East Asia

, Volume 33, Issue 4, pp 255–269 | Cite as

The Comfort Women Controversy: Not Over Yet



During the World War II, up to 200,000 women, the majority of whom were Korean, were forced to provide sex to Japan’s military forces. The perceived refusal of Japan to fully take responsibility for the mistreatment of these “comfort women” has been a major obstacle to Japanese-Korean relations for a quarter of a century. Although the signing of the December 28, 2015 Agreement between Japan and Korea purported to “finally and irreversibly” solve the comfort women issue that has divided these two East Asian powers, the voices of Korean and Korean-American civil society indicate the contrary. American local, county, and state governments have become key battlegrounds in the conflict. As comfort women memorials across the USA proliferate, these governmental entities have allowed themselves to be caught up in incomplete narratives, whether Japanese or Korean. Against the backdrop of the tense geopolitics of today’s Asia-Pacific, a more responsible, comprehensive inquiry is needed to bring closure to a tragic chapter of human history.


Comfort women Sex slaves Korean Council for the Women drafted for military slavery in Japan Asian Women’s Fund December 28, 2015 Yasukuni shrine Pak Geun Hye Shintaro Abe 

In 2015, the Korean television series Maids (Hanyodeul) was highly lauded by the Korea Drama Awards Selection Committee. Maids vividly and dramatically recounts gruesome betrayal and deceit within the Korean Joseon dynasty’s royal family and the Korean aristocracy known as “Yangban.” The hugely popular series dramatizes unspeakable crimes of misogyny committed by Koreans against Korean women. One might imagine that the popularity of Maids (and other Korean dramas of this genre) affirms that Koreans are aware of their own history of abusing women, not just that of their neighbor to the east. Yet that awareness seems absent from the continuing recriminations regarding the brutal mistreatment of Korean comfort women in World War II by imperial Japan. Korean bitterness and Japanese evasion of responsibility have thus far created a seemingly irreparable chasm between the two countries. In the USA, which has largely escaped scrutiny for its military’s sexual misconduct in Asia, mayors, city councils, county officials, members of the US Congress, and even top federal officials have joined with Korea in attributing exclusive responsibility to Japan. Against this backdrop, it was somewhat surprising when on December 28, 2015, the governments of Japan and Korean announced that the comfort women issue had been “finally and irreversibly” resolved.

Immediately following the December 28, 2015 announcement, civil society organizations such as the Korean Council for the Women drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council) denounced it as insufficient. On January 6, 2016, the Korean Council set forth its objections in writing to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, stating:

[The Japanese government] neither mentioned any specifics on its crimes nor admitted that it was a systematic crime led by the state. Hence, there was no acceptance and commitment on Japanese government’s legal responsibilities. Moreover, the apology, made by Mr. Abe as the representative of the cabinet, was not made directly by the Prime Minister to the victims who have been waiting for a sincere apology for a very long time. The survivors consider that Mr. Abe should at least have directly expressed the apology. [7]

The Korean Council also faulted the creation of the foundation that would be funded by Japan but overseen by Korea, pointing out that “[a]fter the Agreement, Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida clearly stated that the funding for the foundation is not a reparation for the survivors, and the Prime Minister mentioned he will not express any more apologies.” [7]

Efforts to find a resolution for the comfort women problem have been stymied in the USA due to the tendency of American local politicians to take sides, based on their pursuit of short-term gain, such as securing campaign contributions and political support from the Korean diaspora population, particularly pro-active Korean-American civil society. Asian-Americans, more than any other population, constitute America’s new “Swing Vote” [5] and Democrats and Republicans alike are in the hunt for their support. Korean-American numbers are growing due to immigration and represent a key demographic for voter registration and election outreach ([29], p.8). In venues where this demographic makes the difference in an election outcome, one can understand how local politicians feel that they need to pay special attention, and many do. One of the most graphic examples of this was the July 2016 inclusion by the California Department of Education of the history of the comfort women system in the curriculum of all California tenth graders [4]. With California’s reputation as a trendsetter, it is expected that this addition to the curriculum will spread to other states as well [28].

