Korean ‘comfort women’ continue to seek apology from Japan for WWII sex slavery
SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean women forced to be sex slaves during the Second World War, who have spent two decades demanding recognition from the Japanese government, reached an important milestone Wednesday.
Their quest for an official apology and reparations reached a landmark on December 14, the 1000th Wednesday since January 1992 that “comfort women” and their supporters have protested outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
The comfort women – known as ianfu in Japanese – were forced to work in brothels run by the Japan’s Imperial Armed Forces during its occupation of the Korean peninsula.
It’s estimated there were as many as 200,000 women, mainly from Korea, but also China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other Asia-Pacific countries.
Kim Hak-Sun was the first of these women to speak out about her ordeal, in August 1991, and bring about a lawsuit against the Japanese government.
She says she was forced into sexual servitude at the age of 17, but some girls were years younger when they began enduring years of rape and violence.
In the months following Kim going public, 233 more South Korean women came forward and registered as comfort women with their government.
Only 63 of them are still alive and they are all in their eighties and nineties.
Their window of opportunity to get justice for their suffering is closing rapidly.
At Wednesday’s demonstration some of these women, and their network of supporters, erected a 120-centimetre high bronze statue of a seated young girl – a symbol the victims used to represent the comfort women issue – staring directly at the embassy.
Japan requested South Korean officials stop the group from placing the monument, saying it would “harm its dignity” and affect diplomatic relations.”
Officials in Seoul refused to step in.
The issue has been a contentious one in Japan’s post-war relationship with South Korea and other Asian nations, much like its refusal to acknowledge massacres such as the “Rape of Nanking” and visits by its heads of state to the controversial Yasakuni Shrine, in Tokyo, which memorializes several Second World War criminals.
Right-wing nationalists in Japan have in the past claimed the women were not forced into prostitution, but were willing servants. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in 2007 there was no evidence to suggest woman were used as sex slaves.
There have also been claims the comfort women issue stems from lies and anti-Japan propaganda campaign.
Governments around the world have condemned Japan’s use of comfort women in the 1930s and 1940s war and occupation, including the United States and Canada.
New Democrat NDP Olivia Chow was joined by four comfort house survivors on Parliament Hill in November 2007, when she introduced a motion to urge Tokyo to make a formal and sincere apology.
The motion was backed by then-Secretary of State for multiculturalism Jason Kenney and passed unanimously in the House of Commons.
But there is also support for former comfort women inside Japan.
While the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan rallied in Seoul Wednesday, a reported 1,300 people formed a human chain around the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo, in a show of solidarity for the milestone day of protest.
Past Japanese administrations have acknowledged the plight of these women. Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, issued a letter in 2001 to express remorse for the “grave affront to the honour and dignity of large numbers of women.”
He said Japan “should face up squarely to its past history and accurately convey it to future generations.”
A similar statement in 1993, by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, also offered an apology for Japan’s role in wartime brothels, but compensation claims continued to be rejected.
The government set up the Asia Women’s Fund in 1995 to compensate some comfort women, but it established the fund with private donations, not public money.
Many of the survivors refused the “unofficial” offering.
They want Japan pay them the respect they were robbed of decades ago.
The comfort women at Wednesday’s demonstration in Seoul vow to continue their campaign for recognition and will be back in front of the Japanese embassy for their 1,001st rally next Wednesday.
*With files from Mainichi Shimbun, Kyodo and The Canadian Press.