ANALYSIS / Nerea Álvarez

Relations between Japan and Korea are not easy. The Japanese annexation of the peninsula in 1910 is still very much present in the report Korean. For its part, Japan has a distorted sense of history, the result of having assumed its guilt in the war in a forced way, forced by the punishment suffered in World War II and the U.S. occupation, and not as a consequence of its own process of voluntary assumption of responsibility. All this has led Japan to resist revising its history, especially that of its imperialist era.

One Element core topic What hinders a sincere reconciliation between Japan and the neighboring countries that were invaded by the Japanese in the first half of the 20th century are the comfort women. This group The increase in the number of women from China, the Philippines, Myanmar, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and South Korea (about 80% of whom came from the latter country) is a consequence of Japan's expansion that began in 1910. During this period, approximately 70,000 to 200,000 women were taken to comfort stations by Japanese soldiers where they were sexually abused. These stations continued to operate in Japan until the late 1940s. According to the testimonies of the surviving women, Japanese soldiers took them away in a variety of ways: kidnapping, deception and extortion are just a few examples.

According to the testimony of Kim Bok-Dong, one of the surviving women, the Japanese soldiers claimed that they had to take her to work in a uniform factory because they did not have enough staff. She was 14 years old at the time. The soldiers promised her mother to return her once she was old enough to marry, and threatened the whole family with exile if her parents did not allow her to leave. She was transported by ferry from Busan to Shimonoseki (Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan), along with thirty other women. They then took another ship that transported them to Taiwan and then to Guangdong province. There they were greeted by officers, who escorted them to the interior of a building where doctors were waiting for them. They examined their bodies and escorted them to their rooms. The women were repeatedly assaulted and raped. After several weeks, many were thinking about suicide: "We were much better off dead" (Kim Bok-Dong, 2018). Many died due to the conditions to which they were subjected, from disease, killed by Japanese soldiers in the last years of the war or, if they had the opportunity, by suicide. It is estimated that about a quarter to a third of the women survived.

Long process

After the war, and despite the fact that the facts were known, that dramatic past was relegated to history, without the necessary attention being paid to it. South Korea was not prepared to help these women (and North Korea had gone into absolute isolation). During the 1960s, relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan worsened due to the anti-Japanese policies of South Korean political leaders. In 1965, Tokyo and Seoul signed the Standardization Treaty, but it proved that economic issues were the priority. Bridges of cooperation were built between the two countries, but the emotional conflict prevented and continues to prevent greater relations in fields far from the economic. Japan continues to argue that the Standardization Treaty contains the arguments to rule out that these women have the right to stand before international courts, even though they are not mentioned in the text.

Things began to change in the 1970s, when the association Asian Women's Society, which began to shed light on this aspect of recent history. At first, even the Korean government ignored the problem. The main reason was the lack of evidence that the events had occurred, since the Government of Japan had ordered the destruction of the compromising documents in 1945. In addition, Japan prevented the South Korean government from claiming additional reparations for damages incurred during the colonial period on the basis of the 1965 treaty.

The culture of Southeast Asia played an important role in the concealment of the events that took place. The value of keeping up appearances in Eastern culture took precedence over denouncing situations such as those experienced by these women, who had to remain silent for decades so as not to be repudiated by their families.

When the Republic of Korea democratized in 1987, the South Korean Government began to attach importance to this issue. In 1990, President Roh Tae Woo asked the Japanese government for a list of women's names, but the response from Tokyo was that such information did not exist because the documents had been destroyed. Socialist leader Motooka Shoji, a member of the Upper House of the per diem expenses The Japanese Parliament called for an investigation, but the parliament argued that the problem had already been resolved by the 1965 Standardization Treaty. In 1991, Kim Hak-Sun, one of the women who survived sexual exploitation, filed the first lawsuit, becoming the first victim to speak out about her experience. This was the Starting the fight of a group of more than fifty Korean women who were calling for acknowledgment of the facts and an official apology from the Japanese government. Beginning on January 8, 1992, "every Wednesday at 12 noon, the victims, together with members of the committee Koreans and other social groups march in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The march consists of holding up signs demanding justice and forgiveness and expressing their demands in public."

The Tokyo government denied any involvement in the establishment, recruitment and structuring of the comfort women's system from the outset. However, since the administrative office In 1992, the Cabinet issued an apology, albeit vague and too generic, to all women for acts committed during the war. It was not until that year that the Japanese government acknowledged its involvement in the management and supervision of these stations. The UNHRC then determined that the Japanese government's actions amounted to a crime against humanity that violated the human rights of Asian women.

In 1993, Japan admitted to conscripting Korean women under duress. Coercion was the word core topic to refute previous statements, which indicated that these women engaged in prostitution voluntarily. Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono stated that "the Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations, and in the transfer of comfort women... who, in many cases, were recruited against their own will." The Government of Japan offered its apologies, regretting what had happened, but there was no compensation to the victims. In 1994, the International Commission of Jurists recommended that Japan pay $40,000 to each survivor. The government wanted to structure a plan to pay women with non-governmental funds, but the committee The Korean Institution for Women Abducted by Japan as Sex Slaves, founded in 1990 and made up of 37 institutions, did not allow them to do so.

In 1995, Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi laid the first steps for the instructions of the Asian Women's Fund, which would serve to protect women's rights in Japan and around the world.  In international eyes, this organization was seen as an excuse to escape the required legal responsibilities, as public money was collected, making the government's involvement almost imperceptible. In addition, a growing minority opinion of citizens sympathetic to the Japanese right began to make themselves heard, who described comfort women as 'prostitutes', who did not need to be compensated in any way.

