Why the Comfort Women Settlement Matters

In the last days of December 2015, the government of Japan formally apologized to the government of South Korea and agreed to a financial settlement of eight million dollars to provide health care for the remaining handful of Korean women, now in their 90s, who were forcibly held in Japanese military brothels during the Second World War. Perhaps there were as many as 200,000 victims; understandably few survivors wished to tell their stories after the war.

For decades Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied his country’s wartime policy of forced procurement and sex slavery, claiming the women were willing prostitutes who had freely chosen their lifestyle. He maintained that the military brothels were beneficial to an Imperial army that needed a ready supply of sex to keep it healthy. Abe never let up. He badgered a United Nations rapporteur; he took his campaign to America.  In 2014 he signed an ad in a New Jersey newspaper protesting a memorial to the comfort women in the town of Palisades Park (see below), home to a large Korean-American population.


International interest in the comfort women first gained traction in 1991, when young feminist activists in Seoul and Tokyo who were coordinating airport protests against sex tour packages took up the issue — the Seoul activists had found a few former sex slaves who wanted to speak out.  In 2002 the Japanese historian Yuki Tanaka wrote a pioneering book that exposed secret documents from Japan’s own military files.  I wrote an introduction to the English language edition.  Mr. Tanaka and I finally met in person last summer at a conference in Hamburg that was titled “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict.”

Why did Premier Abe persist in his blind denial for so long, and why did he suddenly reverse himself?  I view his decades’ long battle to bury an historical truth as part of his effort to restore national pride to a country still suffering the humiliation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the resulting surrender and occupation (never mind that Japan had aggressed against the U.S. at Pearl Harbor).

The tide turned when South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, began pushing him hard. Ms. Park is the daughter of South Korea’s strongman Park Chung-hee who was assassinated in 1979, a fascinating political legacy. Vowing to be “the people’s president” after her 2013 election, she positioned herself as a powerful advocate for the humanitarian rights of the comfort women.  She warned Abe that relations between South Korea and Japan would never be normal until Japan apologized fully and meaningfully.





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What befalls women in warfare is an old story, and indeed, nearly half the pages of Against Our Will, my history of rape, is devoted to rape in war and its aftermath, when the forces of denial kick in to dismiss the horrible truth as one side’s exaggerated propaganda.  I think today of Boku Haram’s gleeful sexual slavery in Nigeria, and of the recent ISIS fatwa detailing what its soldiers may do to captured women in the Middle East.  And I mourn for women the world over.

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