For the past quarter century, Japan has been repeatedly faulted for failing to offer an official government apology and official financial compensation to the surviving comfort women. Up to 200,000 of these women, the majority of whom were Korean, were forced to provide sex to Japan’s military forces during World War II. Japan allegedly used “comfort women” to protect its troops from venereal diseases and dissuade them from engaging in sex, forced or consensual, with other women in Japan’s rapidly expanding sphere of influence, which came to include Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies, and much of China.

For five decades after the War, the tragic experiences of the comfort women remained under the radar. Many had perished in the frontline chaos of the closing months of the war. Some, disgraced on their return to Korea, committed suicide. Others, because of their “stained” history, could only serve as a second spouse. Most simply concealed this tragic chapter of their lives. However, with the increased democratization of South Korea in 1987, the issue began to be discussed more openly. The government of Japan initially claimed that the system had been run by “private entrepreneurs.” Such evasion elicited further Korean demands. In December 1991, the matter reached a boiling point when Ms. Hak-soon Kim became the first person to share her painful experience as a “comfort woman.” As the Korean Council has noted, “Since the coming out of the first survivor, Ms. Hak-soon Kim in 1991, many survivors who had been silent for decades came out to the world courageously to testify the tragic history” [7].

In that month, three comfort women joined a lawsuit in Tokyo against the government of Japan, which among its other demands, called for financial compensation for every surviving comfort woman. On January 11, 1992, Asahi Shimbun reported on Chuo University Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki’s discovery of “officially incriminating documents” at Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies that corroborated the direct involvement of Japan’s military in the comfort women system ([13] p.85). These defense studies’ archives documented the military’s guidelines for the operations, schedules, rules, and payment schemes for some of the military units that oversaw comfort stations ([13], p.85–88). In response, Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Kato, Japan’s official government spokesperson, in his daily news conference of January 13, 1992, stated that an investigation was underway, but that it was clear that “involvement by the military could not be de denied.” Kato further expressed “heartfelt feelings of apology and remorse” to the victims. During the January 16–18 visit to Seoul by Japan’s Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, Korean President Roh Tae Woo expressed appreciation for Japan recognizing its responsibility through the statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato and for the apology and expression of remorse. Roh expressed confidence that Japan would conduct a full investigation and take appropriate action to address past wrongdoing [32]. Prime Minister Miyazawa reiterated the sentiment of the Kato statement, recognizing the role played by the Japanese government in the gruesome plight suffered by the tens of thousands of Korean women forced into providing sexual services to Japan’s military:

It has reached the point where I know of the undeniable fact that the former Japanese military had been involved in recruiting wartime comfort women, managing comfort stations and so forth. The Government of Japan has decided to acknowledge this publicly and make a heartfelt apology. ([53], p.2)

Borrowing directly from Kato, Miyazawa went on to add that he wanted to “express my heartfelt feelings of apology and remorse to those who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences as wartime comfort women” ([53], p.2). These statements were followed by the August 4, 1993, statement of then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. Kono issued a written statement whereby the government of Japan recognized that the “comfort women,” a vast number of whom were Korean, had been generally forced into this dehumanizing activity “against their will” [18]. The Kono statement identified Japan’s military leadership as the perpetrators and expressed profound remorse for the fate that the comfort women had suffered:

Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women. The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women. [18]

The Kono statement acknowledged that Japan’s military had played a pivotal role in recruitment and in the operation of the comfort women system [18]. However, no suggestion was made that Japan would depart from its long-standing position that the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea extinguished all individual claims by Koreans against Japan as a result of wartime conduct.

In recognizing its culpability, the Japanese government indicated its intention to provide support in the founding of an Asian Women’s Fund (AWF), created in July 1995 to “extend atonement and support to those who suffered as ‘wartime Comfort Women’” and secondarily to support projects and initiatives aimed at supporting the rights and dignity of women [3]. AWF, relying on both private and government financial contributions, offered to provide approximately $18,000 to each victim. The fund was founded with strong support from Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama who characterized it as “involving the cooperation of the Government and citizens of Japan,” representing “an expression of atonement on the part of the Japanese people toward these women” [19].

