Tokyo cannot sweep comfort women issue under carpet

A statue in a San Francisco park depicting Japanese World War II era sex slaves called 'Comfort Women' has angered Japanese officials. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - The "sister city" ties bonding Osaka and San Francisco for 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 recently 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 (Dec 12), had formalised the statue as city property last month. Osaka said this week that it will not change its decision so long as San Francisco's position on the statue remains.

On Monday (Dec 11), 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.

As Tokyo strives for forward-oriented ties, it also needs to realise that the comfort women 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 its victims, the intangible 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 Dr Lauren Richardson of the University of Edinburgh who has written about the comfort woman issue.

"Tokyo needs to accept this as the status quo, " she told The Straits Times.

However, Japan has time and again bristled over the issue that has come to haunt diplomatic ties. Critics accuse Tokyo of not being sincere in its redress to victims, and of trying to downplay the atrocities.

The outwardly right-wing ideologies of Japan's top leaders fan the flames of these assertions, with many politicians still justifying that war was waged in the name of liberating the region from colonial rule.

This stance is spelt out at the Yushukan museum beside the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines 14 convicted war criminals and where politicians make biannual pilgrimages.

There is dissonance between Japan's words and actions, political scientist Koichi Nakano of Sophia University in Tokyo said. "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."

Last month, Tokyo vehemently protested Seoul's invite of a former comfort woman to a state banquet held for visiting United States President Donald Trump.

It also denounced a move by Seoul to designate Aug 14 as a day to remember wartime comfort women as one that "throws cold water" on bilateral ties. 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 the consulate in the southern city of Busan.

However, much as Japan hopes the world will come to see its point of view, dozens of comfort women monuments have sprouted up in other parts of the world besides South Korea and US, such as in Australia, Canada and Germany.

Fuelling this is a vicious cycle brought about by Japan's excessive offence over the movement, experts said.

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 like the one in San Francisco "distort historical facts and condemn Japan" in what amounts to "anti-Japanese propaganda".

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

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

Tokyo has taken offence with the use of the term "sex slaves" to refer to "comfort women", citing an official "full-scale fact-finding study" in the 1990s which had not found any concrete evidence of the forceful taking away of comfort women by the military or the government.

It also says the oft-cited estimate that there were 200,000 comfort women was an exaggeration "lacking in concrete evidence".

To be clear, comfort women had also been perpetrated in South Korea, where a court this year ruled that Seoul entrapped women to serve as prostitutes for US soldiers in the 1960s and 1970s.

There has also been evidence showing that in many instances, Chinese and South Korean gangs were involved in trafficking their fellow countrywomen for the Japanese military, and that some women were sold by impoverished families.

But Tokyo's stance, in the eyes of the victims, "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 maintained that a deal struck with South Korea in 1965, when the two nations normalised ties, would have "completely and finally" settled civilian-related issues including comfort women and requisitioned workers during the war.

In 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe entered a "final and irreversible" comfort women pact with then-South Korean President Park Geun Hye, offering an apology and one billion yen (S$12 million) for a foundation for the comfort women still alive.

Tokyo has repeatedly said that it should not be engaging in "apology diplomacy", and that it has already expressed its genuine regret over the lives ruined and lost over the war.

Even so, Dr Richardson said apologies and state compensation are but the first steps toward 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."

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