Japan's uncomfortable truth not much solace

When is an apology a heartfelt effort to make things right, and when is it motivated by self-interest, a formality necessary to complete a deal? And how much difference should that make to the wronged party?

These questions are being appropriately raised since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday apologised to the government of South Korea for the Japanese military's use of South Korean "comfort women" during Japan's occupation from 1932 to 1945.

"Comfort women" is a feel-good term used for the as many as 200,000 Asian and Dutch women and girls who befell various terrors during World War II. Some as young as 12 were captured or lured with false promises of factory work or other employment in their homelands of China, Indonesia, the Philippines and North and South Korea. They were sent to brothels to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers.

The practice only became public in 1991, when a Korean survivor disclosed her experience. At first the Japanese government denied it. Then, in 1993, it apologised and paid some donated money to South Korea. It said an investigation had confirmed Japan's military had recruited Asian and European women to work in army brothels during World War II and kept them captive. It said private recruiters had often been used, but in some cases "administrative personnel directly took part in the recruitment".

But that apology didn't satisfy survivors, who have staged weekly protests for 22 years in front of the Japanese embassy in South Korea's capital, Seoul. Later, Abe was pressured by Japan's conservatives, who suggested there was no forcible recruitment, to review the evidence and rescind the apology.

Some Japanese nationals continue to deny "comfort women" were forced or coerced, saying they were prostitutes.


In Seoul on Monday, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Abe "expresses anew sincere apologies and remorse from the bottom of his heart to all those who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as 'comfort women"'.

But some critics still don't consider the apology enough. Mira Yusef, who founded and runs Monsoon: United Asian Women of Iowa, a sexual assault and domestic violence prevention organisation, said: "The ones on top [government leaders] are making those decisions. Survivors didn't even have a say in it."

Yusef says it's not even clear South Korea's survivors will get the money. Most did not marry; they were too stigmatised, she says. Many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and many could never have sex or bear children because of physical abuses. Some committed suicide.

In a project called Comfort Women Wanted, Korean-born artist Chang-Jin Lee interviewed survivors and witnesses on camera.

In the interviews, a former Japanese soldier said women were required to have sex with 50 to 100 soldiers a day. A Korean woman spoke of being kidnapped at 15 and taken to a brothel. A Dutch woman in Indonesia recalled being lined up with other girls 18 and older, loaded onto trucks as their watching mothers screamed, and taken to a brothel. A Filipina woman said she was kidnapped by Japanese soldiers at a market with her grandmother at 14, and both were forced into sexual slavery. An 81-year-old Indonesian woman described how it went: "The soldiers came in one by one. This was not work, this was an assault. It hurt me inside. Some of the men beat me. It hurt my heart. I hated being treated like that."

Monday's agreement calls for South Korea and Japan to no longer criticise each other over the issue. It has South Korea agreeing to remove a statue in front of the Japanese embassy in tribute to the 'comfort women'. Abe told reporters the agreement was made to stop future generations from having to keep apologising.

Nothing can make up for the women's lost years, or the humiliation, brutality and fear they suffered. But since perpetrators will never be brought to justice, Japan could show its sincerity by erecting its own monuments to those wronged, by refuting the deniers, and by repeating George Santayana's famous line: Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.