However, Korean civil society, including the highly influential Korean Council (which also denounced the December 28, 2015 deal) mobilized against Japan’s 1995 initiative1 [11]. The council, widely seen as the spokesperson for the surviving comfort women, continues until today to call upon Japan to admit “legal responsibility for the crimes of sexual slavery,” and to take steps to prosecute and punish those responsible for such crimes [1]. The council has also asked that the government of Japan challenge all attempts to conceal or deny the plight of the comfort women by refuting them because it serves “to re-traumatize the victims through such repeated denials” [1]. They ask that the government of Japan recognize the “victim’s right to redress” [1] and provide the “means for as full rehabilitation as possible” [1]. Finally, the council has insisted that future generations of Japanese be educated by including this chapter of history in Japan’s school textbooks so that this tragic injustice does not repeat itself in the future.

Japan has not paid heed to the call for it to accept legal liability for the comfort women. It has maintained that damages sustained due to its occupation of Korea were already addressed through Article II of the June 22, 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea. In accord with that agreement, Japan contributed $300,000,000 in goods and services to Korea over a 10-year period plus hundreds of millions of dollars in additional low-interest loans with the understanding on the part of the governments of Korea and Japan, accompanied by a signed agreement, that all claims against Japan by Korea or by Korean nationals were “settled completely and finally” through the 1965 agreement [16]. Soon after the creation of the Asian Women’s Fund, the Korean Council, nevertheless, convinced most of the surviving Korean comfort women to reject payments from the AWF [44]. The Korean government, which had initially expressed support for the AWF initiative, also retreated to take the side of the Korean Council. Most recently, with the election of President of Park Geun Hye, Japan-Korea relations had ebbed to a new low because of the unsettled comfort women issue.

For those reasons, many Korea watchers were taken by surprise when, on December 28, 2015, the governments of Japan and Korea hailed the signing of the agreement said to put an end to the dispute. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to make a public apology to the surviving comfort women and the Korean government promised to consult with civic organizations regarding the removal of the sculpture paying tribute to the comfort women that had been strategically located in a park directly facing the Japanese embassy in Seoul. In the December 2015 agreement, Japan also committed to provide 1 billion Japanese Yen (US$9.8 million) to a fund for survivors, which the South Korean government would administer. Both sides agreed to stop airing their sharply conflicting views on the matter before multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.

Almost immediately following the announcement, however, the powerful Korean Council rejected the deal as “shocking” [41]. The New York Times reported that Lee Yong-soo, a surviving comfort woman, criticized it for falling “far short of the women’s longstanding demands that Japan admit legal responsibility and offer formal reparations,” and announced her intention to “ignore it completely” [41]. In the USA, the organization for Korean-American Civic Engagement (KACE), which played a pivotal role in informing the American public about the comfort women issue and advocated in favor of the building of memorials in the USA, expressed “grave concerns” about the deal and resolved to continue to “educate future generations about the comfort women issue” [23]. The Korean-American Forum of California labeled the agreement a “sham” and denounced it. The forum argued that, through the agreement, the parties were “erasing the history, as if to make it something that never happened” [54]. The forum also expressed concern that removing the statue in Seoul would lead to removing the statue in Glendale, California, which is a replica of the statue in Seoul [54]. US Representative Michael Honda, a Japanese-American who has played a driving role in holding Japan accountable, described the deal as a “historic milestone” and a “step in the right direction,” yet he expressed disappointment that it does not include “a formal and official apology issued by the Japanese Diet” [17]. For their part, Japan’s leaders faced strong internal opposition as well and were criticized for failing to secure a commitment for removal of the comfort women memorial statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, although sources for the Prime Minister have said that there would be no funding until it was removed [50]. Probably to calm anticipated backlash, Prime Minister Abe’s wife visited the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japanese war dead 1 day after the signing of the accord [43].

At the end of June 2016, Lee Won Deog, a Professor at Kookmin University and a member of the Korean foundation that will oversee the dispersal and utilization of the funds coming from Japan, urged Japan to go forward with its support for the foundation. Lee emphasizes that now would not be the time for Japan to push for the immediate removal of the Seoul statue. According to Lee, the foundation should first be established and Japan should demonstrate its commitment to acceptance of responsibility and to reconciliation with the comfort women victims and their families. Korea would like to see the accord implemented prior to the end of President Park Geun Hye’s presidency in 2017 [51].

