To What Extent Does The Unresolved Comfort

Introduction

The use of ‘comfort women’ during the World Wars by the Japanese army, is one of the most controversial aspects of the relationship between Japan and Korea, and one that remains unresolved till date. The use of comfort women has been held to be akin to sexual slavery under the belief that comfort women would help stabilise soldiers’ psychology and control sexually transmitted diseases during wartime (Yu-ha, 2015). The very name ‘comfort’ was a euphemism which sought to hide the real nature of the phenomenon, which involved the Korean women being forced into sexual slavery (Yu-ha, 2015). The issue remains unresolved because instead of apologising for the use of comfort women in Japanese army, there is an attempt to erase public memory as a process “historical revisionism” (Ahn, 2008, p. 32). Moreover, the issue of comfort women has never being subjected to analysis based on the real voices of women who were forced into being comfort women, rather, there is a tendency to consider the issue from the point of view of academic or military history only, which does not take into consideration the actual experiences and stories of the women (Kimura, 2016). On the other hand, using traditional academic history methods, those who deny the role of military in forcing women into sexual slavery, can argue that the use of comfort women does not figure in official documentation (Yang, 1997). The issue of comfort women affects to a great extent the relationship between Japan and Korea, especially how this relationship plays out in public memory. This is because Japan has never been able to completely acknowledge its role in forceful recruitment of Korean women as comfort women. There are complex issues as to why such acknowledgement failed to come from Japan, including the historical and cultural factors rooted in Korea itself, which already accepted to some extent the subservient role of women in the Korean society.

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Comfort women and the relationship between Japan and Korea

In 2015, Japan and the Republic of Korea signed an agreement on the resolution of the issue of comfort women, which sought to finally and irrevocably settle the issue of comfort women; this agreement did not find much support from the surviving comfort women and their supporters (Ja, 2016). The agreement provided that the Japanese government has been sincerely dealing with the issue of comfort women and will take further measures to “heal psychological wounds of all former comfort women through its budget” for which the Korean government would establish a foundation for supporting the former comfort women (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2015). The Japanese government would give a one time contribution for funds for this foundation and this would finally resolve the issue (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2015). Considering the extent to which the issue of comfort women affects the relationship between Japan and Korea, one may argue that the 2015 agreement indicates that both states are ready to move forward from this issue and therefore, the issue does no longer mar the foreign relations of the two countries as it once did. However, this approach would be in ignorance of the effect of the issue on the civil societies of the two states, which may not be ready to consider the issue finally resolved as their governments might be inclined to do.

In effect, what the Japanese and Korean governments have sought to do is to boil the issue down to the point of reparations, which the one time payment by Japan to the fund for the Korean comfort women seeks to do. In other words, payment of this money may be considered to be a way of giving up further state responsibility for its actions towards Korean women in the Second World War (Ja, 2016). Indeed, private and quasi-governmental groups in Japan have continued to contribute money to the well being of surviving comfort women for more than 25 years (Ja, 2016). The Asian Women’s Fund (AWF), which was established by Japan in the 1990s is also an example of using compensation and atonement as a means of resolving the issue of comfort women (Yu-ha, 2015). The AWF was established by the Japanese cabinet ministers, and not the Diet under a legislation as the victims had demanded. The legislation failed to materialise because many members of the Diet felt that the state-to-state reparations had already been settled under the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea (Yu-ha, 2015). While the Fund represented an effort by the Japanese cabinet to atone for the issue of comfort women, it was not able to win approval from comfort women and the sections of the public that supported them, as it was seen as a means for avoiding responsibility by the Japanese Government (Yu-ha, 2015).

Therefore, for the survivors and many in the civil society of Korea, atonement through compensation may not be enough for the resolution of the issue. They may be looking for other means of honouring the memory of comfort women, in which they make seek the participation of the Japanese government. An example can be seen in the installation of a statue on “comfort woman” outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, which Japan has objected to and has demanded removal of the statue (Ja, 2016). On the other hand, there are protests by those who demand that the statue not be removed (Ja, 2016). The above indicates an existing anger in sections of the civil society which demands a representation of the issue of the comfort women in public memory, both in Japan and Korea. On the other hand, Japanese government’s demands that the statue be removed indicates that they are more willing to pay reparation to comfort women, and have the matter finally resolved and not be a part of public memory in Japan and Korea. It may be argues that it is the issue of public memory which seems to be the most important aspect of the comfort women issue and how it plays out in the relationships between Korea and Japan. Historians, who have been given pre-eminence in discourse on comfort women, both in Japan and Korea, have not been able to find a common ground in which they can agree on the issue of comfort women (Yu-ha, 2015). In the absence of agreement between historians and academicians, it has been the public memory on the issue that has played a vital role, particularly in how public memory is impacted by the real voices of the surviving comfort women (Yu-ha, 2015). Added to the voice of the comfort women, which is now a part of public discourse, there is the political discourse between Japan and Korea, which has seen much disagreement, and which has aided the formation of public memory on this issue (Yu-ha, 2015). This may be so because the political disagreements have also been in the public domain and have led to the public discourse, through which much information on Korea’s comfort women, have found its way into the public memory and discourse (Yu-ha, 2015).

