Exhibit shows struggle of ‘comfort women’

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

An exhibition to look back on developments over the past 10 years in addressing wartime sexual slavery is now under way at a Tokyo museum and resource center on the former “comfort women.”

The exhibition was organized to mark the 10th anniversary of the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, a nonbinding people’s court that gathered 64 victims of sexual slavery alongside legal experts in Tokyo in December 2000 to examine the issue, and held Japan’s wartime leaders responsible for violence against women.

Around 60 panels displayed at the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, known as WAM, show testimony given by former sex slaves from nine nations, some that were established after the war, and former Japanese soldiers who exploited women, and how the news media at home and abroad reported the tribunal.

Looking back at the developments since then, the panels show how each of the nine countries where women were forced into sexual slavery, including the present South and North Korea and Indonesia (the wartime Dutch East Indies), has addressed the issue.

In the Netherlands, for example, moves to seek a solution to the issue have been promoted, while in China, where negative attitudes toward the former comfort women once prevailed, more people are showing concern for their suffering, according to the exhibition.

“The 2000 tribunal clearly recognized what had happened under wartime sex slavery and who was responsible for it,” said Eriko Ikeda, a WAM director. “It eventually expanded support for the victims over the past 10 years, and has led them to redeem their honor.”

But Ikeda suggested the event failed to prompt Japan to sincerely address the issue. Material in the exhibition shows that all 10 lawsuits seeking redress for the victims were rejected, and comfort women get little mention in school textbooks.

Display panels show developments in the 10 suits and their verdicts, and how references to the sex slaves in history textbooks have been handled.

However, efforts to hand down the record of the negative legacy have gradually proved fruitful, with at least 30 municipalities adopting statements to seek the rehabilitation of the victims while expressing concern over the textbook omissions.

Japan has also been under international pressure, with the U.S. House of Representatives approving a resolution in July 2007 demanding an apology for the sexual enslavement of women.

In October 2008, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, touching on the comfort women issue, urged Japan to “take immediate and effective legislative and administrative measures to adequately compensate all survivors as a matter of right.”

The exhibition, which runs through next June 26, has drawn many high school and college students during the summer break.

Riko Mikami, an 18-year-old high school senior from Yokohama, said after touring the exhibition with her friends, “While I didn’t know much about the issue of comfort women, I’m now aware of the need to reflect on where our country has been.”

Visitor Choi Bo Yun, 28, a graduate student at Utsunomiya University in Tochigi Prefecture, has spent time with former comfort women in South Korea.

“Through the exhibition, I understood that the issue of the wartime sex slavery is not a problem only between Japan and South Korea but one involving many other countries,” she said.