By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
On January 8, the Seoul Central District Court in South Korea confirmed a ruling ordering the Japanese government to pay 100 million won each to 12 surviving comfort women who were forced into sex slavery and prostitution by the Japanese military during and before World War II. The Yoshihide administration paid no heed to the court order and called it a “violation of international law.” They insisted that sovereign immunity prevented the ruling from having any effect in Japan. With tensions rising between the two countries in the last few weeks, it is relevant to explore the South Korean and Japanese governments’ very different responses to calls for justice for the comfort women.
Comfort Women vs The State
Before the Rwandan Genocide and Yugoslav civil wars exposed the systemic use of sexual violence in armed conflict, the comfort women, the former sexual slaves of the Japanese military paved the way for the international recognition of crimes of sexual violence. Hailing from former Japanese occupied territories such as Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea (the majority), these women began to come forward and share their stories, starting with Kim Hak-soon in 1991, breaking the silence and taboo surrounding the systemised rape of women during the Pacific War. An already unprecedented movement for women to file legal suits and hold the complicit state accountable, what was an even more revolutionary aspect at the time was that the narrative was intersectional and survivor-centric. The elderly survivors, some who passed away while waiting for verdicts, were oppressed by both colonial and national states and their testimonies in court spoke to the intersection between the structural violence of military imperialism, the patriarchy and colonialism and overt violence.
In response to feminist activists and the South Korean Constitutional Court, the Japanese government has claimed that compensation for historical abuse was cleared through the 1965 agreement that settled matters between the South Korean government and itself, but it fails to acknowledge that individual victims, survivors and family members can still seek compensation and accountability. Most recently, PM Suga’s administration has also pointed to the 2015 agreement, through which the Japanese government intended to buy the silence of the comfort women. In both these cases, the comfort women themselves were completely ignored and side-lined, making the case for justice extremely state-centric and a matter of assuaging diplomatic tensions, instead of offering apologies or justice for the victims and survivors.
The comfort women have had to endure a long and arduous battle to convince the South Korean government to further their cause and for the Japanese government to take them seriously. Time and time again, Japan has been evading responsibility and downplaying the brutality, refusing to bring closure or deliver justice. In bravely coming forward and identifying themselves as former comfort women, they challenged statist, patriotic and masculine perspectives on Japan’s history, reminding people the brutal horrors of the role of the Japanese state and military in maintaining a system of forced prostitution in its occupied territories. After their voices had been silenced for decades, the mere act of showing up at court and demanding justice is a powerful act of subversion and rebellion against the very state, forcing it to reckon with an issue that was being buried in the collective national memory.
Reparations – Feminist Policy in Action
It was only after President Moon Jae-in came into power that the South Korean government began pressurising the Japanese government for thorough fact-finding, formal apology and reflection, and proper history education. With the revival of the issue of reconciliation and reparations for the former comfort women, the Foreign Ministry cited that the latest 2015 agreement did not reflect the latter’s opinions. The Ministry also made it clear that they cannot supress their voices despite Tokyo’s insistence on preventing the escalation of diplomatic disputes. The South Korean Constitutional Court’s ruling demanding reparations from the Japanese government is a tangible manifestation of the state’s efforts to remedy the trauma suffered by the comfort women. It is also an example of a bottom-up feminist foreign policy in action as it considered the needs of the comfort women and supported them with state institutions.
However, mere monetary compensation is not enough. When the Japanese government offered money, the comfort women rejected it, “not because of the amount but because the government did not acknowledge any responsibility. The 6 women (out of 500) who did accept the funds emphasized that, despite their acceptance, no monetary repayment could repair the harm they had suffered.” The comfort women also refused to accept money that came from private donations and organisation, as they insisted the onus is on the state to accept their wrongdoings, apologise and take steps towards redressal and justice. In addition to accountability from the Japanese state, they have also demanded that school textbooks included an accurate historical account instead of sanitised propaganda. Doing so, alongside depicting the complicity of the imperial Japanese government in museums, will be a staunch reminder to make sure it never happens again.
