For as long as my mother, my grandmother, and I have been alive, Korea has always maintained a rather tense relationship with Japan. One of the biggest causes of the conflict lies in Japan’s reluctance to take responsibility for its mistreatment of sex slaves, often euphemized as “comfort women,” from Korea, China, the Philippines, and other nations during World War I. Stripped away from their homes to be raped and beaten day and night, these sex slaves were dehumanized and ruthlessly used for the mere “comfort” of the Japanese soldiers.
However, on Dec. 28, 2015, the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations between Korea and Japan, the two neighboring nations decided to put the comfort women issue behind them. The discord came to a supposed end with a mutual historic agreement including concessions from both sides, and the two parties declared the agreement “final and irreversible.”
This agreement is clearly a big step forward in improving relations between Japan and Korea, as it includes the expression of “most sincere apologies and remorse” from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as Japan’s recognition of moral responsibility through their apology. Furthermore, Japan agreed to pay $8.3 million as compensation for the surviving victims.
Those who are satisfied with this agreement claim that this is the most substantive compensation package offered to date. But it is far from enough. This agreement has far too many holes to be considered “final and irreversible.” We should give these women more than just financial compensation, awarding them a more sincere apology from Japan so they will be able to rest their heavy hearts. In addition, this agreement does not qualify as one.
First of all, an agreement holds value only if the two parties are satisfied with the terms at hand—which is difficult to achieve when the surviving comfort women had no say in what would be considered fair compensation for their sufferings. Korean government officials visited the surviving women only after the deal was made; it is irrational that the women had no opportunity to voice their opinions on the deal before the agreement proclaimed the issue closed. According to the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a majority of the comfort women have staunchly refused to accept the agreement reached and have actively voiced their demand for the Korean government to renegotiate with the Japanese government.
Second, the apology seems far from sincere. According to a random dialing telephone poll conducted by Nikkei Asian Review involving 1,002 Japanese households, 57 percent of respondents still believe that Japan does not need to make concessions relating to wartime comfort women. Also, some Japanese government officials still believe that the comfort women were “professional prostitutes” instead of forced sex slaves, as if “comfort women” is not insulting enough. Even though the women were forced into the act through brutal violence, calling them “professional prostitutes” implies the women engaged willingly, further stripping them of their honor. Current Japanese textbooks barely glimpse over their war crimes and censor information about the atrocities committed toward these women. Although it is impossible to accurately rate the level of sincerity, there has been a lack of both public and government support in Japan toward admitting, apologizing, and compensating for their actions.
Furthermore, although Japan has admitted to moral responsibility even in the past, they still refrain from admitting legal responsibility—with the former being sorry for a misdeed, and the latter admitting it as a crime. The comfort women deserve to know that their sexual mistreatment was not just a blunder, but also a crime that should be duly prosecuted. Germany, one of Japan’s allies in World War II, was condemned internationally for the Holocaust. In addition to admitting its war crimes and suffering appropriate penalties, the prime minister of the nation continues to visit Jewish graves to pay respect to its victims. While the scale of atrocities vary between Germany and Japan, presenting the atrocities committed through ambiguous apologies rather than war crimes traumatize the hearts of victims—whether they be Jewish or comfort women.
Finally, if Japan were to finally step up and take responsibility for the comfort women problem, they should also apologize to the countless other nations that women were also taken from to serve as comfort women, such as China, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Perhaps because the issue had not risen to such levels of controversy in other nations as it did in Korea, these countries did not receive monetary compensation or apologies during the agreement achieved on Dec. 28, 2015. For the agreement to be “final and irreversible,” Japan cannot simply turn a blind eye to other nations and the numerous women hurt and traumatized who deserve more than omission.
Japan is clearly on the right path, but it has a long way to go. The Japanese public should be knowledgeable and agree with the government’s decision to step up about this issue. The first step toward this solution could be by adding more about the comfort women on Japanese standardized textbooks. Utilizing education to convey the objective truth will help Japan move forward, rather than being tied to the past they want to forget. Second, Japan should admit legal responsibility, not just to South Korea, but also to all the other nations who suffered. And most importantly, the comfort women should agree with the compensation they receive from the Japanese government so that they can finally have their peace of mind.
The settlement of any conflict is difficult—especially if it is spanned over generations. The governments of Japan and Korea are both understandably in a difficult position in the issue of comfort women. However, their discomfort does not excuse a lack of progress. This issue extends beyond the political arena into personal lives—people suffered and they are looking not for bills, but for sincerity: something both sides can easily provide.