JPRI Working Paper No. 77, May 2001
Japan's Responsibility Toward Comfort Women Survivors
by C. Sarah Soh


The euphemism "comfort women" (ianfu) was coined by imperial Japan to refer to young females of various ethnic and national backgrounds and social circumstances who were forced to offer sexual services to the Japanese troops before and during the Second World War. Some were minors sold into brothels; others were deceptively recruited by middlemen; still others were forcibly abducted. Estimates of the number of comfort women range between 50,000 and 200,000. It is believed that most were Korean.

The question of the wartime forced recruitment of Korean women as ianfu was first raised in the Japanese National Diet in June 1990 as a result of the women's movement in South Korea. The first class-action suit by Korean ex-comfort women was filed against the Japanese government in December 1991, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Since 1992, Korean and Japanese women leaders, as well as ex-comfort women and legal experts, have persuaded international organizations, including the United Nations, to conduct a series of hearings and formal investigations into the matter. In her 1998 U.N. report on contemporary forms of slavery, Gay McDougall recommended among other things that Japan pay state compensation to the "individual `comfort women'" and prosecute all those responsible for the comfort system who remain alive today.

Legal scholars such as David Boling believe that "due to both substantive and procedural obstacles," the plaintiffs in Korean and Filipina litigations are unlikely to win, and he has therefore suggested that concerted international pressure on Japan by Western nations, especially the United States, will be needed to achieve state compensation. Indeed, in the latest court decision on March 26, 2001, the Hiroshima High Court overturned a 1998 district court that had ordered the Japanese government to pay three Korean former comfort women 300,000 yen ($2,272 as of April 1998) each.

The Japanese government has steadfastly maintained that the San Francisco Peace Treaty and various bilateral agreements between Japan and other nations have settled all postwar claims of compensation. Nonetheless, in response to mounting international pressure to compensate former comfort women, the government has acknowledged its moral responsibility for the suffering imposed on them and it helped establish the Asian Women's Fund (AWF) to express "a sense of national atonement from the Japanese people to the former 'comfort women,' and to work to address contemporary issues regarding the honor and dignity of women." AWF is nominally a non-governmental organization. In fact, however, it is the Japanese government that is responsible for AWF projects.

From the perspective of groups in Japan and elsewhere that are demanding state compensation, the AWF is an expedient designed to evade Japan's legal responsibility. Thus, the AWF became controversial even before its birth, and its formation in July 1995 has contributed to divisions among pro-comfort women activists in Japan and the Philippines. Advocates of state compensation have held rallies and conferences in Japan and elsewhere calling for abolishing the AWF. But the issue of Japan's legal and moral responsibility also involves the attitudes of the Western nations that defeated Japan in World War II. Why did the issue of comfort women as a war crime take nearly half a century before it suddenly emerged in the international community in the 1990s? Did the Allied Forces really not know about it at the end of the war?

Postwar Western Responses

John W. Dower wrote in Embracing Defeat: "When World War II ended in Asia, the consuming sentiments of the victorious Allies were hatred and hope; and the tangle of these emotions was nowhere more apparent than in the war-crimes trials the victors conducted" (p. 443). Nonetheless, among the approximately fifty military tribunals convened at various Asian locales between 1945 and 1951, only one tribunal, conducted by the Dutch in Batavia (today's Jakarta), meted out stern punishments (including one execution) to Japanese officers who forced Dutch women into sexual servitude. The Batavia trial thus recognized the "forced prostitution" (to use the Dutch government's terminology) of thirty-five Dutch women as a war crime. However, it ignored similar suffering by a much greater number of native women in Indonesia, not to mention female victims in other Asian countries. What, then, is the meaning of the Batavia trial for the comfort women issue? Obviously, it was the action of a victorious nation-state protecting the human rights and personal security of its nationals in a colonial setting as a matter of national interest. It underscores the common deprivation of human rights of people under colonial rule.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, commonly known as the Tokyo war crimes trials or Tokyo tribunal, did not punish any Japanese leaders for the abuse of comfort women, even though U.S. military intelligence units had gathered relevant information on it (as revealed in documents kept at the National Archives in Washington). In this case, the Tokyo tribunal's lack of concern for the human rights violations of "comfort girls" (as they are called in the U.S. documents) reflected not only the pervasive racism of Western nations toward non-white people but also the fact that no American women were victimized. The prevailing military culture, then as now, no doubt contributed. Upon landing in defeated Japan, the Allied Forces-- composed mainly of American soldiers-- were offered Japanese comfort women as an official policy. The policy was meant to protect the Japanese women at large from random rapes by the American soldiers and reflected the sexist assumptions that had underlain Japan's comfort system for its own troops. However, plagued by the rampant spread of venereal diseases, the comfort facilities of the RAA (Recreation and Amusement Association) were closed by the end of March 1946, several weeks before the Tokyo tribunal began.

