After the landmark bilateral agreement on “comfort women” issue reached between Japan and South Korea on December 28, 2015 which categorically said that all claims between the two countries are “settled completely and finally” and was followed by apologies offered by Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, it looked that a new era of understanding between the two Asian neighbours has dawned. It was hoped that this “historic” agreement shall help facilitate cooperation between the two that aims for greater peace and stability in the Asian region. The truism is that no sooner that this “historic” agreement, the emotive overtones have again been raised that are all but welcome.
Legally and diplomatically, the agreement may have been reached but public sentiment that remains hurt because of what transpired in the past, the wrongs done by the Japanese military to the Korean women before and during the War, remains difficult to be assuaged. Unlike in the Indian subcontinent and other parts of the world that were decolonized where colonial rules have been pardoned and no negative experiences are allowed to cloud the present relations, the situation in the Northeast Asia is quite different. Public sentiment is difficult to be ignored by the political establishment, which is why leaders find difficult to find a durable solution to the vexing historical issues. More worrying for Japan is that other countries in the region whose women were also violated by the Japanese army during the War have started raising the issue. How does Japan address the issue to resolve once and for all? There are no easy answers, however. Nevertheless, diplomatic channels have to be kept open.
Even when Japan felt that the vexing “comfort women” issue was resolved once for all, news that filtered into Tokyo indicating that South Korean government is going to press ahead with a white paper on the issue was disturbing. In August 2014, the South Korean government had mentioned about the planned white paper but Tokyo thought that plan would be shelved following the 28 December agreement. Now Seoul argues that the Comfort Women White paper, drafted by the Gender Equality and Family Industry, will be published on schedule as it is “unrelated” to the 28 December agreement. The document is planned to be published in a range of languages, including English, Japanese and Chinese.
For Japan, it would mean that the spirit of the deal would be violated as it interprets the deal included a pledge to “refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community”. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan expects Seoul to “deal with the matter appropriately”. Though it has not transpired as yet what issues the report would touch upon, Japan for now waits paying close attention to the document when released. Legally, Tokyo can do little to stop Seoul from publishing the document but can only convey its opinion if it finds the contents problematic.
Even it remains unclear if Seoul shall facilitate removal of the statue outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul set up by civic groups, as its removal is not determined by the text of the agreement. For Japan, it is an insult to have the statue installed permanently as the venue has been used for annual protests and therefore demands its removal. The best that Japan can do is to withhold funds the government has agreed to pay to surviving victims if the statue is not removed and it has indicated towards this. It remains unclear why the removal of the statue as conditional to release of the funds was not incorporated into the agreement, if Japan is likely to threaten that way in the event of the statue remaining still in front of the Japanese embassy.
Other unresolved issues such as the demand of several civic groups in South Korea and other nations to get documents related to the “comfort women” listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Registrar also continue to haunt Japan-South Korea relations. It is argued in Seoul that the issue of listing is unaffected by the bilateral agreement and the advocates of such a view argue on the merit of the records’ historical value and therefore see the need to preserve them. As with the statue removal issue, the government position is that it cannot interfere with the matter as it is a private sector groups that is behind the campaign and the demand.
The implications of the Japan-South Korea agreement for the region was far-reaching than expected. Soon, Taiwan started drafting a four-point list of demands for Tokyo on the “comfort women” issue, much to the discomfiture to Japan. Since Taiwan and Japan do not have diplomatic relations, the issue has to be conducted under the framework of Taiwan’s Association of East Asian relations and Japan’s Interchange Association. After South Korea, now Taiwan demands an official apology, compensation, the restoration of victims’ reputation and dignity, and caring for victims’ livelihoods. Like South Korea under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, Taiwan too was under Japanese rule from 1894 to 1945 and about 2,000 women were drafted as “comfort women”. According to Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation established in 1992 to handle the issue of Taiwanese “comfort women”, about 85 were confirmed victims, of which only four are alive now with average age of 90.
The Taiwanese government is seeking the views of the Taiwanese victims, if they are prepared to accept a similar agreement and compensation package reached between Japan and South Korea. As per the 28 December, a fund amounting to some 1 billion yen ($8.3 million yen) for the women is to be set up, with the money coming from the Japanese government’s budget. In the absence of concrete consensus within Taiwan itself, it remains unclear how Taiwan will approach Japan to negotiate a deal that is acceptable to the victims and restore their dignity and honour.
