Opinion: The comfort women 70 years on; dialogue between Japan and South Korea must be reopened

by Kiyoko Takahashi, Editorial Writer

The summer sun shone down on pastoral fields as I bounced along on a bus to the House of Sharing, about one hour from Seoul, South Korea. The 10 elderly former comfort women who reside there share the bitter experience of being used to provide sex to members of the Japanese military at “comfort stations” on the battlefront during the war.

I traveled to the House of Sharing as a member of a group of editorial writers from Kyodo News member newspapers. Upon spotting us, Yu Hui-nam, 86, who moved from one brothel to another, spoke to our group in a mixture of Korean and Japanese. “Even though we were from different countries, they must have been human beings just like us,” she said. “Our humanity was trampled upon.” Ms. Yu asked us to imagine how we would have felt if a family member had had the same experience. After the war she was too ashamed to return to her hometown and lived a life of seclusion, she said.

The former comfort women who agreed to be interviewed have all sought a formal apology and compensation from the Japanese government. Kang Il-chul, 86, was taken to Manchuria (northeast China). “If you make a mistake, it’s important to apologize,” she said angrily. “I can’t die and leave things this way.”


Seventy years have passed since the end of the war. In Japan’s neighbor across the sea, rather than forget the painful past, the elderly comfort women have pushed their physical limits in an effort to recover their honor and dignity. The apologies that have been offered by the Japanese government are clearly seen as inadequate, at least by the women at the House of Sharing.

They all regard Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with disdain because, based on his statements over the years, they believe that his perception of wartime history clearly differs from that of Japan’s former prime ministers. The women are eager to see whether the statement the prime minister will issue next month to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war will be based on an expression of regret for Japan’s aggression.

The comfort women became a political issue between Japan and South Korea when the first women came forward in the early 1990s. The so-called Kono Statement was issued in 1993. In it Yohei Kono, chief cabinet secretary during the administration of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, issued an apology, acknowledging the involvement of the Japanese military in the recruitment of the comfort women and stating that the women had been recruited “against their will.” The statement was well received by the South Korean government. The Asian Women’s Fund was established under the administration of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, a coalition between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the Japan Socialist Party and the New Party Sakigake. The fund launched a project to pay compensation to former comfort women and send them letters of apology from the prime minister.

So why did this aggravate the situation? One reason was the question of postwar compensation. The Japanese government has maintained that the matter of compensation was settled with an agreement on the right to make claims entered into in conjunction with the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which normalized relations between the two countries.

Meanwhile, a support organization in South Korea opposed the program saying that “atonement money” raised privately did not acknowledge government responsibility, so many former comfort women refused to accept the money. This was probably influenced by growing public scrutiny of Japan and its responsibility for colonial rule following a democratization movement in South Korea. Some people responded favorably to the intent of the fund, but it caused discord in South Korea with the women who accepted the money being criticized. The South Korean government is seeking ways to convince the comfort women and Korean A-bomb survivors living in South Korea that they are not entitled to compensation under the terms of the 1965 agreement on the right to pursue claims.


After talking to South Koreans about their views, I sensed that there were hard feelings that predated the money problem and that prevented resolution of the issue. I repeatedly heard comments on fundamental issues like this: “I want Japan to acknowledge the facts regarding the harm it caused.” “Japan has not taken clear responsibility.” “Do the Japanese feel bad about what they did?” The South Koreans seem to feel that there is diminished awareness in Japan of the harm inflicted by its colonial rule.

Since August of last year I have heard some people dismiss the comfort women problem as a “non-issue,” citing the Asahi Shimbun’s retraction of its coverage of the issue because it was based on fabricated statements by a Japanese person. The LDP and others have stepped up their calls for the Kono Statement to be revised.

But we must not forget that the behavior of politicians has a particularly great impact on neighboring nations. Ever since the comfort women issue first attracted attention in Japan, conservative politicians, including Cabinet members, have repeatedly made public statements rejecting the involvement of the military, saying that the comfort women willingly became prostitutes. This has exacerbated the distrust on the South Korean side.