On August 9, Korean and Japanese officials charged with the “final details” of the December agreement met once again and claimed to “have made progress” towards the arrangement of the payment schedule and a consensus on the mission and activities of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation. In public exchanges following the meeting, it appeared that there was still not consensus on how the Korean government was going to respond on the issue of the statue located near the Japanese embassy nor was there consensus on what the cash settlement represented. The Japanese side appeared to still maintain that the legal liabilities of Japan towards Korea had been settled in the 1965 agreement [62]. On Korea’s side, there are still deep reservations about the agreement. The Director of the new Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, Professor Kim Tae Hyun, was attacked and had her face sprayed with red pepper spray by a young man, immediately following the opening ceremony of the Foundation on July 28, 2016 [27]. On the positive side, on June 18, for the first time, it was reported that one of the surviving Korean comfort women indicated that she would accept compensation from Japan and consider this chapter closed. Those involved in negotiations with Korean civil society and with the Korean Council, in particular, viewed this positively and expressed their view that if two thirds of the comfort women were to accept, it would then become possible to negotiate with the Korean Council as well and close this chapter of history [48].

Based on initial responses to the accord, which both countries worked to complete before the end of 2015, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the original Japan-Korea peace accords, it represents a step forward but may not heal the divide. Civil society’s discontent may well lead to a political reversal in the future, as it did in the case of the Asian Women’s Fund [47]. The USA will remain pivotal in the heated exchanges that affect Korea, Japan, and East Asian security. On March 31, 2016, President Obama hosted a Nuclear Security Summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Korean President Park Geun Hye. The three leaders recognized the grave importance of collaboration among the three nations, which, as President Obama pointed out, share “strong commitment to a rules-based order, one in which all countries, regardless of size, act according to shared norms and shared principles” [57]. For that reason, we argue here that, before taking sides, Americans leaders need to ascertain that they have sufficient background on this important issue or refrain from taking a public position.

Since 2010, numerous memorials have been dedicated to the comfort women not only in Korea but also, perhaps surprisingly, in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Michigan, California, and Virginia, with the support of local governments. The funding for the existing monuments has come mainly from the Korean-American community in the USA [49]. The Japanese government has worked to stop or slow the proliferation of memorials in some venues in the USA, charging that they misrepresent events [36]. Other Japanese-Americans, including US Congressman Michael Honda, support the memorials. In 2007, Honda spearheaded House Resolution 121, calling upon the Japanese government to apologize for sexual slavery during World War II [2].

Efforts to build memorials will likely continue, especially given the negative reaction to the December 2015 deal by organizations such as the Korean-American Forum of California and KACE, which has sponsored informational junkets that serve to “invite elected officials to visit Korea and the Korean American community” [24]. In October 2010, the Borough of Palisades Park, under Mayor Frank M. Rotundo and then Deputy Mayor Jason Kim, a Korean-American, dedicated a stone monument to the comfort women on the grounds of their public library. Palisades Park, located in New Jersey near the George Washington Bridge, had a population of slightly less than 20,000 at the time of the 2010 US Census [34]. More than half (10,115) were identified as being of Korean heritage [34]. The monument cost a little more than $2,000, which was covered by the Korean American Voters Council [49]. The Palisades Park memorial features an etching of a Korean woman cowering before a Japanese soldier and a giant sun, with an inscription reading:

In memory of the more than 200,000 women and girls who were abducted by the armed forces of the Government of Imperial Japan 1930–1945 known as ‘Comfort Women.’ They endured human rights violations that no peoples should leave unrecognized. Let us never forget the horrors of crimes against humanity. [42]

In October 2012, Mr. Rotundo spent 5 days in Korea. His travel and 4 days of hotel expenses were paid for by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, a non-partisan independent think tank, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in South Korea [33]. While in Korea, he visited the House of Sharing near Seoul, home to surviving comfort women. He called for an apology by Japan at the highest level, pointing to Japan’s direct responsibility for what happened [35]. In reiterating his support for the monument in December 2014, Rotundo, who has only a high school degree, reflected, “When I heard the stories, I knew this was the thing to do” [30]. Following the 2013 dedication of a memorial in nearby Hackensack, New Jersey, it was reported that, a few months earlier, Bergen County Executive Kathy Donovan, like Mayor Rotundo, had visited Korea and met with comfort women there [52]. Donovan’s airfare and hotel were covered by the Korean city of Dangjin, a sister city of Bergen County [10].