However, monetary compensation is one of the issues that has mattered least to this country group of women. Their priority first and foremost is to restore their dignity. The fact that the Japanese government has not been directly involved and does not silence opinions such as those of the right-wing minority is probably what affects them the most. Above all, these women are fighting for Tokyo to publicly acknowledge the facts and offer an official apology for what happened.

The UN has continued to take on the role of mediator over the years. We find in several documents belonging to the UNHRC statements urging Japan to solve the problem. In a document reviewing the organization's first demand (February 2, 1996) in the committee Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto responded: "The issue of reparations was resolved through peace treaties and the government will never pay compensation to the victims."

In the document in question, comfort stations are classified as military slavery. Japan responded by denying any subject of legal responsibility, given the inability to apply retroactively the international law of the time, the imprecision of the definition of comfort stations, the non-enforcement of anti-slavery laws during World War II, and the non-prohibition in international law of committing violations in situations of international conflict. In addition, he argued that the laws existing during the war could only be applied to conduct committed by the Japanese military against citizens of a belligerent State, but not against the citizens of Korea, since Korea was annexed and was part of Japanese territory.

In 1998, U.S. lawyer Gay J. McDougall filed a paper with the UNHRC concluding that the actions taken by the Japanese Armed Forces were crimes against humanity. Later that year, the U.N. adopted the text and changed the previous definition to rape stations.


Bronze statue of a "comfort woman" in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul [Wikipedia]


Understanding That Doesn't Come

Over the years, the problem has only grown, and Japanese policy has moved away from a possible path of improving diplomatic relations with its neighbors. This problem of revising history is the basis of the political movements we have observed in Japan since 1945. Reforms imposed by the U.S. occupation and the Tokyo courts played a major role, as did the Treaty of San Francisco, signed in 1948. All of this has established in the Japanese population a passive acceptance of past history and its responsibilities.

Having been tried in the courts of 1948, the responsibility and guilt of the Japanese was believed to have been absolved. On the other hand, the U.S. occupation of the archipelago, taking military control, affected the pride of the citizens. The transformation of the Economics, politics, defence and, above all, the Education It also had its repercussions. Since Japan's democratic beginnings, politics has focused on passive defense, a Education and foreign relations aligned with the interests of the North American power.

However, following the election of Shinzo Abe, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), as prime minister in 2012, numerous changes have been made to the country's foreign and domestic policy, with reforms ranging from the Economics up to Education and defense. Regarding the latter, Abe has focused mostly on reintroducing military force in Japan through an amendment to the article 9 of the 1945 Constitution. This shift is due to the party's own ideology, which wants to give Japan greater weight in international politics. One of the points core topic in his government is precisely the position in the face of the controversial topic of the comfort women.

In 2015, Shinzo Abe and the President of the Republic of Korea, Park Geun-hye, signed a treaty that set out three objectives to be met: an official apology from Japan, the donation of one billion yen to a South Korean foundation for the benefit of these women, and the removal of the statue in memory of comfort women erected in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. This treaty was the greatest achievement in the long process of the conflict, and was received as the solution to so many years of dispute. The first two objectives were met, but the controversial statue was not removed from its location. The arrival of President Moon Jae-in in 2017 complicated the full implementation of the agreement. That year, Moon openly criticized the treaty, saying it sidelines the victims and the Korean people in general. His presidency has varied certain strategic approaches to South Korea and it is unknown exactly what he wants to achieve with Japan.

agreement earring

What can be concluded is that delaying the solution is not in the interests of either party. Leaving the issue open is frustrating all the countries involved, especially Japan. An example of this is the recent breakdown of the brotherhood between the cities of San Francisco and Osaka in 2018 due to a statue in the American population depicting the victims of this conflict. In it are three girls, a Chinese girl, a Korean girl and a Filipino girl, holding hands. Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura and his predecessor, Toru Hashimoto, had written letters to their sister city since the resolution to build the memorial was drafted. Likewise, within the LDP itself, Yoshitaka Sakurada, described this as 'prostitutes' group women in 2016; shortly after the 2015 treaty on this topic. That has provoked a negative response to the treaty, as it is believed that Japan is not really seeking reconciliation, but rather forgetting the topic without accepting the responsibility that comes with it. 

The problem lies in how these countries deal with controversy. The Republic of Korea, under President Moon, seeks to heal past wounds with new agreements, but Japan only aspires to close the matter as soon as possible. Renegotiating a treaty is not the best option for Japan: even if it sought the best solution for both sides, it would lose out. Should President Moon succeed in reaching a new agreement with Prime Minister Abe to solve the problems of the previous treaty, it would show that previous negotiations and the measures taken by Japan in 2015 have failed.

No matter how many apologies the Government of Japan has issued over the years, it has never accepted legal responsibility for actions in relation to comfort women. As long as this does not happen, future scenarios where the discussion is resolved cannot be projected. President Moon will renegotiate the treaty with Japan, but the chances of it succeeding are slim. All indications are that Japan has no intention of renegotiating the treaty or making it happen. position legally. If they do not reach a solution, relations between the two countries may deteriorate due to the emotional toll of the problem.

The root of the tensions lies in the historical past and its acceptance. Both Moon Jae-in and Shinzo Abe must reevaluate the status with a critical eye in relation to their own countries. Japan must begin to commit to past actions and the Republic of Korea must maintain a steady position and decide what its priorities are with regard to comfort women. Only this can allow them to move forward in the search for the best deal for both.

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