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Japan’s sex slave legacy remains open wound

By Mari Yamaguchi

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 10:39 a.m. HST, May 28, 2013

OSAKA, Japan » More than 70 years ago, at age 14, Kim Bok-dong was ordered to work by Korea's Japanese occupiers. She was told she was going to a military uniform factory, but ended up at a Japanese military-run brothel in southern China.

She had to take an average of 15 soldiers per day during the week, and dozens over the weekend. At the end of the day she would be bleeding and could not even stand because of the pain. She and other girls were closely watched by guards and could not escape. It was a secret she carried for decades; the man she later married died without ever knowing.

Tens of thousands of women had similar stories to tell, or to hide, from Japan's occupation of much of Asia before and during World War II. Many are no longer living, and those who remain are still waiting for Japan to offer reparations and a more complete apology than it has so far delivered.

"I'm here today, not because I wanted to but because I had to," Kim, now 87, told a packed audience of mostly Japanese at a community center in Osaka over the weekend. "I came here to ask Japan to settle its past wrongdoing. I hope the Japanese government resolves the problem as soon as possible while we elderly women are still alive."

The issue of Japan's use of Korean, Chinese and Southeast Asian women and girls as sex slaves — euphemistically called "comfort women" — continues to alienate Tokyo from its neighbors nearly 70 years after the war's end. It is a wound that was made fresh this month when the co-head of an emerging nationalistic party, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, said "comfort women" had been necessary to maintain military discipline and give respite to battle-weary troops.

His comments drew outrage from South Korea and China, as well as from the U.S. State Department, which called them "outrageous and offensive."

Hashimoto provided no evidence but insisted that Tokyo has been unfairly singled out for its World War II behavior regarding women, saying some other armies at the time had military brothels. None of them, however, has been accused of the kind of widespread, organized sexual slavery that has been linked to Japan's military.

Historians say up to 200,000 women from across Asia, including China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Hong Kong and Macau, as well as the Netherlands, were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers.

To many people, even within Japan, Hashimoto's comments suggest that even after all these years, Japanese leaders don't want to fully acknowledge wartime wrongs and are out of touch with the sentiments not only of their neighbors and the international community, but also many of their own citizens.

"It's not a problem of the past. It's a continuing problem that involves people who are still alive," said Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University political science professor. "Japan is perceived as merely waiting for them to die while looking the other way and dragging its feet. That looks bad from a humanity point of view."

According to a survey conducted over the weekend by the conservative Sankei newspaper and FNN television, more than 75 percent of Japanese said Hashimoto's sex slave remarks were inappropriate, while support for his party slumped to 6.4 percent — nearly half what it was last month.

The comments come amid rising concerns in the region over the nationalistic shift in Japan's political leadership under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has suggested he wants to revise Japan's past apologies for its wartime aggression and change its pacifist constitution.

In 1993, Japan officially apologized to "comfort women" in a landmark statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, acknowledging "immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds."

But Kim and other women want a full apology approved by parliament and official compensation from the government. Tokyo has resisted that, saying war reparations with South Korea were dealt with in treaties restoring relations after the war. In 1995, Tokyo created a fund using private donations as a way for Japan to pay former sex slaves without providing official compensation.

The fund provided 2 million yen ($20,000) each to about 280 women in the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea, and funded nursing homes for Indonesian victims and medical assistance to about 80 former Dutch sex slaves.

In South Korea, 207 women formally came forward and were recognized as eligible recipients. But only a fraction actually accepted the money because of criticism of the private fund. Instead they receive support from the South Korean government and a support group.

In Japan, public sentiment has become less compassionate in recent years toward Asian victims of the country's wartime aggression. References to "comfort women" once in school history textbooks have disappeared.

Much of the debate over "comfort women" still focuses on what role the government at the time played in organizing brothels, and if — or to what extent — the women were coerced. The Kono statement says the military was involved directly or indirectly in the establishment and management of front-line brothels and transfer of women, and that many women were in many cases "recruited against their own will through coaxing and coercion."

Nobuo Ishihara, who was then deputy Cabinet secretary, said in March 2006 that interviews with 16 South Korean women in Seoul led to the conclusion that there was systematic coercion by the government even though there were no official documents showing so.