In 2012, Shigeyuke Hiroki, Consul General of Japan in New York, visited Mr. Rotundo’s offices. Mr. Hiroki described the monument as a “stumbling block” to improving relations between the two countries [10]. Mr. Rotundo maintains (and Hiroki denies) that in the meeting, the Consul General “offered trees, a youth exchange program between the two countries, and books for the public libraries to improve the relationship between the two countries” [10]. Four members of the Japanese Diet followed up with a visit to Mr. Rotundo on May 6, 2012. They disputed that “more than 200,000 women and girls” were involved, and that they had been “abducted.” Instead they maintained that the women were “paid to come and take care of the troops” [10]. In 2013, the Japan narrative may have fared better in Orange County California’s Buena Park where three of the five members of the City Council voted against a memorial following Japanese protests, including a letter from the Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles [31]. Explaining why her city had decided against the memorial, Mayor Beth Swift quipped, “We’re little Buena Park!” [31]. While affirming her belief in the Korean charges of a comfort women system, she stated that this constituted an “international dispute,” not an issue to be addressed by city government [31].

On May 14, 2014, Fairfax County Virginia inaugurated a monument near its 9/11 memorial. The dedication reads as follows:

In honor of the women and girls whose basic rights and dignities were taken from them as victims of human trafficking during WWII. Over 200,000 women and girls from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Netherlands and East Timor were enforced into sexual slavery and euphemistically called ‘Comfort Women’ by Imperial Japanese forces during WWII. We honor their pain and suffering and mourn the loss of their fundamental human rights. May these ‘Comfort Women’ find eternal peace and justice for the crimes committed against them. May the memories of these women and girls serve as a reminder of the importance of protecting the rights of women and an affirmation of basic human rights. [26]

In explaining the Fairfax County memorial, Grace Han Wolf, a member of the Herndon City Council who is of Korean descent and a key player in gaining support for the memorial, describes Japan’s treatment of the comfort women as “a war crime that happened a long time ago that not many people know about, yet it happened, much like the Holocaust happened” [36]. She downplayed the memorial having an anti-Japan focus. Wolf maintained that its intent was to raise awareness of the larger issue of human trafficking. “We don’t really perceive ours as anti-Japanese nor particularly pro-Korean. We were really careful to position it that way because we didn’t want it to become just about that,” Wolf said. “The ‘Comfort Women’ is one of many sad stories about human trafficking, which disproportionately affects Asian American women and children. So we really took a pan-Asian approach” [26]. Unfortunately, the Fairfax monument missed an opportunity to offer a more “pan-Asian approach” by failing to mention that many thousands of Japanese women were also victims of the comfort women system.

Prior to the December 28 agreement, diplomatic relations between Japan and Korea had plummeted to depths comparable to the time of Korea’s first president, Syngmun Rhee [12]. Rhee, a fierce nationalist, scorned relations with Japan because Japan refused to comply with his strict guidelines on accepting culpability and apologizing for the cruelty of its colonization and suppression of Korea between 1905 and 1945. Under Pak Chung Hee, relations with Japan improved. Pak had served in the Japanese military and regarded good relations with Japan as essential for Korean economic development, his highest priority. As priorities shifted, deep-seated ill feelings came to the fore. Through the Kim Dae Jung administration (1998–2003), and later with the inauguration of President Pak’s daughter Geun Hye, relations fell to a new low. Robert E. Kelly, Associate Professor of International Relations at Pusan National University, recently wrote that “South Korea has fallen back on Japanophobia, being the anti-Japan, to legitimate itself, because all Koreans, north and south, can agree that Japan was bad” [22]. Kelly warns American diplomats about the complexity of this sentiment and its implications for American diplomacy in the region. “Hostility toward Japan is not just a political posture, but is part of the South Korean political identity,” he writes [22]. After the signing of the December 28 accord, Kelly told the Wall Street Journal that many South Koreans would “not accept the deal” [21].

