An uncomfortable legacy

This practice is now defined as a crime against humanity. Its techniques of violence persist in recent and ongoing wars such as in Bosnia and Nigeria.

Written by Alexis Dudden | Updated: January 14, 2016 12:06 am
South Korea high school students look at portraits of late former "sex salves" who were forced to serve for the Japanese Army during World War II at the House of Sharing, the home for the living sex slaves, in Gwangju, South Korea, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015. A day after trumpeting an "irreversible" settlement of a decades-long standoff over Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan's WWII military, there's relief among South Korean and Japanese diplomats, fury among activists and many of the elderly victims and general public indifference in both countries. (AP Photo) South Korea high school students look at portraits of late former “sex salves” who were forced to serve for the Japanese Army during World War II at the House of Sharing, the home for the living sex slaves, in Gwangju, South Korea, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015. A day after trumpeting an “irreversible” settlement of a decades-long standoff over Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s WWII military, there’s relief among South Korean and Japanese diplomats, fury among activists and many of the elderly victims and general public indifference in both countries. (AP Photo)

On December 28, 2015, in Seoul, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea announced an accord concerning Japan’s historical system of state-sponsored sexual slavery. Internationally known by its wrongheaded euphemism, the “comfort women” history took place between 1932 and 1945 and involved the coercion and trafficking of tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of young women, girls and boys into what today amount to “rape camps.” The victims came from throughout Japan’s former empire, with the majority taken in then militarily occupied and colonised Korea. As captives, “comfort women” — including 12-year-old children — were forced to provide sex up to 40 times a day for Japanese troops and civilians in areas under Japanese command.

This practice is now defined as a crime against humanity. Its techniques of violence persist in recent and ongoing wars such as in Bosnia and Nigeria. Differences between past and present occurrences notwithstanding, a global imperative necessitates learning from all historical evidence of this crime in order to work to end it.

A crucial step lies in confronting reality — in this instance, acknowledging that the history of Japan’s state-sponsored sexual slavery happened. By declaring that the “military authorities of the day” took part, the new deal between Tokyo and Seoul defies those who continue to whitewash Japanese state involvement. Also, it includes an official apology from the Japanese government as well as the mutual establishment of an $8.3 million fund to help surviving victims with medical treatment and other needs.

Government spokespeople involved are naturally heralding the deal’s success: “We have been able to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides.” Equally predictable, Japan’s hate mongers counter that the government’s “mistaken historical consciousness” is treachery to “profit foreign countries”.

Significant concerns about the deal have arisen in between these positions that demand thoughtful engagement — all with an eye towards achieving justice for the victims and eradicating the crime today and in the future. First and foremost, surviving victims are furious that policy brokers excluded them from the deal-making process. “The fight is still on!” declared 88-year-old Lee Yong-soo in Seoul, while blasting the agreement’s ambiguity concerning the nature of Japan’s responsibility.

The anger is not limited to South Korea. Taiwanese victims and their country’s foreign ministry immediately demanded a similar accord, insisting they would require Japan’s legal responsibility — not expressions of sadness. Meanwhile, voices are rising in Malaysia, China, the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and other areas. And what about North Korea? Korea was not divided when the crimes occurred.

Also disturbing are contradictory claims from Tokyo and Seoul over the future of a small bronze statue known as the “Comfort Women Peace Statue”. Since its December 2011 unveiling, a benign likeness of a seated girl with which its sculptor invoked victims’ lost childhoods has been the gathering touchstone for South Korean survivors. A civic group sponsored it to mark the 1000th consecutive weekly demonstration that victims and their supporters have held since 1992 — and which they continue to hold — on a spot directly across from the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Japanese diplomats made their discomfort with the statue known as soon as it appeared. Hundreds of demonstrations later, the peaceful girl is elemental to how many people commemorate history’s trauma. Likenesses exist throughout the world, as does one with a Chinese victim seated next to a Korean girl. Survivors embrace the statue, and supporters wrap it in scarves against winter’s chill and grace it with garlands of flowers in the summer. The statue has moments of nationalist pride and occasionally waves South Korea’s flag. She has internationalist impulses, too, wearing a butterfly pin to signify the “Butterfly Fund” established in 2012 to assist today’s victims of wartime sexual violence worldwide.

Two successive conservative South Korean administrations have refused Japan’s request that the statue vanish, making all the more alarming Tokyo’s reports on the heels of the agreement that the promised cash is contingent on the statue’s disappearance from Japan’s gaze.

Today, it is commonplace for groups around the world to demand the removal of statues of perpetrators of what are
now criminal acts: In the United States, Woodrow Wilson is in the crosshairs for supporting racial segregation; Cecil Rhodes is being toppled for a litany of horrors in Britain and throughout the former empire. Only Japan is seeking the removal of a statue of a victim of its nation’s past crimes.

This is additionally strange coming at a moment when Japan seeks to redefine its security posture to allow troops to engage militarily abroad for the first time since 1945. How do we understand Tokyo’s willingness to combat evil today when its leaders so fear the national past that they would hide from a statue of an unarmed child? Neither the Japanese nor the South Korean government has the right to mess with the statue. The survivors and their supporters alone decide where it belongs, and those managing any agreement about this history must listen to them for it
to work.

The writer is professor, department of history, University of Connecticut

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