In recent months, the survivors of Japan’s so-called comfort women system have been dealt a series of newly cruel blows.
In late January, the beleaguered Asian Women’s Fund announced that it would disband in 2007. During its ten year history, the Fund has been attacked from all sides, yet, as an editorial in the Asahi Shinbun emphasized, for all its shortcomings the Fund “managed to move the history issue ahead, if only just a little.” The Asahi quoted Fund staff members who recalled how some of the women found a measure of closure to their horrific personal histories through contact with the Fund. The decision to dissolve the Asian Women’s Fund fell as quietly as snow, however, landing on top of the media-blitzing scandal that pitted the LDP leadership and NHK against the Asahi concerning the NHK’s well-known censorship of a 2001 documentary on the military sex slaves. The head of NHK resigned, but Japan’s Public Television authorities refuse to admit wrongdoing, let alone that it was bullied into removing segments of the original show by powerful LDP Diet members.
In all of the excitement, of course, the women themselves — and above all their history — were the first casualties, largely ignored in the uproar. By now, the basic facts are available to reading audiences in Japan and around the world. In the wake of the 1937 atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Nanjing, the Japanese government established a system to make available sex for its troops and civilian workers throughout Japan’s battlegrounds in Asia and the Pacific, eventually enslaving some 100-200,000 women as forced sexual labor for the system, of which Koreans and Chinese comprised the greatest numbers. These details, once elusive due to government efforts to destroy all records, can now be substantiated readily with the kind of official archival documentation that government historians and courts so dearly prize. So why give up on the few surviving women now?
The big tragedy for the dwindling number of living victims of this crime came well before the New Year, and received much less attention, yet brought the continuing dimensions of the problem into sharp relief. In late November, the Supreme Court turned down a 13-year lawsuit brought by a group of former sex slaves from South Korea against the Japanese government. For years, the courts have shown indifference to the women’s humanity by dismissing such cases on the grounds that the San Francisco Treaty and subsequent normalization agreements settled apology and compensation issues once and for all. Last November’s judgment went farther than this customary apologist reasoning. The court claimed that the women’s case had no basis in the Japanese legal system because the events they described — their enslavement — happened before the 1947 constitution came into being. Japan was a different country then, they explained, meaning that the women and their history could not be the responsibility of “new” Japan. Several days after the decision, Education Minister Nakayama Nariaki greeted the court’s judgment as well as the decreasing references to the issue of sexual slavery in school textbooks with characteristic empathy: “It is good. We shouldn’t focus so much on the negative.” Taking all of these moments together, it’s safe to say that we’re watching the end of the apology decade.