In January, Japan withdrew its ambassador to South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced Seoul for not abiding by the 2015 bilateral agreement regarding the “comfort women” that was aimed at enabling both nations to overcome this shared trauma. It was “shared” in the sense that many Korean women were recruited into what was effectively a system of sexual slavery that makes some contemporary Japanese feel uncomfortable about a dark chapter in the nation’s past — one that revisionists are intent on whitewashing.
The incident that sparked the current re-escalation of the row was the decision by local authorities in Busan to allow a civic group to erect another comfort woman statue near the Japanese consulate in that city. On the face of it, it doesn’t appear that Seoul has violated the agreement, because the national government in this vibrant democracy did not actually condone or approve the installation. On what authority could it intervene?
More importantly, the South Korean government has ceased to lambaste Japan over the comfort women issue internationally, a major concession to Tokyo. But this has not mollified Abe, who has made it clear that removal of the statue in Seoul, and now the one in Busan, is a key component of the agreement.
South Korea agreed to make sincere efforts to effect the removal of the original statue, and failing in this endeavor has been taken as prima facie evidence of the government in Seoul welching on the implicit quid pro quo. There is no public document that spells out that the transfer of funds was contingent on removal of the statue, and President Park Geun-hye made no promise to Abe beyond agreeing to talk with civic groups about removing it. The Japanese government paid ¥1 billion to a foundation in South Korea charged with distributing the funds to the few surviving Korean comfort women in the expectation the statue would be removed, but it remains across the street from where the Japanese Embassy is currently being rebuilt. A 100-year-old survivor recently returned the 100 million won (¥9.8 million) she received in the settlement, saying she never consented to accept the money.
What is clear is that as mutual recriminations mount, the irreversible and final resolution of the comfort women problem pledged at the end of 2015 remains elusive. The South Korean foreign minister bravely criticized the placement of the new comfort woman statue in Busan, calling it “inappropriate,” attracting considerable domestic ire but earning zero kudos from Tokyo. With a vacuum of power in Seoul due to impeachment proceedings against Park, prospects for headway on the comfort women dispute or improvement of relations appear remote.
Given that candidates to succeed Park as president are courting public support, the comfort women issue will become more politicized. One candidate, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, withdrew from the running Wednesday, but not before raising the ante by declaring that if the funding from Tokyo was contingent on removal of the statue, the money should be returned. You know the situation is grim when former diplomats are throwing fuel on the fires of grievance.
In terms of identity politics, the comfort women are symbolic of the traumas of Japanese colonialism and the trampling on Korean dignity, while in Japan, revisionists have tried to undo past government attempts to acknowledge and take responsibility for the comfort women system. They have tried to discredit the 1993 Kono statement, in which the government acknowledged state responsibility for the coercive recruitment of women to provide sex for Japanese soldiers. They have also derided the Asia Women’s Fund, established by the Japanese government to provide funds for mitigating the health and welfare problems of surviving former comfort women.
The Kono statement also promised to teach young Japanese about this sordid system, and indeed, textbooks used in secondary schools during the 1990s did so. But in the 21st century these textbooks have backed away from previous more forthright accounts, and educational guidelines issued by the Abe government have forced all but one publisher to cut coverage of this controversy, and even that one had to issue a disclaimer noting that the testimony of a comfort woman cited in the book doesn’t conform with official views on the matter.
On a related note, Japan’s relationship with UNESCO is worsening under Abe because Tokyo believes the organization is biased. The government is riled that its neighbors are politicizing the Memory of the World Register in ways that tarnish Japan’s image, namely by submitting dossiers about Japan’s colonial and wartime misdeeds. It is a baseless argument given that Japan’s dossier on Soviet mistreatment of Japanese POWS was accepted while China’s submission on the comfort women was not. However, official wrath has focused on the 2015 acceptance of a Chinese dossier on the Nanking Massacre.
The multilateral submission in 2016 of a dossier on the comfort women seeks to archive their tragic saga with the Memory of the World Register. Christine Chinkin, founding director of the London School of Economics’ Centre for Women, Peace and Security and emerita professor of international law, calls this “an essential opportunity to preserve the women’s testimony and acknowledge the crimes committed.”
The struggle to exhume the history of the comfort women and seek justice through international human rights institutions, national courts and the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal (held in Tokyo in 2000) coincided with “greater awareness of the incidence and seriousness of sexual violence in armed conflict,” Chinkin says. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 recognizes that conflict is gendered — experienced and understood differently by men and women — and “that women’s lived knowledge of conflict must be taken into account in law, peace processes and in reparations.”
Noting the shrinking ranks of survivors, Chinkin argues that “it is essential that the memory of the atrocities they endured as sexual slaves and of their part in raising awareness of the prevalence of such crimes as a tactic of war does not die with the last of the survivors.” She adds, “The importance of honoring their memory and preserving these written records of sufferings lies behind the application made to UNESCO that they become part of its documentary heritage.”
Chinkin laments that “Japan would like this memory erased” — all the more reason that the dossier should be registered in order to preserve a memory that may “serve as some deterrent against repetition,” while defeating efforts to whitewash this ghastly past.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan, and the editor of “Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan” (2017).