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Japan Issues Apology to South Korean Women Forced into Sex Slavery During WWII

Today, Japan offered an apology and payment as compensation for brutally forcing Korean women to work as "comfort women" for the country's army during World War II. Survivors say this isn't enough.

by Lauren Oyler
Dec 31 2015, 10:00pm

Korean comfort women captured by the US Army in 1944. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Early this morning, officials from South Korea and Japan agreed to resolve their decades-long conflict over the South Korean women who were forced to serve as prostitutes for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. The agreement signifies a landmark achievement in decreasing tensions between the two countries, which have festered since Japan's colonial rule of Korea ended in 1945. However, some survivors—euphemistically referred to as "comfort women"—are dissatisfied with the resolution, saying in a statement that it has "thoroughly betrayed the wishes of comfort women and the South Korean people."

According to the New York Times, the agreement consists of an apology from Japan and a promise to make an $8.3 million payment to a fund that supports the 46 known surviving comfort women in South Korea. While the payment will be drawn directly from the country's national budget, this does not constitute the formal reparations survivors demand.

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"The South Korean survivors of wartime sexual slavery have been demanding justice, acknowledgment, and reparation for their suffering," says Kaitlyn Denzler, a women's rights campaigner at Amnesty International. "As part of this, they have asked Japan to take full legal responsibility for their crimes. This resolution and the government's formal apology do not admit to legal responsibility."

Although historians say it's impossible to determine the exact number of women the Japanese army forced into sex slavery during the war, some estimates put the number at around 200,000. This includes South Korean women as well as women from China, the Philippines, Europe, and Japan itself. According to the Asian Women's Fund, these women were forced to reside in "comfort stations," where they were required to work long hours and given one day off per month, if any. As Japan's situation in the war worsened and the army relocated, women were "either abandoned or destined to share their fate with defeated military." After the war ended, many surviving comfort women suffered from physical disabilities, venereal diseases, and infertility; according to some testimonies, they were often too ashamed to return to their home countries.

Despite all this, however, the Japanese government has been reluctant to acknowledge that its military had forced women into prostitution. The Korean and Japanese governments underwent 12 rounds of negotiations since the spring of 2014 to arrive at this week's resolution, and the conflict has been going on since the war ended in 1945.

An agreement that calls for the end of scrutiny or criticism around the crimes is not a true commitment to taking responsibility.

The Japanese government first considered the issue resolved after it agreed to pay $800 million to South Korea to compensate for its brutality during the colonial era, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. The government again considered the situation resolved after it issued a specific apology for the comfort women in 1993. However, survivors and advocates never believed this was enough. Given that Japan had previously denied these claims for decades—only admitting that it had "recruited" women, without coercion, to work in army brothels during the war in 1992—this admission was seen as a victory, albeit a very small one. Since then, activists in organizations like Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery in Japan and the Asian Women's Fund have campaigned for Japan to issue formal, unequivocal reparations for the atrocities it committed during the war. After the 1993 apology, Japan set up a private fund for comfort women, but many refused to accept the aid it offered.

"The fact that the $8.3 million comes from the national budget is a change from Japan's prior decisions to set up a private fund, which was essentially a way for the government to avoid taking full responsibility, since the payments came from citizens rather than the government itself," Denzler says. "However, the new support fund still falls short of the demands of some survivors; it is not a direct apology or direct, legal reparations to the women or their families."

Indeed, according to a statement by Hiroka Shoji, an East Asia researcher for Amnesty International, today's resolution was "a deal that is more about political expediency than justice." Both South Korea and Japan are allies of the United States, and Congress has repeatedly requested the countries settle the issue of comfort women so that they can build a more united front against China and North Korea. In addition, the New York Times noted that Japan secured "an important concession" from Seoul in the deal: The South Korean government agreed "not to criticize Tokyo over the comfort women again."

"An agreement that calls for the end of scrutiny or criticism around the crimes committed against these women is not a true commitment to taking responsibility," Denzler says. According to Shoji, there were no former comfort women present for the negotiations.