"After interviewing the 16 comfort women, we came to believe that what they were saying could not be fabrication. We thought there was no doubt they were forced to become comfort women against their will," Ishihara said. "Based on the investigation team's report, we concluded that there was systematic coercion by the government."

Hashimoto, 43, sought to calm the uproar Monday, telling a packed news conference that he personally didn't condone using "comfort women," which he labeled a violation of human rights.

But he repeatedly insisted that Japan's wartime government did not systematically force girls and women into prostitution, although he acknowledged that some may have been deceived and coerced. He said the historical record isn't clear, which is similar to Abe's view that there is no proof the women were coerced as a result of a state order. He said historians from both Japan and South Korea should settle the matter.

Hashimoto acknowledged that this murkiness probably is the key stumbling block in Japan's ties with South Korea.

Chuo University historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi, one of Japan's most respected experts on "comfort women," criticized the Japanese government for taking an extremely narrow interpretation of what constitutes coercion.

He said documents show "comfort women" recruited in Japan were mostly adult professionals, although many had been sold into the sex industry by their poor families. However, in Asian countries invaded by Japan, there was no consideration of the rights of minors or the right to quit, which he said should constitute coercion by international standards.

"Neither Prime Minister Abe nor Mayor Hashimoto has tried to look at how those girls and young women were abused. Their view is worlds apart from the international view," he said.

Kim was dragged across Asia, from Hong Kong to Singapore and Indonesia, until the end of the war in 1945. She was freed in Singapore and returned home in 1946. She later was married but — like most former sex slaves — was never able to reveal her past to anyone but her mother — until decades later.

"Even as I returned to my homeland, it never was a true liberation for me," she told listeners at the community center. "How could I tell anyone what had happened to me during the war? It was living with a big lump in my chest."

She finally broke her silence several years after her husband died in 1981. Later she joined a group of women seeking official recognition as victims of Japan's sex slavery.

Kim has since traveled around the world to tell her story and participates in weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

Kim and another former sex slave, 84-year-old Kil Won-ok, had been seeking a meeting with Hashimoto for some time when he made his comments this month. He then offered to meet with them, but they canceled, saying they didn't perceive that he was remorseful and didn't want to be used by him to rehabilitate his image. Instead, they spoke to the public in Osaka.

"We won't be around much longer," Kil said. "But we have to tell you our stories because we don't want the same mistake repeated again."

