Digital Museum:The Comfort Women Issue and the Asian Women's Fund
 Establishment of the Asian Women's Fund >How did the Comfort Women Issue come to light?

 How did the Comfort Women Issue come to light?



It cannot be said that people in Japan were completely unaware that there were comfort women during wartime. Those who went to war knew, at least to some extent, that they existed. But there was almost no awareness of the issue as a social problem. Beginning around 1965, those interested in Japan-Korean relations generally knew that there had been comfort women, and that their experiences were the cruelest outcome of Japan's colonization of Korea. But the victims were thought of only as people who were part of history.

When a campaign for girls to join a girls volunteer labor corps (during the war, girls were mobilized to work at factories mostly munition industries) was launched in Korea in 1943, toward the end of the war period, the rumor spread that corps members would be forced to become comfort women. The Governor-General's office denied the rumors, saying they were being spread maliciously and intentionally without foundation, but this only caused people to believe the rumors even more. This shows that the existence of the comfort women system was not unknown in Korea in 1945. Even after liberation, however, the issue was probably something people preferred not to discuss.

The issue was finally taken up and discussed openly in the Republic of Korea after democratization in 1987. Yun Chung-Ok published an article giving information on the issue in the Hankyoreh Newspaper in January 1990. The issue gained prominence at a time when greater attention was being paid to the history of Japanese-Korean relations and demands for an apology.

The issue suddenly hit a nerve among the people in the Republic of Korea after a government representative on the House of Councilors' Budget Committee replied to a question of a Diet member as follows, on 6 June 1990:

"After listening to elderly people and piecing together what they say, it appears that the wartime comfort women were taken by private entrepreneurs to different places, going where the military went. Frankly, even if one were to conduct an inquiry into the circumstances, it would not yield any results."
In the Republic of Korea, this answer was strongly criticized for denying the involvement of the Japanese state and military, and for denying the possibility of an inquiry being held. On 17 October 1990, 37 women's organizations in the Republic of Korea joined forces with a group studying the volunteer corps, issued a declaration criticizing the response of the Japanese Government's representative, and presented the Japanese Government with six demands: (i) acknowledge that the comfort women were forcibly taken away; (ii) issue a public apology; (iii) conduct an investigation to discover what really happened and disclose the findings; (iv) construct a monument to commemorate the victims; (v) pay cKim Hak-Sunompensation to the victims or their surviving heirs; and (vi) establish educational programs to raise awareness of the history behind the issue.These demands were widely reported in Japan around the end of the year, and the issue was again raised in the Diet.

But the decisive moment came when one victim, Kim Hak-Sun, came forward in Seoul in the summer of 1991 and demanded that Japan take responsibility. Ms. Kim was the only complainant to use her own name in a lawsuit demanding compensation for Pacific War victims. The lawsuit was lodged in December 1991.

These developments created a shock in Japan, and a movement promoted mainly by women quickly gained ground in the country. On 10 January 1992, Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a Chuo University professor, announced the existence of documents proving the involvement of the Japanese military. One of these documents was the written notification of warnings quoted above, drawn up by Naosaburo Okabe, the Chief of Staff of the North China Area Army. Yoshimi's revelations caused a sensation, and the Japanese Government also came to launch a full-scale inquiry.

The results of the inquiry were released first on 6 July 1992 with a statement of Koichi Kato, Chief Cabinet Secretary. Kato said as follows:

Koichi KatoI will summarize the main points here. That is, the inquiry has revealed that the Government had been involved in the establishment of comfort stations, the control of those who recruited comfort women, the construction and reinforcement of comfort facilities, the management and surveillance of comfort stations, the hygiene maintenance in comfort stations and among comfort women, and the issuance of identification as well as other documents to those who were related to comfort stations.

The Government again would like to express its sincere apology and remorse to all those who have suffered indescribable hardship as so-called "wartime comfort women", irrespective of their nationality or place of birth. With profound remorse and determination that such a mistake must never be repeated, Japan will maintain its stance as a pacifist nation and will endeavor to build up new future-oriented relations with the Republic of Korea and with other countries and regions in Asia.

As I listen to many people, I feel truly grieved by this issue. By listening to the opinions of people from various orientations, I would like to consider sincerely in what way we can express our feelings to those who suffered such hardship.

By this time the Japanese government discovered 127 documents, including 70 documents from the Defense Agency, and 52 documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But strong waves of criticism appeared, deeming the government's inquiry unsatisfactory. The government decided to carry out the inquiry more home and abroad. Not only documents and materials were studied, but also the people related with comfort stations, including 16 ex. Korean comfort women, were interviewed. The result of the inquiry was released for the second time on 4 August 1993 with a statement of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. Finally 117 documents from the Defense Agency, 54 documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were discovered with 19 documents from the National Archives, the United States.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono's statement (Full text see) outlined what the government had learned through its inquiry, and announced decisions taken as a result. Parts of the statement read as follows:

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day. The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.

Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women. The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.

It is incumbent upon us, the Government of Japan, to continue to consider seriously, while listening to the views of learned circles, how best we can express this sentiment.

We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history. We hereby reiterate our firm determination never to repeat the same mistake by forever engraving such issues in our memories through the study and teaching of history.

The then Deputy of Chief Cabinet Nobuo Ishihara said as follows in an interview for the AWF.

Nobuo IshiharaThat's why we said we should do field research. We decided that an inspector appointed by the Japanese government would go to Seoul and meet with the former comfort women, assess the circumstances and sentiments from their stories and make a final decision on whether they were forcibly taken to the comfort stations or not.
But that's when the Chongdaehyop (the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan) opposed us. It is not possible for us to conduct our field research under these irregular circumstances. So we said, "No." The Japanese government said it can't do it. However, the Korean side said that they won't apply any pressure, and that they would select several people who were known as comfort women who would be willing to talk in person in a quiet environment. They insisted that we meet these women. Therefore, several people from each ministry went and met with 16 people known as comfort women. The people who went are not able to release the names of the people they met. We just heard the reports, as did the Chief Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister.
In these reports, we heard that there were ones who were clearly taken against their will, ones who were tricked, ones who went to be recruited as ordinary female workers but were taken to a comfort station, and ones who didn't want to go but weren't able to resist the pressure applied when an officer to the Governor-General of Korea came and threatened them, specifying the particular number that he needed to take with him. Since there were several people like that, the inspectors made a comprehensive assessment and concluded that there were definitely individuals amongst these sixteen that were taken against their will and made comfort women. The Prime Minister and the Chief Cabinet Secretary heard the same reports.
Consequently, we weren't able to identify any documents, such as notifications or commands, or physical evidence that could prove that coercion took place, but from hearing out the sixteen people considered to be comfort women, we came to the conclusion that their stories couldn't possibly be made up, and that they were definitely made comfort women against their will. The Kono Statement was released against the backdrop of these considerations. The government acknowledged the coercion based on the reports of the research group.

This statement represented the Japanese Government's understanding and stance regarding the comfort women issue. Once the statement had been made, vigorous debate continued for some time on how to express the Government's feelings of apologies and remorse.

The victims who came forward were very instrumental in highlighting the issue in society at large. As of November 2002, the Government of the Republic of Korea had registered as victims 207 people from among those who have come forward and notified the Government. Seventy-two had died as of November 2002. In Taiwan, it has been reported that 36 of all registered victims are still alive.It is known that there are former comfort women identifying themselves in Philippines, Indonesia, China, North Korea, and other countries.

But it is essential not to forget that those who came forward are just a very small fraction of all of the victims. Many have already passed away, and others do not wish to identify themselves.


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