Postcolonial Disputes Between Japan and Korea

The transnational redress movement for ianfu survivors originated in South Korea as a women's movement against sex tourism by Japanese male visitors. It developed into a post-colonial dispute between Japan and Korea. The two countries hold diametrically opposed views regarding the legitimacy of Japan's colonization of Korea. The 1982 history textbook controversy in Japan, which began as a domestic squabble and expanded into an international incident involving primarily China and Korea, epitomized Japan's nationalist view of its colonization of Korea and the imperialist war as an "advance" instead of "aggression" into its neighboring countries. Such nationalist views continue to serve as a fundamental source of tension and disagreement over Japan's postwar responsibility for Korea's colonization in general and for comfort women survivors in particular. It should be noted, however, that the issue of comfort women remained a non-issue for both Japan and South Korea during the fourteen years (1952-1965) of negotiations to normalize bilateral relations.

Although the Japanese government did not formally express its apology for or regret over colonial rule in Korea until 1992, a very small number of progressive intellectuals in Japan have repeatedly called on their government to confront the issues of colonial domination since the 1982 textbook controversy. A public statement made by eight Japanese intellectuals on August 14, 1982, called on both government and people to recognize and apologize to the Koreans for Japan's aggression and colonial injustices, including former comfort women who were recruited under the guise of the "volunteer labor corps" (Teishintai /Chongsindae in Japanese and Korean) and who perished in the South Seas. Four of the eight signatories were professors, including the historian Haruki Wada of the University of Tokyo. A prominent critic of Japan's inadequate response to its colonial misdeeds and war responsibility, Wada is one of the proponents of the AWF.

Although not a signer of the 1982 statement, the feminist historian Yuko Suzuki bluntly defined Japan's comfort system as "state crime" (kokka hanzai) in a February 1, 1990, essay in the Mainichi Shimbun. In it, she called for the belated but necessary atonement the Japanese state must make for the comfort women in order for Japan to live "as a 'moral nation.'" However, Suzuki has played a leading role in the anti-AWF camp.

The Korean Women's Movement

It is largely the Korean women's movement that spearheaded the international effort to obtain recognition and compensation for the comfort women survivors. In 1991, two landmark events galvanized the Korean women's movement. In August, Kim Hak-sun testified in public about her suffering as a former comfort woman, and in December a class-action suit was filed against Japan by thirty-five Koreans, including three former comfort women. Kim's personal appearance in Tokyo as a former comfort woman and a plaintiff in the lawsuit riveted the attention of both Japan and the world community.

A third watershed event occurred on January 11, 1992, when the Asahi Shimbun reported that Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a Japanese historian, had discovered several official war documents at the Library of the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo. Contrary to Japan's official position up until then, these documents revealed that the imperial army was involved in both establishing and operating the comfort stations. As a result, the Japanese government could not help but acknowledge its wartime involvement in the comfort women issue; and on January 13, 1992, it issued an apology. Four days later, Prime Minister Miyazawa formally apologized to the Korean people during his visit to Korea. In March 1992, a South Korean non-governmental organization, The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Han'guk Chongsindaemunje Taech'aek Hyopuihoe, "Korean Council" for short) appealed to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to investigate the comfort women issue.

In December 1992, the Korean Council conducted a nationwide fund-raising drive to help the survivors. In March, 1993, South Korean President Kim Young Sam announced that Seoul would not seek material compensation from Japan for former comfort women, but he urged Tokyo to investigate the issue thoroughly and make public the truth. Kim's policy was designed to stake out a position of "moral superiority" for Korea in forging a new relationship with Japan in the future. The Korean government passed a special bill granting each former comfort woman a one-time payment of five million won (approximately US$6,250) plus an additional monthly sum. Between 1996 and 1997 there were two further Korean fund-raising campaigns in order to counter the temptation of the survivors to accept money from the Japanese Asian Women's Fund. During this period, seven Korean survivors accepted AWF money, causing outrage and sharp criticism among Korean activists. In April 1998, at the request of the Korean Council, the Kim Dae Jung government approved the payment of a further 31.5 million won in support money to about 140 survivors, who were required to pledge not to accept AWF money.

