The Conversation: Apology to Korea benefits Japan, too 3

Jane McClenahan writes: As it advanced through Asia in the Second World War, the Japanese Army established an estimated 2,000 ‘comfort stations’.  This euphemism obscures the horror of what they really were – military brothels to service the sexual needs of the Japanese soldiers ….

Statue of a traditional Japanese warrior, near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Photo by Barbara Borst

Statue of a traditional Japanese warrior, near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
Photo by Barbara Borst

An estimated 200,000 women were brought to work either under duress, false pretenses or through ignorance.

As Japan already occupied the Korean Peninsula, the vast majority were Korean.  Other nationalities included Chinese and Filipino women. In testimony the women have described horrific experiences.

One survivor recounted being raped multiple times a day – including by the Japanese doctor tasked with checking the women’s health and well being.  Many women were held for several years.  The long term effects on those who survived have been devastating. Women speak of terrible internal injuries leaving many unable to have children.  Others struggled to tell family and friends of their experiences.  One woman said it took fifty years to tell her husband.

Since the issue came to wider public attention in 1990’s; the Japanese Government has attempted piecemeal efforts to make amends.  It apologized in 1993 and established a survivors’ fund.  South Korea rejected the apology as being too informal. In recent years conservative Japanese politicians have claimed it was ‘only’ 80,000 women and that they worked in the brothels of their own free will.  This further infuriated South Korea.

Now Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe has reiterated there will be no further apology. He would be wise to reconsider. Abe’s stance on comfort women is in line with his shifting to a policy of much more aggressive nationalism and ‘repackaging’ of Japan’s conduct in and around World War II.  That the 1937 Rape of Nanking in China is now openly disputed by some Japanese figures is part of the same game.  This is predominantly a search for domestic votes as economic progress splutters. So, the position of the Prime Minister and his cohorts is short-term, cynical and dangerous and, furthermore he should reflect on the implications of the policy beyond his own borders.

As China rises, better relations with other Asian powers could be beneficial as a counterweight. Japan should be bringing regional allies closer and working on diplomatic and military alliances. Instead, tensions are high and territorial disputes intensifying. China is disputing Japan’s control of the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.  In the Sea of Japan, Japan has a sovereignty disagreement with South Korea over the Takeshima / Dokdo Islands.

But it’s Japan’s stance on its wartime occupation of Korea which is poisoning relations with its neighbor. The latter, backed by many non-governmental organizations and US politicians, insists Japan must face up to its past actions. Familial ties don’t make the issue any easier. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s father served under the Japanese Army. She is under pressure to distance herself from Japan’s wartime activities. Shinzo Abe’s grandfather was arrested as a war criminal.

The US is increasingly frustrated by Japan’s intransigence.  It’s desperately keen to see improved relations between the two powers as part of the US’s pivot east policy.  Strong regional allies would decrease pressure on the United States’s own stretched military and diplomatic resources.  It’s been on the agenda again for President Barack Obama on his current Asian tour.

Also, Japan sells its citizens short with this belligerent tack. It threatens to obscure the tremendous work Japan funds and operates in international assistance and development around the globe.  According to the United Nations, Japan is the second largest donor to the main UN budget.  It gives nearly 11 percent.  It is the highest provider to Peacekeeping after the United States, giving 10 percent of that budget. It is also a strong advocate for women’s rights around the globe.  In January, Japan’s Cabinet approved $10 million to the agency for core budget and non-core projects in the Middle East and Africa.

Encouraging Japanese women to ‘shine’ in the workplace is a central pillar of his Abenomics strategy. A sincere apology would be in keeping with this progressive image.   The country must stop this smoke and mirrors approach, make a formal acknowledgement of the treatment of the women and move on. The country wants to be seen as a great power.  If so, it needs to stand up and be counted.

In a speech earlier this month, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said she hopes “Japan extricates itself from denial of history and starts making a new history of truth and reconciliation.”  Apologizing properly to South Korea would be an excellent opportunity to improve that difficult squabbling relationship.


  1. I mean seriously, how hard can this be? what took so long? If Japan is a true democratic, international law-abiding nation, this should have already resolved long ago. Well said!

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