Prime Minister Abe has stated that he will not revise the Kono Statement. But serious questions have been raised about this year’s governmental review of the statement, which is favorably regarded in South Korea. An official in South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed concern that the Abe administration seems to be denying that there was any coercion of the comfort women.

It’s true that there has been insufficient debate on the Japan side. Whether or not the comfort women were coerced by the Japanese military has become a major point of contention. There are various views on the matter involving the definition of “coercion” and the extent of the involvement of the Japanese military in the establishment of the comfort stations and the recruitment of the comfort women. In any case, there is no doubt that South Korea was subjected to bitter experiences under Japan’s colonial rule. I believe the government must not evade responsibility.

The human rights of the women involved must be borne in mind. This issue is not limited to concern about the relationship between Japan and South Korea but has been the focus of attention internationally. People tend to turn a blind eye to the issue of how vulnerable women are to sexual assault in wartime. For that reason, it has occurred repeatedly in other countries. How many Japanese politicians really understand the nature of the comfort women issue and have faced it head on?


Public opinion surveys show that Japanese people’s image of South Korea has rapidly deteriorated in recent years. To be sure, South Korea’s news coverage that seems to fan anti-Japan sentiment sometimes makes me uncomfortable. But Japan must make an effort to express regret and to understand those who were humiliated.

Is there a way to resolve this issue? This year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations between South Korea and Japan. Discussions on the comfort women problem seem to be going on behind closed doors with an eye toward holding the first summit between Prime Minister Abe and President Park Geun-hye. During the Social Democratic Party administration, the path to a possible resolution between Japan and South Korea became apparent, and the two nations were on the verge of reconciliation.

The prime minister has acknowledged that the comfort women represent a serious human rights issue. If that is the case, he should not merely state his support for the Kono Statement but issue his own statement conveying regret and an apology.

Park Yu-ha, a professor at South Korea’s Sejong University who has studied the comfort women issue, has pointed out that both sides will be unhappy no matter what the Japanese government does. If so, what should be done? Ms. Park has proposed providing an opportunity for researchers from Japan and South Korea who have differing opinions on the comfort women to publicly debate the issue. This forum could be used to find common ground on perceptions of “coercion,” for example.

A growing number of people are unfamiliar with modern history. This problem must not be left up to the government or politicians. Insofar as possible, we must continue to listen to the accounts of those who lived through those terrible times.

History of the Comfort Women Issue

Aug. 1991
In South Korea former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun goes public with her story

Aug. 1993
Kono Statement issued

July 1995
Asian Women’s Fund established under Murayama administration

Feb. 1996
Coomaraswamy Report referring to the comfort women as “sex slaves” is submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights

Aug. 2011
South Korea’s Constitutional Court rules that the failure of the South Korean government to take measures to resolve the compensation claims of former comfort women was unconstitutional

Dec. 2011
At a Japan-South Korea summit President Lee Myung-bak calls for the swift resolution of the comfort women issue

March 2013
In a speech, President Park Geun-hye urges Japan to “behave in a responsible manner”

March 2014
In a Diet session Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declares that he will not revise the Kono Statement

June 2014
Report on the review of the Kono Statement is released

Oct. 2014
Saying some parts are “contrary to the facts,” the Japanese government calls for the partial retraction of the Coomaraswamy Report

June 2015
Prime Minister Abe and President Park attend separate ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea; President Park calls for the two countries “to lay down the heavy burden of history”

Key Points of the Kono Statement

・The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.
・In many cases they were recruited against their own will through coaxing, coercion, etc., and at times administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments.
・The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.
・We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history.
・We hereby reiterate our firm determination never to repeat the same mistake by forever engraving such issues in our memories through the study and teaching of history.


Asian Women’s Fund
The Asian Women’s Fund was established in July 1995 under the administration of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama to acknowledge Japan’s moral responsibility for the comfort women issue and to demonstrate the desire of the Japanese government and the public to work together to provide compensation. The fund sent letters of apology from the prime minister and “atonement money” raised through private donations to 285 former comfort women from the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. Government funds were used to pay for health care and other social welfare projects in five countries and regions, including the Netherlands and Indonesia. The fund was dissolved in March 2007 upon the completion of its projects.

(Originally published on July 30, 2015)