A National Fund a.k.a. the Asian Women's Fund

After acknowledging the involvement of the military in the comfort system in January 1992, the Japanese government conducted two formal investigations into the matter before it admitted in August 1993 that there had been coercive recruitment in some cases. Prime Minister Miyazawa indicated that the government would come up with some vague gesture in lieu of compensation for the survivors. The Miyazawa cabinet, however, was unable to act on this for two reasons. First, the Korean Council and other support groups were opposed to any measure that evaded Japan's legal responsibility. Second, the Japan Socialist Party had insisted on the investigation of the truth, a sincere apology, and compensation as its policy. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party was trapped between its admission of coercive recruitment and its unwillingness to say or do anything that might indicate legal responsibility.

Moreover, there arose a wave of strong resistance among conservative Japanese to compensating Korean comfort women survivors. Ken'ichi Takaki, head of the legal team for the class-action lawsuit, has suggested three causal factors for this Japanese resistance. First, stunned by the compensation lawsuit, some Japanese immediately assumed that the comfort women survivors were motivated by economic gain. Second, many pointed out that everybody had suffered during the war and that Japanese women had also worked as comfort women. (In other words, it was gendered labor that a certain class of women had offered in order to help their nation win the war.) Finally, many backed the government position that the 1965 agreement normalizing relations between Korea and Japan had settled all reparation issues.

When Tomiichi Murayama, the leader of the Socialist Party, became prime minister in June 1994, progressive intellectuals and movement leaders had high hopes for achieving a satisfactory resolution to the comfort women issue. But Murayama, as a leader of a coalition cabinet, was caught between the conservative resistance and the progressives' clamor for state compensation. In June 1995, his cabinet came up with the proposal to establish the Josei no tame no Ajia Heiwa Yuko Kikin (Asia Peace and Friendship Fund for Women).

Despite harsh criticism of the proposal, a month later the government announced the formation of Josei no tame no Ajia Heiwa Kokumin Kikin, accompanied by a statement from nineteen proponents of the fund calling for public participation in a fund-raising drive. The name of the fund was also slightly changed: Yuko (friendship) in the originally proposed name was replaced by Kokumin (a people, or a nation). In Japanese, the fund is commonly referred to as the Kokumin Kikin (People's or National Fund), while in English, it is known as the Asian Women's Fund.

One of the main criticisms leveled against the AWF has been that it is a "private fund." However, this is inaccurate: although an amalgam of private and government money supports the projects for comfort women survivors, the Japanese government is financially responsible for the operation of the fund. The first president (1995-1999), Bunbei Hara, was a former speaker of the upper house of the Diet. Following Hara's death in 1999, former Prime Minister Murayama agreed in the fall of 2000 to become the second AWF president.

The fund's activities fall into four categories: 1) to deliver two million yen (around US$18,000 depending on the exchange rate used) to each survivor-applicant as "atonement money" raised from the Japanese people, accompanied by letters of apology from the Prime Minister and the AWF president; 2) to implement government programs for the survivors' welfare; 3) to compile materials on the comfort women for the historical record; and 4) to initiate and support activities that address contemporary issues of violence against women. The funds raised from the private sector between 1995 and 2000 have amounted to about 448 million yen, while the government is expected to expend about 700 million yen over a ten-year period in order to pay the medical and welfare expenses of individual victims. The government also grants the fund several hundred million yen each year for its operating budget.

However, the Japanese government has authorized the fund to operate as a non-profit foundation and regularly reiterates that it supports AWF projects out of moral responsibility and that legal compensation issues have been settled. The meaning of the expenditure of state funds is thus fudged by the state's double-talk. Moreover, with its insistence on moral responsibility, the government has sidestepped the issue of whether the comfort system was a war crime. This is the fundamental reason why supporters of state compensation will continue to reject AWF funds.

Another important issue in the AWF controversy is the state's formal apology to the survivors. When the AWF delivered the first "atonement money" to four Filipina survivors in August 1996, they also handed over letters of apology from both Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and the President of the AWF, Bunbei Hara. Hashimoto's letter included phrases such as "apology and remorse" and "women's honor and dignity," but without any reference to the war of aggression or colonial domination. Activists for state compensation also found fault with the phrase "my personal feelings" in Hashimoto's letter, pointing out that it conveyed the feelings of one individual and not of the government of Japan. It is not known why the term "personal" was added in the official English translation of the Japanese phrase "watashi no kimochi" (my feeling). From 1998 on, when Keizo Obuchi succeeded Hashimoto as prime minister, the letter in English no longer contained the term "personal." Furthermore, Obuchi's letter in the official Korean translation contains the crucial term sajoe (shazai in Japanese). The English word would be "apology," but it is a stronger term than sagwa, another term for apology: sajoe, in contrast to sagwa, implies the admission of a crime, rather than just a mistake. However, except for a few undisclosed recipients of the AWF atonement money, practically no one in Korea is aware of this terminological change because the AWF projects cannot be implemented publicly, owing largely to the strenuous objections raised by the Korean Council and the survivors.

