Discussing the "Comfort Women" Issue from a Universal Standpoint

Updated: Mar 23

By Keigo Nishio

Even in the United States, people are learning about and discussing the “comfort women” issue. It is discussed as a universal human rights issue, not an Asia-specific political taboo.

On October 12th, Stand with “Comfort Women” (STAND), held “Yale International Conference on ‘Comfort Women,’” in New Haven, CT. More than a hundred attendees, from both inside and outside the Yale community, participated in the conference. The conference made it clear that people here care about the “comfort women” issue, regardless of their gender, nationality, or political identity.

STAND is a newly established student organisation at Yale University. The Yale community became especially committed to the “comfort women” issue in 2016, when two “comfort women” survivors, Ms. Kang Il Chool and Ms. Lee Ok Sun, were invited to give a testimony about their experience at Yale Law School to more than six hundred Yale students and faculty members. In response to their courage and faith in justice, which prompted them to visit Yale to give a testimony in spite of their trauma, experience of stigmatisation, and risk of defamation from “denialists,” students established a “task force,” which developed into STAND.

Last month’s conference was the biggest event that STAND had held so far. As our guest speakers for the opening speech and the main panel, we invited Mr. Mike Honda, former Congressman who proposed US H.Res. 121, which stated that Japan should formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility for the issue, Ms. Mee Hyang Yoon, Representative of The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, and Professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a history professor emeritus at Chuo University in Japan who discovered and made public the documents revealing that the Japanese military had established and maintained the military “comfort women” system. In addition to the opening speech and main panel, we also had three mini panels, focusing on “International Human Rights,” “Historical Justice and Education,” and “Activism and Social Venture,” respectively. For the mini panels, we invited researchers and activists from a wider background, not confined to the “comfort women” issue, including survivors of the Rwandan genocide and wartime sexual violence in Kosovo and a psychoanalyst working on traumas from genocides.

In organising the Conference, we had to balance two, sometimes conflicting, aspects of the “comfort women” issue. On the one hand, this is a specifically East Asian, and particularly Japanese, issue. For more than seventy years since the end of World War II, the Japanese government has failed to admit its responsibility for the wartime sexual violence committed by the then government and military, to apologise and compensate for the victimisation, and to take measures to prevent the repetition of the same atrocity. Even worse, the Japanese government denies that the “comfort women” issue counts as the case of forced recruitment and sexual slavery, discrediting the legitimacy of the testimonies of the survivors and thereby committing a “second rape” against them. The Japanese government’s failure to work towards historical reconciliation with its neighbouring countries is without doubt one of the major reasons for the complication of this issue.

On the other hand, the “comfort women” issue poses a universal problem of wartime sexual violence, historical justice and reconciliation, rehabilitation from trauma, and prevention of further stigmatisation. It is a widespread phenomenon that women are placed in the most precarious situation during the period of war waged and fought mostly by men. In the wartime, the sexual exploitation of women is too often and too easily justified and normalised as a necessity for military activities. Accordingly, better understanding of the “comfort women” issue has a universal value. By learning what caused and justified the “comfort women” system, we can analyse the universal mechanism underlying wartime sexual violence and discuss what we should to to make sure that there will never be another victim of the same atrocity in the whole world. Even after World War II, the human species have caused the same sort of atrocities as was the case in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and even today we too often hear the news about wartime sexual violence in regions under civil conflict or terrorist attack. Therefore, the issue of wartime sexual violence is not simply a “historical” issue but a current one as well, which everyone should learn and hold responsibility to resolve. Understanding of the “comfort women” issue can play a significant role in the mission of the whole present humanity to eradicate wartime sexual violence.

To incorporate both of the equally important aspects of the “comfort women” issue, we not only invited a leading scholar and activist from the Republic of Korea and Japan but also asked researchers and activists from diverse grounds to speak at the mini panels. The fact that we get a large audience from different gender, national, and political backgrounds proves the universal importance of learning the “comfort women” issue. Although I believe each speaker provided rich insights into the issue, as I was serving as Professor Yoshimi’s translator at the main panel and mini panel focusing on “Historical Justice and Education,” I would like to focus on what I heard first-hand at the conference.

At the main panel, professor Yoshimi provided a dense introduction of the issue. He asserted that the “comfort stations” were established and administered by the Japanese military. The military justified the system in four ways. Firstly, sexual service institutions, they said, were necessary to prevent the soldiers in the battleground from raping local women. Secondly, “comfort stations” are necessary for the prevention of venereal diseases since the military can prohibit the soldiers from going to private brothels and instead make them go to the comfort stations, which are established exclusively for the soldiers and under the military control. Thirdly, the treatment of the soldiers on the battleground is too unfavourable, and sexual service facilities were necessary to heal their discomfort. Finally, comfort stations are essential to prevent espionage, since if the soldiers went to private brothels and became familiar with women there, these women were likely to become spies and the military secrets would be leaked. Professor Yoshimi discredited all these reasons not only on a consequential basis (the number of rape incidents never decreased, and venereal diseases spread in “comfort stations”) but also by pointing out that these reasonings are based solely on the military interests and that women were regarded as mere “means” for the military “ends.” Professor Yoshimi clarified that the “comfort women” system ignored the human rights of women and no doubt counts as sexual slavery.

