News analysis

'Comfort women' issue can't be swept under rug

Memorials seek to recognise trauma that victims endured, which persists to this day

The "sister city" bond between Osaka and San Francisco of 60 years will be no more.

Osaka is cutting ties, citing a betrayal of trust, after a comfort woman statue was unveiled in a San Francisco park to honour those coerced into the sex trade to service the Japanese military during World War II.

San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, 65, who died after a heart attack on Tuesday, had formalised the statue as city property last month. Osaka said this week it will not change its decision so long as the US city's position on the statue remains.

On Monday, the Japanese Embassy in Manila protested against the Philippine government's unveiling of a comfort woman statue on the city's promenade, which Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada said was an expression of intent "never to forget what (the comfort women) went through".

The issue of comfort women remains emotive more than 70 years after the war as civil activists argue that they are a part of history that should not be ignored.

Tokyo needs to realise that the issue cannot reasonably be swept under the carpet, particularly at a time when anti-sexual harassment movements are gaining traction.

Much as the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had caused unspeakable horrors to their victims, the trauma wrought on comfort women persists to this day - and should not be scrubbed from consciousness.

"In the same way that Japan has memorials honouring its nation's atomic bomb victims, Koreans all around the world want to honour the memory of the numerous comfort women victims," said University of Edinburgh's Dr Lauren Richardson, who has written about the issue. "Tokyo needs to accept this as the status quo."

A comfort woman memorial in San Francisco, California. Osaka is cutting its ties to the US city, and said this week it will not change its decision as long as San Francisco's position on the statue remains.
A comfort woman memorial in San Francisco, California. Osaka is cutting its ties to the US city, and said this week it will not change its decision as long as San Francisco's position on the statue remains. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Critics accuse Tokyo of not being sincere in its redress to victims and of trying to downplay the atrocities.

The right-wing ideologies of top leaders fan the flames of these assertions, with many still justifying that war was waged to liberate the region from colonial rule.

"It is not for Japan, the aggressors, to decide if we have apologised enough. The apologies need to reach the victims, and despite these apologies there are counter-productive moves by the same right-wing to basically nullify these efforts, " said political scientist Koichi Nakano of Sophia University.

Last month, Tokyo vehemently protested against Seoul's invitation to a former comfort woman to attend a state banquet held for visiting US President Donald Trump. It also denounced a move by Seoul to designate Aug 14 as a day to remember the comfort women. It was on that date in 1991 when a South Korean victim first went public with her experience.

For three months this year, Japan recalled its top envoy to South Korea after a comfort woman statue was erected outside its consulate in southern Busan city.

But much as Japan hopes the world will see its point of view, comfort women monuments have sprouted up around the world - besides in South Korea and the US - such as in Australia, Canada and Germany. Dr Richardson said the issue crops up time and again because "victims have continually had their victimhood denied and challenged by elements of the right-wing in Japan".

The right-wing Sankei daily said in an editorial last month that comfort women statues "distort historical facts and condemn Japan" in what amounts to "anti-Japanese propaganda".

"We need to ponder the aim of dredging up the historically unfounded comfort women issue 70 years after the war," it added.

Mr Jun Yamada, Japan's Consul-General to San Francisco, said "the aim of current comfort women memorial movements seems to perpetuate and fixate on certain one-sided interpretations".

Tokyo has opposed the use of the term "sex slaves", citing an official "full-scale, fact-finding study" in the 1990s which had not found any concrete evidence of the forceful taking-away of women by the military or the government. It also says the oft-cited estimate that there were 200,000 comfort women was "lacking in concrete evidence".

Tokyo's stance "exposes a lack of understanding and sensitivity", Dr Nakano said. "It is not a question of whether the women were forcibly abducted, traded or paid for what they did. The fact remains they were forced or coerced into giving sexual favours."

Japan has insisted that a deal struck with South Korea in 1965, when the two nations normalised ties, would have completely settled civilian-related issues, including comfort women and requisitioned workers during the war.

In 2015, it sealed a "final and irreversible" comfort women pact with South Korea, offering an apology and one billion yen (S$12 million) for a foundation for the comfort women still alive. Tokyo has insisted it has already expressed its genuine regret over the lives ruined and lost, and it should not be engaging in "apology diplomacy".

Even so, Dr Richardson said apologies and state compensation are but the first steps towards closure. "Governments must also demonstrate their intent that such crimes will never again be repeated. This is commonly achieved by memorialising victims, which serves to concretise an expression of remorse and ensure that the crime in question will not be forgotten," she said.

"The Japanese government has shown great distaste for the efforts of citizens around the world to memorialise the tragedy of the comfort women system. This behaviour is clearly not in keeping with international norms."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2017, with the headline ''Comfort women' issue can't be swept under rug'. Print Edition | Subscribe