Japan and South Korea have a lot in common - they’re both long established democracies, they’re allies of the United States, and their economies are prosperous. Despite this the two have had remarkably poor relations since the close of World War II, and the issue of so-called ‘comfort women’ in particular has long been a sore point.
“In the Asia Pacific War between 1931 and 1945 the Japanese military operated and maintained a large number of ‘comfort stations’. They were presented as a way to comfort and pleasure their soldiers, boost morale and placate the local population,” says Dr Nicola Henry, a lecturer in Crime Justice and Legal Studies at La Trobe University. “Between fifty thousand and two hundred thousand women were coerced, forced, kidnapped, and otherwise recruited into a military sexual enslavement. This was enforced prostitution, and these women were treated horribly.”
Dr Henry’s research has focussed on the legal aspects of sexual violence and trauma. The challenges experienced by comfort women and their supporters in getting compensation or recognition for what they have suffered during war times have been a particular focus of her recent work.
On 28th December 2015, Japan and South Korea reached what they hope will be an agreement that will settle this divisive issue. Japan agreed to pay ¥1 billion into a fund supporting surviving victims, and on South Korea’s part they agreed to refrain from publicly criticising Japan regarding the issue, and to remove a provocative statue from outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
In an official statement, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe “Expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and physiological wounds as comfort women.”
“The demands that have been placed on Japan by survivor activists and their advocates has been very much around getting a proper apology that acknowledges the involvement of the Japanese military and political leaders,” says Dr Henry. “For a long time there’s been calls for compensation, but this is fundamentally a diplomatic deal.”
Japan has subsequently demanded the statue be removed from outside the embassy as an initial act of this deal, stating that the ¥1 billion will not be given beforehand. Citizens of Seoul are conducting a round-the-clock vigil to prevent the statue’s removal.
Japan’s statement and reaction indicate there is no admission of responsibility, and their official position is that no women were coerced to work in comfort stations during the conflict. In a recent panel session of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Japan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama made the claim that they have found no documents that can confirm comfort women were forcibly recruited by military or government authorities, and maintain that current beliefs are based on false accounts.
“I think it points to the power of language, and about the euphemism of ‘comfort women’, which is highly insulting to many survivors,” says Dr Henry. “There’s continued use of that term because it’s catchy, it's understandable to media and academics and the population at large. But it’s right at the heart of the problem of controversy and denialism.”
“The euphemism lets denialists argue that there's no evidence to prove that these women were coerced or forced and kidnapped into sexual slavery, and that they were willing sex workers. It allows the denial that in this instance there was no wrongdoing.”
Regardless of a satisfactory resolution to the issue of comfort women, the current geopolitical climate in Asia and the activity of China in the South China Seas all but guarantee a strong relationship between Japan and South Korea. International support from advocates, as well as from the United Nations, Amnesty International and other groups, have criticised the lack of meaningful progress.
“It must add salt to the wounds of the comfort women to have their stories and their experiences denied in the way that they have been,” says Dr Henry. “There are forty-six surviving comfort women in South Korea and more in China, Taiwan, Vietnam who have given evidence. The way they have been treated by Japan shows there is definitely a hierarchy there, there's an intersection between class, between national identity and also gender and race.”
“None of these women were included as part of the negotiations. The continued denialism is a horrible thing they have to go through and they have to go to their graves with.”