As summarised by Gabriel Jonsson of Stockholm University, “a remedy should contain an apology to surviving comfort women for their sufferings, an acknowledgement that the drafting was implemented systematically and forcibly with the government’s knowledge, a recognition that the purpose was for sexual slavery and should be regarded as a crime against humanity, an acceptance of moral and legal responsibility and, finally, an extension of monetary compensation from the Japanese government”. Unfortunately, in international relations, so-called “masculine” characteristics such as aggression and pride are valued more than “feminine” characteristics such as empathy. For these reasons, apology and reparations are seen as signs of weakness of states. However, reparations are actually feminist policies that acknowledge the wrongdoings of the past and promise to do better in the future. They also place the needs of the survivors and the victims front and centre instead of the state’s honour or interests, which often interpret reminders of horrible pasts as unpatriotic and anti-national.
Japan’s Womenomics is not Enough
The recent court ruling from South Korea is not the first time that Japan has faced international pressure regarding gender-issues (gender gaiatsu). In 2013, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced “Womenomics”, policies largely drawn from the work of Kathy Matsui, as part of his Abenomics economic policies and as a political and public relations strategy. Womenomics was launched in response to both the international pressure to address low rankings on gender inequality indicators and the country’s poor historical women’s rights records with regards to the comfort women.
While the outcomes and responses to Womenomics policies have been mixed, it is worth noticing that they have not addressed the issue of reparations for comfort women despite it being a huge reason why they were introduced in the first place. If the Japanese government was really invested in increasing women’s opportunities and empowerment in the economic realm, it could do well to take a leaf out of South Korea’s book and reach a consensus on delivering closure and justice. A good place to start would be to stop running away from criticism regarding the comfort women and address monetary, legal and moral reparations through the Womenomics policies.
As Liv Coleman of University of Tampa argued, Womenomics “deflects attention away from the ‘comfort women’ issue by emphasizing Japan’s forward-looking contributions to help women in conflict situations”. Indeed, Abe’s conservative administration did not pay much heed to gender equality but saw the need to bolster its international image with regards to the same. With a more future-oriented message, Womenomics diplomacy initiatives were used as a convenient smokescreen to deflect attention from the comfort women, towards the potential for an empowered future for women in Japan and developing countries.
The Road Ahead
Post-war relations between Japan and South Korea have always been rocky because of the enduring trauma of colonialism and in the past thirty-odd years, bedevilled by the comfort women issue. In 2019, Tokyo retaliated to a Seoul Court ruling that allowed lawsuits against forced wartime labour by placing embargos on technology exports and almost ended an intelligence-sharing agreement. The most recent ruling from last month also reopens the 2015 agreement that was intended to “finally and irreversibly” settle the comfort women issue, also making it possible for Japanese assets to be seized if Tokyo did not comply. Thus, although there has been political and economic reconciliation over the last 75 years, as Professor Naoko Kumagai argues, “it is not based on any solid foundation of forgiveness”.
The South Korean and Japanese governments’ responses to the comfort women’s pursuit of justice reveals two very distinct approaches to not only the issue of colonial and gender-based violence, but also the idea of justice. Ultimately, for long-term relations between these two regional powers to become stable, the only way forward is to heal traumas and pave the way for sustainable peace. Reconciliation must be built through mutual trust and continued attention from both parties is required to ensure that the victims’ and survivors’ dignity is restored. As such, both countries need to put aside strategy and, in the words of Professor Kumagai, “pursue genuine reconciliation to complement what political reconciliation has missed.” Empathy is vital to diplomacy and to prevent further deterioration of economic and security relations between these neighbours, the governments should put aside strategic concerns and immediately redress the concerns of the comfort women to truly move on.
1. Reparations for “Comfort Women”: Feminist Geopolitics and Changing Gender Ideologies in South Korea - https://journals.library.cornell.edu/tmpfiles/CIAR_12_2_3.pdf
2. ‘Comfort Women’: A Lasting Barrier to Japan-South Korea Reconciliation - https://www.globalasia.org/v10no3/feature/comfort-women-a-lasting-barrier-to-japan-south-korea-reconciliation_tsuneo-akaha