In any case, in comparison to Hashimoto's 1996 letter, which was designed primarily to evade the issue of state compensation, AWF president Hara's letter of apology recognized the involvement of the Japanese military in establishing comfort stations as well as acknowledging coercion and dissimulation in the recruitment of comfort women, some of whom were teenage girls. Both letters do not fail to mention Japan's "moral responsibility," and the phrase, "in cooperation with the Government of Japan," appears multiple times in Hara's letter.

Since the AWF is a compromise measure to deal with the issue of compensating comfort women survivors, the organization is composed of supporters from opposing camps ranging from conservative neo-nationalists to progressive intellectuals. The tensions among them have resulted, among other things, in personal confrontations on the AWF Committee on Historical Materials on "Comfort Women." For example, Ikuhiko Hata, a conservative historian and a member of the committee, has publicly criticized, in a 1999 essay, fellow committee members Soji Takasaki and Haruki Wada, calling them "termites" (shiroari) and accusing them of having a secret agenda eventually to turn AWF activities into state compensation. A primary reason why even some supporters of state compensation-- such as Wada and Takasaki -- back the AWF is their desire to take some concrete action before elderly survivors die without receiving any tokens of atonement, let alone legal compensation. For his decision, Wada has been subjected to vitriolic name-calling by his former friends and allies.

Diverse Responses to the AWF Projects

Following the lead of the Korean Council, many representatives and supporters of the international redress movement are also opposed to the AWF. However, they have taken varying positions regarding the individual survivor's acceptance of the AWF offer. For example, Maria Rosa Henson, the first Filipina former comfort woman to come forward, was among the first to receive the AWF money and the letters of apology at a ceremony held in Manila in August 1996. Henson died a year after the public event. In contrast, Kim Hak-sun, the first Korean woman whose testimony helped ignite the international movement, refused to accept the AWF offer and died in 1997, with the lawsuit still pending and prior to receiving the 1998 Korean government's special payment for survivors.

In January 1997, seven Korean survivors did accept the AWF offer, which outraged the movement's leaders and split the organization into supporters and opponents of the leadership's position. The Korean rhetoric of rejecting the AWF included the metaphor of a "second rape" of the survivors by Japan with the temptation of money. As of October 2000, the AWF acknowledged publicly that 170 victims in three countries have accepted its offer. The fund reveals only the aggregate number of recipients in consideration of the survivors' privacy, especially of those in Korea and Taiwan. It is estimated, however, that Filipina recipients of the AWF offer number over one hundred, while the combined number of Korean and Taiwanese recipients is about fifty.

The Dutch survivors have also reacted very differently from the Koreans. Among the ninety women applicants who contacted the Project Implementation Committee in the Netherlands, some seventy-eight were judged to be genuine comfort women survivors and accepted the AWF assistance. (Some survivors who are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit of Dutch war victims against the Japanese government have rejected the AWF offer, but the high concern for their privacy has prevented their identities and number from being revealed publicly.) Some Dutch women said that they actually preferred the AWF money to state compensation because the former comes from the Japanese people who wanted to express their regret to the war victims while the latter would be money that was forcibly generated from an unwilling and divided government. As of October 2000, the AWF has offered its resources to about 250 survivors in four countries (South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Netherlands), and it has launched another round of fund-raising called "Campaign 2000."

The clash between those who criticize and the survivors who want to accept the AWF money raises questions about the basic human rights of the survivors. Do the survivors have the right to decide whether to accept the AWF offer and thus bring closure to an unfortunate chapter in their lives? By insisting on Japan's legal responsibility and state compensation is the movement's leadership (or, in the case of Indonesia, the government) victimizing the survivors anew by denying them freedom of choice? In Indonesia, the government has opted for Japan to fund a national social welfare project in lieu of payments to individual survivors.

