to pose burdens upon relations between countries, decades after the events in question. However, regional interactions have experienced some positive changes within the past year and a half.

Trilateral relations between Japan, South Korea and China are increasingly being institutionalized, as the three countries have held joint ministerial talks on culture, foreign affairs, trade, and the environment as part of regularized annual exchanges throughout 2011. This institutionalization of relations is further evidenced by the establishment in Seoul of a permanent Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat in September of last year. Although economic cooperation was the main catalyst for closer cooperation, trilateral cooperation on security issues has also expanded, with this increased collaboration remaining unaffected by periodic flare-ups concerning bilateral political issues. Furthermore, the return to Korea by Japan of ancient royal books stolen during the 1910-1945 occupation demonstrates the country’s willingness to make positive steps towards resolving historical disagreements.

These positive developments may yet provide a glimmer of hope to the remaining comfort women as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.