On its website, the Korean-American Forum of California displays a photo of German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in 1970 before a wreath commemorating the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto [25]. Koreans have drawn parallels between the plight of the comfort women and the Holocaust. By the end of 2012, Germany had paid almost $90 billion in compensation to the Holocaust survivors and their families [9]. Koreans seek comparable self-effacement from Japan, and the December 28 agreement does not provide it. S.J. Friedman characterized the December 28 agreement as “just the beginning,” and noted that comfort women survivors want an apology like “the one that Willy Brandt gave at the Holocaust memorial.” [59] However, Japan’s leaders have shown none of Brandt’s willingness to prostrate themselves and beg forgiveness at ceremonies and sites commemorating the comfort women. A significant voice in Japan denies the mistreatment of comfort women and even defends Japan’s colonization of large swaths of Asia including Korea, and its accompanying bellicosity, as justified by the conduct of similar Western empire-building states, and by the economic benefits that they believe Japanese domination conferred on areas such as Korea and Taiwan, which still today regularly recognizes the strides in its development due to the 1895–1945 occupation period of occupation under Japan.

Japan’s views of its colonial empire and of the war itself are intimated when one visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Not only did Japan enshrine all of its convicted Class A War criminals at Yasukuni in 2007 but, since 2005, the Yasukuni Shrine has created a stone monument honoring Dr. Radhabinod Pal, the Indian Judge who served as a member of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal [60]. Pal was the only judge who questioned the legitimacy of the tribunal and voted for acquittal of all those charged with Class A War Crimes, maintaining that the USA had helped to provoke the war with Japan through embargoes on scrap iron and oil, and had expected Japan to take military action ([61], p.411). In a 2007 address to the Indian Parliament, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid homage to Pal stating, “Justice Pal is highly respected even today by many Japanese for the noble spirit of courage he exhibited during the International Military Tribunal for the Far East” [37]. Prime Minister Abe also made a point to travel to the home of Pal’s surviving son Prasanta to pay his respects.

Additional Complexities

As C. Sarah Soh points out, rather than just Japanese misconduct, the comfort women tragedy can be more comprehensively viewed as a manifestation of “masculinist sexual culture and persistent structural violence” that is found not only in Japan and Korea but also more widely in Asia and elsewhere ([45], p.228). Yuki Tanaka points out that the origins of the comfort women system can be found in the exportation of Japanese women to serve as prostitutes in Shanghai and other emerging Japanese outposts beginning as early as 1882 ([55], p.168).

The American military’s post-war role in the Pacific Rim also contributes to the comfort women impasse. It was the USA that chose not to prosecute those responsible for the system and allowed American troops to patronize comfort stations in the period immediately following Japan’s surrender ([55], p.133–141). Korean President Pak Chung Hee, the father of the current Korean president, is also not without guilt. He legalized prostitution in Korea in the late 1960s to discourage GIs stationed in Korea from spending their US dollars on furloughs in Japan where prostitution was legal. The Korean National Tourism Corporation issued certificates of employment in Entertainment Services for Korean sex workers [40]. This led to the creation of sex shantytowns around most US military bases in Korea. The women providing such services were praised for attracting hard currency to Korea’s struggling economy and lauded as “western princesses” [38]. In 2014, the “princesses” began taking the Korean government to court and demanding redress [40]. Their actions left the Pak Geun Hye Korean government in an embarrassing position, given their hard-hitting attacks upon Japan for the building of a comfort women network. More recently, former US Senator Norm Coleman has called for Korea to accept responsibility for the widespread mistreatment and violation of Vietnamese women by Korean troops during the Vietnam War [6].

Regional Security Concerns

Further complicating matters, China has made it manifestly clear that it intends to become the new sheriff in the Asia-Pacific region, challenging American sea and air supremacy, even creating an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in Northeast Asia. The USA should not seek to thwart China’s legitimate development, but should encourage China’s reliance on diplomacy and rule of law rather than power-based international bullying in asserting itself.

After initiating House Resolution 121 in 2007 calling upon Japan to apologize for its creation of the comfort women system, and after consistently supporting the establishment and maintenance of comfort women memorials on both the East Coast and West Coast, Congressman Honda took a further step in 2014 when he included in a House spending bill a document “drawing attention to the July 30, 2007 House Resolution 121,” which, he explained would pressure the US Department to encourage Japan to re-assess its position on this matter [15]. Honda appears to have been successful. On April 25, 2014, at a joint press Conference with Korean President Park Geun-Hye, President Obama called upon Japan to address the matter:

Finally, with respect to the historical tensions between South Korea and Japan, I think that any of us who look back on the history of what happened to the comfort women here in South Korea, for example, have to recognize that this was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights. Those women were violated in ways that, even in the midst of war, was shocking. And they deserve to be heard; they deserve to be respected; and there should be an accurate and clear account of what happened. I think Prime Minister Abe recognizes, and certainly the Japanese people recognize, that the past is something that has to be recognized honestly and fairly. [56]

Immediately following the Conference, the Japanese government called for calm to avoid a backlash from President Obama’s statement and noted that Prime Minister had in fact decided to stand by the Kono Statement [39]. In 2016, President Obama accompanied Prime Minister Abe to Hiroshima, becoming the first US President to visit Hiroshima where, if he did not apologize, he expressed sympathy for the many innocent victims.