National Interest Versus Healing Truth

At the legal level, the Japanese government seems to regard it in its national interest to ward off the possible domino effect that accepting the claims of comfort women survivors to state compensation could have on other types of non-Japanese war victims. Such a concern by a state is not unique to Japan. It is mirrored, for example, in the U.S. government's refusal, in its report of January 2001, to characterize the Korean massacre at No Gun Ri by the American military during the Korean War as a war crime. The U.S. admitted the massacre of civilian Koreans by American servicemen. President Clinton expressed his deep regret to President Kim Dae Jung over the telephone, but he did not apologize. There are many more incidents (at least sixty-one according to an Associated Press report) involving multiple killings of civilians by the U.S. military in 1950-51, but the U.S. is not willing to investigate further. The Korean victims and their bereaved families plan to file a lawsuit, and their demand for a U.S. apology and compensation is reminiscent of the demands made by the comfort women movement.

Contemporary Japan is deeply divided over the comfort women issue. In a 1997 opinion survey, a slim majority (50.7 %) replied that Japan should apologize properly to Asian countries and the victims. Some progressive lawyers and grassroots activists are campaigning for legislation that would authorize an investigation into the comfort women issue, an apology, and compensation. In contrast, conservative neo-nationalists, who feel neither a moral nor a legal responsibility for the comfort women survivors, believe that Japanese supporters of the international redress movement display an egregious lack of "awareness of national interests" (kokueki ishiki). Some conservatives have actively engaged in the project to write history textbooks with a view to fostering self-confidence and pride in being Japanese among school children. As a result, five of the eight middle-school history textbooks approved for use from the year 2002 do not mention military comfort women.

Some Japanese perceive the comfort system as having been a necessary evil, placing them at odds with feminist and anti-Japanese critics who regard the comfort system as a form of sexual slavery. In opinion surveys conducted in 1998 and 1999, more than two-thirds of Japanese military veterans replied that Japan should neither apologize nor compensate comfort women survivors because they had been paid money for their services. It is in this social context that prominent politicians and cabinet secretaries in Japan have asserted that comfort women were nothing more than licensed prostitutes engaged in business, causing outraged responses among movement activists and survivors alike. To be fair, one of the official aims of the comfort system was to prevent soldiers from randomly raping the women of occupied territories. Survivors' testimony reveals, however, that some comfort stations degenerated into "rape centers" (to use Gay McDougall's term) in the final years of the war.

Nonetheless, one must distinguish between rape used as a genocidal weapon of war (such as in Bosnia and Kosovo) and the comfort system with its official, intended purpose of regulating prostitution and providing R& R. Beyond this lies the problem of ascertaining operational details of the comfort system, such as the issue of forced recruitment, payment, and working conditions, which varied widely depending on the particular locale and period. There is, moreover, the problem of how one defines being "forced," which is one of the major bones of contention in the compensation issue, even after the Japanese government's admission that some comfort women were forcibly recruited. Apparently, the only evidence that anti-comfort women conservatives in Japan will acknowledge as an exceptional case of forced recruitment is that of Dutch women from civilian internment camps. By contrast, some feminist and human rights activists argue that not only military comfort women in the colonies and occupied territories but also women sex workers in Japan's licensed prostitution system were victims of sexual slavery.

If one accepts the latter view, one interesting question becomes the meaning of the total absence of Japanese former comfort women in the redress movement. As Christa Paul suggests in her preface to the Japanese translation of her book on forced prostitution in wartime Nazi Germany (Nazizumu to kyoseibaishun, Tokyo: Akaishi, 1996), ethnic nationalism, steeped in a strong antipathy toward Japan, has played a pivotal role in launching and sustaining the Asian women's redress movement for comfort women survivors. Thus it is no accident that Japanese ex-comfort women are conspicuously absent in the redress movement. Despite the borderless, globalizing capitalist economy, nation-state interests and identity politics deriving from a colonial history still constitute major barriers to discovering what the South African reconciliation tribunal has called "healing and restorative truth."

During Japan's fifteen-year war in the Asia Pacific theater, the comfort system evolved as a complex social, sexual-cultural, and historical institution for the military, from urban centers of sexual entertainment provided mostly by Japanese women into facilities of authorized gang rape and sexual enslavement of women of the colonies and occupied territories. The uncompromising search for gender justice in terms of state compensation and a proper apology clashes with a humanitarian desire to take some concrete action on behalf of the aging survivors during their lifetime. It is a difficult choice for sympathetic supporters of the redress movement.

C. SARAH SOH is Associate Professor of Anthropology at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Women in Korean Politics (Westview, 1993) and "Korean 'Comfort Women': Movement for Redress," Asian Survey Vol. 36, No. 12 (1996): 1227-1240. In studying the AWF, she received a grant for research and writing from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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