Professor Yoshimi also showed the vast nature of the “comfort women” issue, which can never be reduced to the ROK-Japan conflict. By pointing to the fact that the victims included not only Koreans and Chinese but also women in Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia (both Indonesian natives and Dutch women), Timor Leste, the then French Indochina, Thailand, Birma, the Pacific Islands, and even in Japan. According to Professor Yoshimi, the “comfort women” issue is obviously the issue of racism and colonialism, but it is also linked to the issue of class discrimination, since many victims came from economically precarious backgrounds (Particularly as for the case of Japanese women, the military hired as “comfort women” those women who had already been working as prostitutes because of economic difficulties of their families). The “comfort women” issue is an intersection of different dimensions of issues, namely, gender, race, and class discrimination, which are major social concerns even today.

Ms. Mee Hyang Yoon, too, emphasised the universal cause of her activism. Having been dedicated to activism concerning the issue of sexual commodification and sexual violence by US soldiers in ROK before beginning her commitment to the “comfort women” issue, she highlighted the importance of treating the issue in terms of women’s rights and wartime violence, rather than political and diplomatic disputes. She analogised the “testimony campaign” of the “comfort women” survivors to Me Too and With You movements. As is the case with Me Too and With You, the activism of the comfort women survivors, too, is their exertion of human rights and appeal that the past wrong should be appropriately investigated and compensated. Her movement is not confined within East Asia, and she visited other US colleges including Boston University, Brown University, and Princeton University, to have a documentary screening and discussion with students. Her mission now includes establishing Kim Bok-dong Centre in Uganda, assisting the rehabilitation of the country’s civil war survivors. Ms Yoon’s presentation demonstrated that the interconnectedness of human rights issues enables the transnational alliance of activists devoted to different challenges.

In the mini panel, Professor Yoshimi explained why Japan has failed to achieve historical reconciliation. He pointed out that Japanese people came to see their country as a “great power,” in the 60s and 70s, during which Japan has achieved extremely rapid economic growth. Although what an authentically “great” country should do is to recognise its responsibility for its past wrongdoings and deal with these issues in the right way, including apology and compensation, Japan took a deviated way, namely, choosing to deny past wrongdoings and arrogantly refusing to bear responsibility to apologise or compensate. He added that this “revisionist” or “denialist” tendency is intensified today since Japanese people have an anxiety about their future and are more susceptible to “Japanese pride,” now that China has got ahead of Japan, and ROK is catching up with Japan. Japanese people’s distorted belief in their country’s “greatness” has hindered historic reconciliation with its neighbouring countries for more than seventy years and continues to be a major cause of diplomatic complications in East Asia.

At the very beginning of the main panel, Professor Yoshimi said his first encounter with the “comfort women” issue was in 1991, when Ms. Hak Sun Kim first gave a testimony about her experience of sexual violence during WWII. Seeing Ms. Kim visit Japan and say that she wanted Japanese students to know about her experience, Professor Yoshimi decided that it was his responsibility as a historian to educate Japanese youth about the issue. When I was personally talking with him during a break time of the conference, he said that he had been researching and talking about the “comfort women” issue “for the sake of Japan.” Indeed, a country will never become “great” by denying all its past wrongdoings and pretending that it has a “bright history.” The true greatness of a country is embodied by admitting its historical responsibility, take necessary measures to achieve historical reconciliation, and continue efforts to make sure that the same atrocities will never be repeated.

STAND, as an organisation, does not intend to politicise the issue or participate in diplomatic disputes related to historical recognition. We focus on educating people about the issue as a universally significant lesson for all human beings at the present. However, I believe that this issue needs a “political” resolution. After all, the Japanese military and government caused this issue,,; therefore, only the Japanese government can resolve this issue. I also believe that each individual Japanese people, of course including me, has the civil responsibility as a sovereign citizen to urge our government to sincerely face the issue and strive to resolve it. These days, we are giving way to “revisionists” and “denialists,” but if we truly wish to make our country “great,” which is just, moral, and humanist,, we should make every effort to spread the right understanding of history and face our past in a genuine manner. Unfortunately, it is we, sovereign citizens, who are supporting today’s nationalist government. Nonetheless, it is also we who can and should redirect our government.

It was a great honour for me to serve as Professor Yoshimi’s translator. However, I also felt that I was making a strange detour. Both Professor Yoshimi and I are Japanese (it is only my third year to study in the US!), talking about the “Japanese” issue to the US audience. I was keenly aware that the conference was something that I could not have done had I remained in Japan. But also I strongly hope that a similar conference will be held by students in Japan. We have both the right and responsibility to discuss this issue and strive to resolve it, and I am willing to play a role as a bridge between students studying in Japan and here in the US.

The Conference was a milestone for STAND. However, it is also merely a starting point. We need to make further efforts to make real changes by spreading our activism; I’m looking forward to the days when we can collaborate with Japanese students towards the same end. During a personal conversation with Ms. Mee Hyang Yoon, she said, “We are all Kim Bok-dong (one of the survivors who gave her testimony on an international scale). We all have responsibility.” We need to learn about and discuss the issue. We need to join the fight for justice and human rights. It’s time for us to make change.

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