Though Japanese army is believed to have drafted up to 200,000 women as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the War, the bulk of them came from South Korea, with the rest drafted from China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan. Following the Japan-South Korea deal, President Ma Ying-jeou demands returning justice and dignity to the Taiwanese victims and wants immediate negotiations on the issue.
Like Taiwan, China that has other issues with Japan, now wants to raise the “comfort women” issue as well to further embarrass Japan. Now China demands that Japan must “accurately face up to its history of aggression”. A commentary in the State-run Global Times observed that families of Chinese “comfort women” wanted a similar apology from Japan after the deal with South Korea. The paper quoted Zhao Guiying from Shanxi Province , whose late mother Guo Xicui was used as a sex slave, as saying: “I am very angry and upset, so are many other relatives. If Japan apologies to the victims in South Korea, why don’t they apologise to Chinese victims?” According to Zhao, 60, Japan must not adopt different criteria and attitudes towards victims of different countries. There are very few “comfort women” still surviving in China. As of August 2014, only 23 were still alive in China. The last surviving “comfort woman” to sue the Japanese government over its wartime atrocities died in December 2015 at the age of 89. The emotive nature does not die easily, however.
Backing the demands of the victims in China, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said “the Japanese side should face up to and reflect upon its history of aggression and properly deal with the relevant issue with a sense of responsibility”. He termed the forced recruitment of the “comfort women” of the Japanese military and their use as sex slaves as a crime against humanity, against the people of Asia and other civilized countries. Though South Korean historians estimate that over 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, were recruited as sex slaves, Su Zhiliang, director of the China “Comfort Women” Issue Research Center at Shanghai Normal University, estimates that around 400,000 women, including 200,000 from China, were forced into sex enslavement.
China is embroiled in other historical issues such as territorial and text book. Following the Japan-South Korea deal, the “comfort women” issue is now likely to figure prominently between Japan and China. When in 1995, a total of 16 “comfort women” in Shanxi Province sued the Japanese government for forced sex slavery and asked Japan to apologise for the atrocity and pay compensation, in the final judgment in 2007 the Japanese Supreme Court did acknowledge the historical fact but ruled out compensation. This encouraged the Japanese government to remain stubborn on its stance and did not feel the need to apologise. With the government’s backing, the children of the victims now in their 60s and 70s are unlikely to give up and carry on their struggle to seek justice and restore honors of their mothers. Even in South Korea, despite the deal, the surviving “comfort women” feel disappointed that Japan did not make clear its legal responsibility and therefore have rejected the creation of the fund as they see the financial assistance as not official restitution.
Like South Korea, Taiwan and China who raise the issue with Japan, the Philippine government remains unconcerned about the issue, though the group of Filipino victims of sexual abuse in the Philippines feel justice remains elusive as they are aging. No wonder, they welcome the deal with South Korea and demand that they be compensated too.
Notwithstanding similar demands being raised by other countries, Japan is unlikely to bend further and be browbeaten. Suga reacted to the demand from Taiwan saying that the Japanese government does not intend to launch new negotiations on the issue with other countries and said that the issue with South Korea was different and that has now been resolved with the 28 December deal. He further clarified that Japan had already dealt with other countries over the issue “in a sincere manner considering each circumstance”. In 1995, the Japanese government set up the private Asian Women’s Fund to provide “atonement money” to former “comfort women” from of all nationalities. That time, Japan offered victims about $2 million yen in donations made by private Japanese citizens and up to 3 million yen in “medical and welfare support” from the government, together with a formal letter of apology signed by four successive prime ministers. That time, 211 Filipinos, 79 Dutch, 61 South Koreans and 13 Taiwanese accepted and received the offer.
In view of the circumstance and Japan’s strained relations with South Korea, Japan entered into the deal with South Korea and Abe offered apology to bring the issue to an end. Even if Japan reaches with similar deals with Taiwan, China and the Philippines, can the physical and psychological scars be healed and the pains and sufferings of the “comfort women” victims removed? That is unlikely to be the case. Moreover, should the present generation of Japanese people and leadership in Japan now or even in the future be responsible for the mistakes committed by their forefathers several decades ago? Must not the victims accept the repentance repeatedly expressed by the political leadership and look to the future? To get an answer in the positive to the above questions, emotions need to be kept aside and political realism need to get precedence. The political leaderships in these affected countries need to rise above sectarian considerations and build partnerships among themselves that are mutually rewarding and beneficial.