Timothy D. Tree and Dr. Ray Christensen, Political Science
On August 14, 1991, Kim Hak-Sun became the first Asian comfort woman to break fifty years of self-imposed silence about the horrors she and thousands of other young Asian women endured a half century ago. Four months later, two more Korean women stepped forward and told the world their stories. These three Korean septuagenarians were former “comfort women”, women drafted by the Japanese Imperial Army for military sexual slavery during World War II (1).
On December 6, 1991, Ms. Kim and the two other surviving comfort women filed a landmark lawsuit against the Japanese government itself, claiming that the Japanese government was responsible for establishing, operating, and managing frontline brothels termed “comfort stations”. The Japanese government responded by vigorously denying all accusations and any involvement in the comfort women system.
Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a history professor at Chuo University in Tokyo, heard these incredible accounts of rape and torture at the hands of Japanese soldiers, and immediately became deeply interested in this issue. Professor Yoshimi proceeded to search the war records of the Japanese government and military from World War II at the libraries of the National Police Agency and National Police Academy in Tokyo. On January 16, 1992, Professor Yoshimi discovered documents that demonstrated the extent of the military’s involvement in the recruitment of women, the majority of whom were Korean, as well as its supervision of the comfort stations (2).
With documented proof, Professor Yoshimi immediately publicized his findings. Confronted with this evidence, the Japanese government finally admitted the truth of its involvement in establishing comfort stations and recruiting women to serve as forced prostitutes. However, the Japanese government has continued to deny any responsibility for such actions and refuses to legislate any change that will bring about an official government apology and government sponsored compensation.
While Japan does acknowledge its official involvement in the establishment of comfort stations, it continues to deny that it was involved in the forceful recruitment of Asian women to work in brothels. However, a combination of personal testimonies from surviving women and the existence of documents from government archives has made it increasingly difficult for the Japanese government to continue those denials. The true picture is slowly emerging.
The comfort women issue is not merely a question of past history that has been silenced for fifty years. It has an important impact on present-day Korea, Japan, and other Asian states, as well as the international community. The story told by Ms. Kim not only revealed a systematic and widespread trafficking in Asian women for sexual slavery during World War II, but also a severe form of discrimination towards Asian women by the Japanese government and the Allied Forces that continues to exist today.
In order to verify the comfort women’s accounts and to ascertain the legality of Japanese World War II aggression, my research efforts led me to spend a month in the Republic of Korea and Japan in the summer of 1997. There I met with surviving comfort women, academics, politicians, and activists to hear first-hand the accounts of what transpired fifty years ago. Through the basis of my interviews and personal research, I came to the conclusion that Japanese government involvement in the recruitment and abduction of young Asian women for the purposes of military sexual slavery constituted a violation of international law.
To prove my argument, in my Honors thesis I completed, I analyzed the legal issues at stake at the time of the Japanese atrocities, analyzing both possible claims and defenses by the Korean and Japanese governments should this issue ever be presented at the International Court of Justice. In my analysis, I showed that Japan instituted various measures to have the pretext of following international law at that time. However, I showed that these measures were woefully inadequate and morally inexcusable. Japan violated international law by forcefully recruiting thousands of young women to serve as sexual slaves and thus should be required to pay official compensation to the surviving victims and issue an official government apology.
Initially, the most difficult aspect of my research was narrowing down the wide margins of my research into an acceptable and doable piece of work. The comfort women issue has become hotly debated over the past seven years, with strong ultra-right Japanese conservatives denouncing the comfort women as liars and denying that this situation ever existed. On the other side, strong liberals and feminists/activists are pushing for a quick and just legal solution. With all this explosive material available, I found it difficult to sift through what was merely inflammatory rhetoric and was pure fact.
Without a doubt, the most rewarding aspect of my research was meeting with, interviewing, and collaborating with the many people that I did. In South Korea, I was fortunate to visit the “House of Sharing”, a communal home for seven surviving comfort women run by a Buddhist monastery. It was here that I met with and talked with women that who have suffered so much, both fifty years ago at the hands of Japanese aggression and currently, at the hands of the Japanese government who continues to refuse to make adequate compensation. My heart went out to them and to their struggle, and I hope that the surviving comfort women may eventually find peace.
- Koh, Helen. 1994. Appendix: Personal narratives of the comfort women. in The comfort woman problem: Of memory, public disclosure and the making of gendered identity. Unpublished Seminar Paper: University of Chicago.
- Information obtained from an interview with Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki in Tokyo, Japan on August 1, 1997.