One of the issues that lives on in public discourse is that of the forceful recruitment of comfort women by the Japanese army. Japan has always fallen short of acknowledging such forceful recruitment of women. For instance, in 1993 the then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged that Korean women became comfort women “against their own will,” but fell short of acknowledging that this amounted to “forcible recruitment” of women (Yu-ha, 2015). This is an issue that has continued to create tension between Korean and Japan, as one of the demands in public memory is that Japan must acknowledge that the use of comfort women amounted to forceful recruitment into sexual slavery (Ahn, 2008). Even if it is considered that many women decided to become comfort women on their own, there were usually conditions that led them to make such decisions, including threats to family, or forceful recruitment of male members in the family into the Japanese army (Ahn, 2008). Therefore, one of the major issues that impact the relationship between Korea and Japan is that of the forceful recruitment of women as comfort women, which Koreans may believe that Japan needs to take responsibility for as it was the colonial master of Korea at the time. As Japan was the imperial power at the time of the Second World War, its establishment of comfort stations and use of Korean women as sexual slaves has been considered to be a war crime by an imperial ruler (Soh, 2008, p. 1). For Japan, this portrayal of itself may seem to be hypocritical as it may argue that it did not create the conditions in which women could be used as comfort women, but merely continued the system that was already in existence in Korea due to its patriarchy and victimisation of women in a male dominated agrarian society (Soh, 2008, p. 2). Indeed, it has been indicated that many women who became comfort women in the Japanese army ran away from home to escape difficult and often violent conditions (Soh, 2008, p. 2). Women in Korea during the Japanese colonial occupation, were bound by the Confucian values of obedience, chastity and selfless service, which were also oppressive to them and which to some extent may have been exploited by the Japanese to convince women to become comfort women as a service to their male relatives that would be spared going to war in return for the consent (Soh, 2008, p. 2).

Therefore, the issue of comfort women, while represented as one in which the Japanese have to take responsibility, is also one which may have a different perspective that involves the gaps in the Korean society itself with regard to the women of their society. While this does not shift the blame away from Japan and its use of comfort women, it does provide some perspective on how some Japanese may perceive the issue of blame and responsibility for comfort women of Korea. It may be argued by them that the issue is not something that only Japanese should take blame for, but also something that the Koreans should acknowledge as having cultural and historical roots in their own society as well. Another point that may rankle in Japanese public memory and its refusal to completely acknowledge the military past involving sexual slavery may be that Japan was not the only imperial power or military power that was involved in the use of comfort women; rather, allied forces also used comfort women for their soldiers and officers (Tanaka, 2003, p. 2). Moreover, there is also an uncomfortable issue of Japanese military viewing use of comfort women as utilitarian as it would take care of the needs of the carnal desires of their men and keep them away from venereal diseases (Tanaka, 2003, p. 5). This complicates the issue of apology and acceptance of the use of comfort women as a colonial practice that allowed sexual slavery of women in the time of war.

Conclusion

Japan and Korea have a tense relationship due to the history of comfort women in Japanese military history. Japan has not completely acknowledged that comfort women were forcefully recruited for comfort stations. Although, Japan has tried to make amends through measures involving reparation, these measures have not proved to be adequate to appeasing the Korean public memory on comfort women. The issue of a complete apology on the part of Japan is also complicated by the historical and cultural roots of patriarchy and submission of women in the Korean society. Thus, the situation is that although Japan has acknowledged its past to some extent, it has not been able to successfully respond to the Korean sentiments on this issue. The public memory and public discourse in Korea is still focussed on the imperial history and the forceful recruitment of women for sex slavery.

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References

  • Ahn, Y., 2008. Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’And Historical Memory: The Neo-Nationalist Counter-Attack. In: The power of memory in modern Japan. s.l.:Brill, pp. 32-53.
  • Ja, Y. C., 2016. Are You Listening to the Voices of the Victims? My Critique of Park Yuha's Comfort Women of the Empire. Asia-Pacific Journal-Japan Focus, 14(7), p. 1.
  • Kimura, M., 2016. Unfolding the ‘Comfort Women’Debates: Modernity, Violence, Women's Voices. Switzerland AG: Springer.
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2015. Announcement by Foreign Ministers of Japan and the Republic of Korea at the Joint Press Occasion. [Online] Available at: https://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/na/kr/page4e_000364.html [Accessed 15 April 2019].
  • Soh, C. S., 2008. The comfort women: Sexual violence and postcolonial memory in Korea and Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Tanaka, Y., 2003. Japan's comfort women. Oxon: Routledge. Yang, H., 1997. Revisiting the issue of Korean “military comfort women”: the question of truth and positionality. Positions: East Asia cultures critique, 5(1), pp. 51-72. Yu-ha, P., 2015. How We Should Consider the Comfort Women Issue Based on Discussions between Ikuhiko Hata and Yoshiaki Yoshimi 2013・6 , Seoul: Sejong University.

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