Justice for Victims of Sexual Violence: The Ongoing Controversies Surrounding Comfort Women

Today is the United Nations’ (UN) International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. By raising public awareness of violence against women, governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations continue the fight against human rights abuses worldwide. One such example of mass human rights abuses occurred more than 60 years ago, through military sexual slavery during World War II. Though decades have passed, justice is lacking for these surviving victims, and understanding this case can provide lessons to the numerous countries undergoing similar violence.

Characterized by denial and continued oppression, the Japanese government contributes to the ongoing suffering of these victims by failing to sufficiently acknowledge their anguish and the crimes committed against them.

The Japanese government has long been criticized for its particularly extreme approach to dealing with the past, including its failure to acknowledge ‘comfort women,’ those victims who were subjected to the systematic practice of sexual slavery at ‘comfort’ stations during WWII. In Japan, up to 200,000 women are estimated to have been forced into Japan’s military brothels during WWII, sometimes being subjected to years of rape and torture. Evidence exists in support of the horrific conditions that these women were subjected to within the comfort women system. Many of these women returned home only to be marginalized within their community due to stigmatization as a victim of sexual violence.

The current Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan is adamant about maintaining that many of the atrocities that were said to be perpetrated did not in fact occur, as has also been evidenced by the deletion of Japan’s aggression and military wrongdoings during the war from history textbooks in the 1980s. Past steps were taken in the right direction by former Cabinet members who recognized the moral responsibility of Japan, but even then, this was insufficient. Furthermore, all governments have avoided any claims of legal responsibility. But what has this meant for the victims, particularly with regard to their stigmatization? And what can be done for these women – of whom only a fraction are still alive – to achieve justice for their suffering? This commentary argues that proper recognition can go a long way in eradicating stigmas associated with sexual violence.

The government claims that this issue was settled along with other WWII claims for redress by the San Francisco Peace Treaty and other bilateral agreements. But the measures that were put in place to deal with these abuses were inadequate. Although the Tokyo Tribunal marginally addressed sexual slavery, presenting evidence in a few cases of its wartime existence, it failed to consider the practice as a war crime or even to define it as a system of sexual slavery. A series of compensation claims that began in the 1990s by victims coming forward and demanding reparations were unsuccessful. Even when initially granted, verdicts have been consistently overruled by the Supreme Court. Only one overseas Allied military trial in Indonesia charged and convicted suspects of committing sexual atrocities. The 2000 Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery did find the emperor guilty and asserted that the comfort women system was deemed to be military sexual slavery and constituted a crime against humanity. Unfortunately, the Tribunal had no authority to punish and the outcome was largely withheld from the public by the media.

Apologies by the government have been made, though rarely satisfactorily. The “Kono Statement” made by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993, admitted and apologized for the involvement of the Japanese military in establishing and managing comfort stations and the forceful nature of the recruitment and transfer of women. After expressing a desire to review the statement, Abe finally decided this would not be the best solution and stated that it would remain unchanged. While only a minority of politicians have expressed the desire to atone for the past, for the most part apologies tend to be vague and do not exceed statements of remorse.

The use of apologies for dealing with the past provides for a restorative approach that in theory should not be hampered by legal complications, as may be the case with trials or compensation claims. Yet – as has been the case in other countries – Japan does not want to admit legal responsibility for the abuses. Such an action was also seen, for example, by the Clinton Administration in response to evidence that arose regarding the role of U.S forces in guerilla warfare in South Korea. In this case, legal responsibility would have entailed the payment of compensation to victims.

For victims this lack of legal responsibility is inadequate. With a government that has no interest in admitting responsibility for the events that occurred, it begs the question of what can be done to meet the needs of these victims. The current debates are often lodged within the political arena and linked to foreign policy. Perhaps a victimological perspective in the future is necessary to understand if the suffering of these women can to some extent be mitigated through other means. The survivors and remaining women require official recognition, namely through formal government apologies, as they come from societies where sexual violence brings shame and stigma, and support is therefore often insufficient. Of the estimated hundreds of thousands victims of sexual slavery, only a small fraction have come forward, largely due to fears of stigmatization. Overcoming stigma can be done through the support and awareness raising of organizations committed to exposing the truth behind the comfort women atrocities, leading to empowerment, as has been seen with the Butterfly Fund.

During the recent United Nations Human Rights Committee session in July 2014, it was recommended to use the term ‘enforced sex slavery’, instead of ‘comfort women’, as the latter does not accurately reveal its violent and coercive nature, illustrating how amendments can enhance an accurate portrayal of the violence. Similarly, the 2000 Tribunal sends the message that such behavior will not be tolerated and offenders must be held accountable. This type of progress helps victims to overcome stigma that may lead to social marginalization or isolation, also within the family.

The comfort women discourse that is continuing to this day is, to a large extent, embedded in political manipulation. This political discourse fails to put the victimization of these women at the fore. In South Korea, women continue to protest every week in front of the Japanese Embassy. These actions may not only empower women, but younger generations also better understand their experiences. The government of South Korea should also provide more support to these women to counter the negative effects of the lack (or absence) of Japan’s accountability. Similarly, as has been done, joining forces, not only transnationally but also through different movements has proven to be a successful means of engaging the public. This was the case in South Korea, where the momentum of movements against domestic violence, violence against prostitutes and women’s labor have been able to come together to impact society.

Finally, the apologies that have been demanded by these women could go a long way in reducing the stigmatization suffered. In this sense, apologies may provide a means of awareness of sexual abuse. Japan has made over 50 apologies with regard to its war time behaviors; most do not address the comfort women tragedies more specifically. Where the comfort women are explicitly mentioned, Prime Ministers have felt remorse, described the ‘incidents’ as heartbreaking and hardships and have even gone so far as claiming the abuse caused ‘immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds.’ While the ‘honor’ and ‘dignity’ of these women has been addressed, the government has not gone further to use these statements as ways to inform the public over the systematic violence that was caused indiscriminately to women as a result of a patriarchal society. Identifying these issues within official State apologies could help to suggest that such violence is not to stigmatize these women in the future.

These women were silenced during their years of victimization and in the decades that followed. This is not an uncommon phenomenon with regard to sexual violence. By acknowledging these women through whatever means, future generations and victimized nations can overcome the stigmas that still are associated with sexual violence. Through support of national governments, continued protests, involvement in victim-centered organizations and stronger apologies, the fate of these victims can change for the better.

This commentary is part of an ongoing research on the Impact of Transitional Justice on Democracy, conducted by researchers at The Hague Institute for Global Justice and The University of East London and co-funded by NWO and ESRC (www.tjdi.org).

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