For its part, China appears increasingly willing to exploit the comfort women issue. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, a new World War II Pacific War Memorial Hall commemorates the 70th anniversary of the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression” [21]. Web on China bluntly referred to the Museum as “the first overseas anti-Japanese war memorial” [46]. Congressman Honda was chosen as Honorary Curator of the Museum [20]. A San Francisco comfort women memorial was approved in September 2015 and, for the first time, civil society organizations with PRC ties played a key role in this effort [14].

Japan and Korea have fully embraced democracy and rule of law, while China wavers in its commitment, resorting, for example, to gunboat diplomacy in handling regional maritime disputes. The question remains: will China’s future be determined by rule of law or, as Mao once said, by “the barrel of a gun?” The answer may well depend upon the strength of the US-Japan-Korea working relationship and those countries’ ability to influence China to opt for rule of law rather than coercion in international relations and otherwise.

An Agenda for Action

The December 28, 2015 accord represents a laudable attempt to improve Korea-Japan relations. To correctly support that process, however, local American leaders need to hear more than one side of this tragic chapter of human history. The comfort women network existed in Japan long before Korea was annexed by Japan in 1905. The misogyny continued, using Korean women and girls rather than enlisting the sisters of the Japanese Army soldiers. Further, decades of shantytowns around US Army Bases where Korean women were marketed and abused and even the use of the comfort stations in Japan by US soldiers in the year after the war should not be forgotten. Yet, the script on the monuments to the tragic victims of brutal abuse indicts only Japan.

American municipalities and counties have allowed themselves to become the frontlines in fueling the Korea-Japan divide on the question of the comfort women. Yet, such local governments clearly lack the time and staff, let alone the background in East Asian culture and history, to assess the conflicting Korean and Japanese narratives on this unfortunate and divisive chapter of history. Focused on antagonism toward Japan, Koreans ignore America’s role, as well as the longstanding demeaning view of women in Asian societies, including Korea. For its part, Japan downplays the number of comfort women, points at Koreans’ role in their recruitment, and makes the hollow claim that these women acted voluntarily and were well compensated.

Rather than American local governments piling on by siding with either of these narratives, a more responsible, comprehensive inquiry is needed whether the real goal, as proponents of the memorials in the US assert, is to draw attention to the ongoing trafficking of women and girls, or to properly document and understand the historical events and their causes. The local debate on comfort women memorials in the USA must factor in the attitudes towards women in early twentieth century East Asia that provided the rationale for the comfort women system. They must also recognize the US decision not to prosecute the perpetrators of the system after the war, as well as the US military’s patronage of the comfort women system after World War II and the continued abuse of Japanese and Korean women by the US military [58].

At present, the pursuit of justice for the comfort women has taken on some of the trappings of a Korean drama where, even if perpetrators are exposed, others with culpability always manage to escape judgment. When American scholar Alexis Dudden asked a senior Korean official when Korea would ask the USA to apologize for its wrongdoings, the official responded, “We are only Korea. We can only ask Japan” [8]. As Dudden writes, “Seoul finds that it is not in Korea’s national interests to demand official apologies from the United States” ([8], p.100). Perhaps so, but, in the geopolitics of today’s Asia-Pacific, if inadequately informed local politicians allow half-truths to carry the day for the sake of their own expediencies, they may put at risk what President Obama referred to in his March 2016 summit with Prime Minister Abe and President Park as “shared norms and shared principles” and “a vision that is rooted in our strong commitment to a rules-based order” [57].


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    The Korean Council serves as a key Korean NGO in addressing the comfort women issue. Its work is mentioned and a testimony of one of the Korean comfort women is posted on the Feminist Peace Network.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Public and International AffairsUniversity of BridgeportBridgeportUSA

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