“They started to drag us away, one by one. … I hid under the table, but was soon found. … The Japanese officer … took his sword out of its scabbard and pointed it at me, threatening me with it, that he would kill me if I did not give in to him. I curled myself into a corner, like a hunted animal that could not escape.”
Thus, Jan Ruff O’Herne, a Dutch woman born in Java in 1923, recounted the abuse she suffered at the hands of the Japanese military as a World War II “comfort woman,” or sexual slave, at a 2007 U.S. House subcommittee hearing.
This was only the first of the rapes that she would endure every day and night for months after she had been “forcibly seized” from a Japanese civilian internment camp at age 19 and brought to a brothel for Japanese servicemen. O’Herne was one of up to 200,000 mostly Korean, but also Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, Filipino, Indonesian and other women coerced into sexual servitude by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces.
In 1993, after decades of official denials, Yohei Kono, the chief cabinet secretary, issued a formal admission and apology to the women following an extensive government study. Many conservatives in Japan have never accepted the so-called Kono Statement, most notably Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister. On Thursday, the new chief cabinet secretary of the Abe government, Yoshihide Suga, said that historians and other experts should re-examine the Kono Statement. Knowing the shaky ground on which the apology stands amid longstanding conservative calls to rescind or revise it, what many comfort women have sought is an official Japanese government apology (a cabinet decision) and state compensation. This seems as far from becoming reality as it has in the last two decades.
This type of revisionist atmosphere has become a significant obstacle to smooth relations between Japan and its neighbors. It is also of profound concern to the United States, two of whose most important allies in the region are Japan and South Korea, which are at odds over the comfort women issue.
But this is not only a matter of Japan’s foreign relations, U.S. strategic interests, or history. Its global import is inextricably tied to the real-life circumstances of women and girls in conflict-ridden zones and other unsafe situations throughout the world today.
When the U.S. House passed a resolution in 2007 calling on Japan to acknowledge and apologize for the “coercion of young women into sexual slavery” during the 1930s and 1940s, the comfort women issue was immediately reframed as one of women’s rights and human rights. Since then, the comfort women issue has gained wide support nationally and internationally because of the plight of women and girls caught up in the brutal business of human trafficking. The United Nations reports that there are 2.4 million current victims of human trafficking, 80 percent of whom are being used as sexual slaves. Sexual violence (defined by the U.N. as including rape and forced prostitution) also continues to be part of the reality of armed conflict, as we have seen in Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Libya.
This is not a history issue, nor solely a Japan-South Korea issue. It is a human rights and women’s rights issue.
Last month, Japanese voters put the Liberal Democratic Party back in power. One of the characteristics that Japanese citizens clearly thirst for in the new government is leadership. Thus far, Abe has chosen to display his leadership qualities, in part, by emphasizing historical revisionism. This will probably not take him very far, as evidenced by his previous short-lived stint as prime minister in 2006-2007. During that one-year term, Abe challenged claims that women had been coerced into becoming comfort women but later apologized to the women “as prime minister” and ultimately stood by the Kono Statement.
Given the mood of the Japanese public, it is unlikely that there will be much movement on the comfort women issue by this government. Still, an opportunity exists to transform the debate, to instill national pride in the country’s young people by making Japan a protector of human rights and a defender of the disempowered on the global stage, and to take concrete steps so that problems of sexual servitude and rape in war actually do become issues of history.
Mary M. McCarthyis an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Drake University and a Mansfield Foundation U.S.-Japan Network for the Future Scholar.