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ejkorvette wrote:
Hawaii has a large populaton of both Japanese and Korean residents. Protests should begin and continue in an effort to further pressure the Japanese government to accept its shameful past, reconcile with the surviving victims, and begin the healing process. The Japanese government must not waver, full acceptance must be made. The Japanese government should remember the outpouring of compassion, respect, and love that was given to Japan during its dark time caused by the March 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami. Remove the false pride, accept your past, correct your present by doing what is right to preserve your real dignity in the Future.
on May 28,2013 | 04:07AM
pechanga wrote:
on May 28,2013 | 04:12AM
Ronin006 wrote:
During and immediately after World War II, the US and its allies diligently gathered information about crimes that might have been committed by Japanese military forces. The accusations were numerous and the evidence to support them overwhelming. Many Japanese soldiers and military leaders who committed the atrocities or condoned them were tried by US military tribunals. Those convicted were sentenced to long prison terms and some were executed. Despite exhaustive investigations by the US and its allies about war crimes possibly committed by the Japanese forces, there was nothing to suggest that Korean, Chinese or women from other countries occupied by Japan were forced to be sex slaves. Such allegations were not made until the early 1990s, almost fifty years after the war ended. That makes me skeptical about the claims. If 200,000 women were forced into prostitution by the Japanese as now alleged, you would think that some of them would have come forward after the war to tell their stories. Had they done so, I am sure those responsible would have held to account by the US and its allies, but none were. I have no doubt about women from countries occupied by Japanese forces served as prostitutes and provided “comfort services” for Japanese troops, but I question they were forced to do so at the point of a gun. Let’s not forget that during the US occupation of Japan following the war, many Japanese women provided “comfort services” for members of the US forces for a slight fee, of course. That did not make them sex slaves nor did it make US military commanders war criminals.
on May 28,2013 | 04:30AM
palani wrote:
Unbelievable! Are you also among the Rape of Nanking and holocaust deniers, Ronin006?
on May 28,2013 | 05:16AM
serious wrote:
palani, I agree with you. The atrocities that the Japanese did to the civilians and military is unbelievable. Read Unbroken of Flags of our fathers. For entertainment they would capture one of the enemy troops and ----- too horrible to describe. Yes, after the war many were captured and tried but "political pressure" stopped the trials. After reading about the crimes I sometimes wish we had used a couple more atomic bombs.
on May 28,2013 | 06:37AM
kolohepalu wrote:
Haha, that is rich coming from an American. U.S. troops have perpetrated more atrocities than those of any nation- the only difference is our historians write the books, which are unquestioningly devoured by the legions of simpletons in this country. . .
on May 28,2013 | 07:06AM
palani wrote:
Try to stay on the actual topic of the article, kolohepalu, and, while you're at it, stick to the facts, not your delusional fantasies.
on May 28,2013 | 08:44AM
Ronin006 wrote:
Stick to the issue, which is the sex slave allegation. The Rape of Nanking and the holocaust war crimes were well documented during and immediately following World War II and those responsible were tried, convicted and executed. What I am saying is that there was not one allegation of women being forced into prostitution by Japanese forces until about 1992, almost fifty years after the war ended. It is hard to believe that not one of the 200,000 women supposedly forced to be sex slaves waited fifty years to make the accusation or that it took fifty years for “historians” to make the claim. That makes me skeptical.
on May 28,2013 | 12:19PM
kolohepalu wrote:
Exactly, well said. Now, wait for the howls of protest. Why, you criticized the U.S.! You said the Time-Life version of WWII isn't true! Simpletons don't like having their little intellectual comfort zone disturbed. . .
on May 28,2013 | 06:54AM
Publicbraddah wrote:
It is beyond my comprehension why Japan is still in denial over this. It's an embarrassment.
on May 28,2013 | 06:08AM
Fred01 wrote:
The Japanese are a filthy, creepy culture.
on May 28,2013 | 10:36AM
Uncleart66 wrote:
It will soon be time for these Ladies to stand before the gates of Heaven. The best way to handle the Japanese is to FORGIVE them. Money will not help you now.
on May 28,2013 | 06:45AM
kolohepalu wrote:
This mayor is being criticized so harshly because he's not toeing the politically correct line drawn for Japan by the U.S. after WWII. As he pointed out, the historical facts regarding official Japanese government involvement are still not established. In terms of national character, China and Korea have inferiority complexes with regard to Japan that their governments periodically stoke to create nationalistic fervor; this is just the latest replay. The man is not condoning the use of comfort women- he is saying there is no proof that the orders came straight from the highest levels of the Japanese government.
on May 28,2013 | 06:49AM
gthx1138y wrote:
People here in Hawaii can't even call in meth addicts in the house next door, fearing reprisal or publicity. How (or why) would these same scaredy's petition a world leader to offer an apology...not trying to start anything, just proving a point. I stood up for ridding my neighborhood of drugs once, got smashed because of HPD and City prosecutor's office corruption at the very top level.
on May 28,2013 | 07:06AM
roninsensei wrote:
Many apologies have been made by numerous Japanese government officials over many decades. Money has been paid (see 1965 Treaty with Korea and decades of "Foreign Aid" to China). Still, these countries remain unhappy which has caused a backlash, thus creating people like Hashimoto. The current South Korean President herself has said that "no amount of apologies will be good enough from Japan for its colonial past." There were no demands of compensation until Japan rebuilt itself and became a prosperous country. Most of those responsible for WW II and the war crimes of the Imperial Army are long gone. Interesting observation: Go to any immigration office in Japan and what are the predominant nationalities do you see? People from China, Korea, and other Asian countries. Why they want to immigrate and reside in such a terrible country?
on May 28,2013 | 07:10AM
Ronin006 wrote:
Roninsensei, you are absolute correct in your observation about people from Korea, China and Southeast Asia flocking to Japan for a better life. If the Japanese are as terrible as the story and some commenters make it seem, one must ask why people from other Asian countries want to live and work in Japan. I have lived and worked in Japan, as recently as 2010, and have had many non-Japanese Asians working for me and without exception they were happy to be there.
on May 29,2013 | 04:58AM
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