“Comfort Women” Revisited

Masahiro Matsumura
Masahiro Matsumura Professor of International Politics on the Faculty of Law and Political Science, St. Andrew’s University in Osaka

August 17, 2007

At the end of April, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington to cement the U.S.-Japan alliance, and also clarified his position on the “comfort women” issue. In the wake of Abe’s visit, and as a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee continues to consider the so-called Honda Resolution demanding an official apology by the Japanese government, it is time to re-assess the issue.

Did the Prime Minister try to deny the comfort women issue? No, he reaffirmed long-standing policy, which accepted moral responsibility but denied legal liability by Japan’s post-war government.

From the beginning, the Prime Minister has consistently upheld the 1993 statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Kohno, and the 1995 statement of then-Prime Minister Murayama.

The Kohno statement is a straightforward acknowledgement of the existence of comfort women: “It is apparent that there existed a great number of comfort women”; “Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day”; and “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 Kohno statement also unequivocally accepts Japan’s moral responsibility: “The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those (comfort women).”

However, the same statement declines to assign legal liability to the Japanese state on the grounds that “the recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military.” Accordingly, Prime Minister Murayama created the non-governmental Asian Women’s Fund to provide atonement including medical and welfare support, but not state compensation. The Murayama statement publicly announced this approach, while some 300 former comfort women have received Fund support over the last ten years. Yet, many of the former victims have not filed their cases at the Fund; instead, they demand compensation from the Japanese state.

Has Mr. Abe been insincere in his apologies on the “comfort women” issue to Members of Congress and others? No, a Japanese speaker would interpret his statements as convincing reaffirmation of apologies that carry genuine moral, emotional, and political substance: “As an individual, and the prime minister, I sympathize from the bottom of my heart with the former comfort women who experience this extreme hardship. I am deeply sorry about the situation in which they were placed.”

Are the Japanese people of one mind on the “comfort women” issue? Hardly. An active debate has begun, and includes issues such as what types of evidence are valid. That debate is a good thing and should be encouraged.

Abe’s remarks in the Japanese Diet in March were in response to a legislator questioning the exact nature of Japanese military involvement, focusing on how coercive the recruitment of the comfort women was. Earlier, then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Ishihara, who led the process of drafting the Kohno statement, revealed that it was in fact written without substantiation by primary historical documents. As a result, there has been growing concern among the Japanese general public whether some phrases in the statement are accurate and appropriate.

The national debate in Japan will continue because the classified hearings with former “comfort women” as well as other circumstantial evidence, such as eyewitness records taken at the end of the war, certainly attest to the fact that the women suffered from hardships in a coercive environment, not to the fact that the then-Japanese state assisted in the coercive recruitment. Yet, the existing documentary evidence is inconclusive given that a lot of documents were destroyed at the end of the war and that some activities of the Imperial Army, including this one, might not have been fully documented.

What are the prospects of new monetary compensation for “comfort women’? Not very high. A private fund was set up in line with the finding of no legal liabilities by the government of Japan.

At the end of April, the Japanese Supreme Court judged that all the compensation issues vis-à-vis the Japanese state, private corporations and individuals, have been already settled thoroughly by the San Francisco peace treaty. (The same reasoning applies to other, bilateral accords including one with South Korea.) The Court also judged that victims on mainland China are not entitled to any compensation due to the Sino-Japanese Joint Communique that endorses the peace treaty previously concluded between Japan and the Republic of China now located on Taiwan. Hence, it follows that plaintiffs thereafter must file their cases to their own government for compensation, not to the Japanese state viewed as the victimizer.

The uninformed oftentimes compare and contrast the seemingly obdurate Japanese approach with the deeply penitent German achievement. Yet, this understanding is seriously flawed because the Third Reich government ceased to exist before its surrender and because the current German state has not concluded any formal peace treaties with former belligerent powers.

Certainly, the Japanese government may possibly enact special legal instruments to enable state compensation to various wartime victims, including comfort women. Yet, such legislation is a hard sell to the Japanese general public because according to the peace treaties, Japanese civilian war victims, including the victims of the two atomic bombs and a series of massive strategic bombings over major cities, are precluded from seeking compensation from foreign governments. As a result, the Japanese political leadership has been severely constrained over several decades by historical legacies, such as the comfort women, and will remain so in the foreseeable future.