In February, an article appeared in the L.A. Times(ITAL) and on the Internet about the controversy surrounding a statue erected by the city of Glendale to memorialize the approximately 200,000 comfort women, mostly Korean, forced into sexual slavery during WWII by the Japanese army.
A lawsuit filed in the federal court by two private citizens and a nonprofit organization (not named in the Times(ITAL) article) seeks to force Glendale to remove the controversial statue, located in a public park. The lawsuit states that Glendale, by erecting the statue, has taken a position on what the suit claims is an undecided international debate about “the proper historical truth” of the comfort women.
“The proper historical truth” is an interesting phrasing but curious since the Japanese government does not deny the existence of the comfort women. If there is any point of contention, it seems to center around the question of who these women were. Some claim they were prostitutes, implying they willingly followed the Japanese army during the period in question and were not, as others insist, sex slaves.
But in 1993, Yohei Kono, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, released a statement acknowledging Japan’s responsibility for recruiting comfort women for military brothels and expressed the government’s apologies to the women. Subsequently, the Japanese government established a fund to provide assistance to former comfort women.
In February of this year, former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama stated during an unofficial visit to South Korea that Japan had committed “indescribable wrongdoings” and should apologize and offer compensation to the women.
The Japan Times(ITAL) reported in April that the Japanese government made overtures to South Korea to put “an end this year to the issue . . . before the two countries mark the 50th anniversary next year of normalizing diplomatic relations.”
According to the Japan Times(ITAL) article, Japan is “considering extending humanitarian measures such as an official apology and funding for the women.”
I first became aware of the comfort women issue when Bay Area activist and former JACL National President Clifford Uyeda wrote about it in the P.C.(ITAL) in the late 1980s. Never one to shy away from the delicate, Clifford made it public after he had discovered information about the comfort women while doing research on the MIS, about whom very little was known at the time.
In the course of his research on the war in the Pacific, he came across mention of this issue of comfort women used as sex slaves by the armies of Japan. I think it was the next morning that he mentioned this to me, still shaken and deeply disturbed by what he had discovered.
A decade later, Mike Honda raised the issue when he was in the California Assembly and again when he reached Congress, putting the issue on the international stage. Needless to say, the Japanese did not take kindly to Honda’s actions, but knowing him as I do, I know his motive wasn’t to embarrass but to find justice for the women who were victims of Japan’s actions.
It’s clear that this issue will not go away until the Japanese government enacts measures that can help put this issue to rest. Unlike some of the events that occurred during the war, this particular issue is not open to interpretation, nor the facts arguable. It’s not something that can be swept under an interpretive rug of history and made to disappear. The existence of those military brothels was not the action of some renegade commander in the field: They were part of the morale-building effort of the army, an approved policy.
It seems to me that the only way the Japanese can resolve this issue is to offer an apology and direct, individual compensation to each of the 55 surviving comfort women. Whatever the cost of such a gesture (and I think it should be enormously generous, given the horrors these women experienced), it would be far costlier for Japan to keep burying the issue in political rhetoric and continue to be the target of South Korea’s wrath.
Resolutions between nations are never an easy matter and are complex in ways difficult to understand for outside observers. That may very well be the case here, but one thing is clear: The existence of the comfort women is a known fact. It’s out in the open, and however it was that the women found themselves in that situation, the fact remains that they were there as sex slaves. That is the “proper historical truth.”
This issue may be beyond the purview of the JACL’s mission, but it’s too profound a human rights issue to ignore any longer. It’s time the JACL considers a resolution at the San Jose convention to express its views on this sensitive issue.
John Tateishi is a former JACL National Director.
Originally published on June 20, 2014