Six former “comfort women” joined an international meeting of activists in Tokyo to demand that Japan formally atone for the sexual slavery carried out in its wartime military brothels, an emotive legacy still haunting the country.
The Asian Solidarity Conference has been held 12 times since 1992 to press the government to admit responsibility for coercing thousands of women into providing sex to Imperial Army soldiers across the region.
The six women — from South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia and the daughter of another from China — also called Saturday for the government to provide official compensation to the comfort women, as they are euphemistically called by Japan.
The demand comes after the right-wing government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a review of the landmark 1993 Kono statement, which apologized for the Japanese military’s involvement in the coercive brothel system. Although Abe is often noted for his revisionist views of wartime history, the government’s top spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, has ruled out the possibility of revising the statement.
But it is unclear what will happen if Tokyo’s review is at odds with the 1993 statement, which was largely based on testimony from 16 Korean former comfort women, many of whom have since died.
“We will discuss how the government should apologize and what measures it should take to put the apology into action,” the local organizers of the conference said in a keynote address.
On a tour of Asia in April, U.S. President Barack Obama blasted the forced recruitment of the women before and during the war as a “terrible, egregious violation of human rights.”
“The Japanese government seems to be waiting for us to die,” said 88-year-old South Korean Kim Bok-dong at the meeting. Kim was allegedly drafted into the brothel system in 1941 at the age of 15.
She said she was forced to work in “comfort stations” across Asia for nearly five years.
The issue of wartime sexual slaves draws particular resentment in neighbouring South Korea. Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945.
While many Japanese accept the country’s guilt, some senior politicians on the right, including Abe, have suggested that the issue is overblown, putting a chill on Tokyo-Seoul relations. Some right-wingers argue there were cases of unforced prostitution.
With few official records available, many researchers have estimated up to 200,000 women, mostly from Japan and Korea but also from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan, served Japanese soldiers in the comfort stations.
Japan previously offered money to former comfort women through a private fund set up in 1995 that ran until 2007. However, some survivors refused the cash because it did not come directly from the government.