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Japan apologizes for Korean comfort women: Can it heal one of Asia's thorniest issues?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's apology, and an $8.3 million fund, may tame a decades-long conflict over World War II-era history that has divided the two American allies. 

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    A statue representing South Korean "comfort women" who worked at Japanese military brothels during World War II stands outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has apologized and offered an $8.3 million fund for victims, who are generally considered sex slaves.
    Ahn Eun-na/ Reuters
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On Monday, Japanese and South Korean officials reached a "final and irreversible solution" to the "comfort women" controversies that have plagued Japanese-Korean relations since the end of World War II, impeding a relationship the United States has tried to strengthen in the face of an increasingly assertive China. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered apologies and an $8.3 million fund for the 46 remaining survivors of a wartime forced-prostitution system at Japanese barracks that involved up to 200,000 women from Korea, China, and the Philippines.

The message was delivered by Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul, where he told the press that Mr. Abe wished to express "his most sincere apologies and remorse," and to reassure South Koreans that "the government of Japan is painfully aware of [its] responsibilities."

Abe's acknowledgement of Japanese military officials' "involvement" in organizing the comfort women system, although not as strong as some South Koreans had hoped for, marks a departure from his previous reluctance to indict the Imperial Army. 

Both countries have been eager to put the conflict behind them before the end of the year: August 15, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender, days after the United States dropped the second of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. In November, Abe met with South Korean President Geun-hye Park, marking the first time the countries' leaders had met in more than three years. Previously, Ms. Park had refused to meet until Japan offered proper apologies for comfort women.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of normalized relations between South Korea and Japan, which colonized the peninsula for more than three decades: a period now symbolized by the surviving "comfort women," most of whom are in their late 80s.

In 1965, when the two countries restored post-war relations, Japan offered $800 million in compensation for colonial abuses, although not specifically comfort women. An official apology followed in 1993, from then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. 

But Abe, a nationalist whose administration has overseen attempts to expand Japan's military power after decades of pacifism, had not previously offered an apology of his own, and has questioned whether the women were enslaved or worked in the brothels willingly. Although he expressed the "utmost grief" for World War II on the 70th anniversary in August, the Prime Minister insisted that "we must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize." 

Abe's past visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors all soldiers who died for the Emperor, including 1,000 war criminals, have sparked fierce protests in China and South Korea, both of which suffered from Japanese aggression leading up to World War II.

"I feel we’ve fulfilled the responsibility of the generation living now," Abe told reporters after speaking with Park on Monday. "I'd like this to be a trigger for Japan and South Korea to cooperate and open a new era."

Park also expressed optimism, telling Abe that "they can cooperate closely to start building trust and open a new relationship," according to an official statement. South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said the government would consider removing a bronze statue of a comfort woman placed outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, the site of frequent protests. 

"The worst is over between the two countries," Jin Chang Soo, director of Japan studies at the Seoul's Sejong Institute, told Bloomberg:

The issue of historical disputes can be seen as mostly resolved and it’s now time for the two sides to talk about real issues that affect their interests, not only how they are going to boost their trade but also how they will work together with the US to reshape the geopolitical order of the region.

The United States has encouraged South Korea and Japan to put aside their historical disputes to strengthen relations, especially as it eyes China's expanding activity in the contested waters of the South China Sea, and North Korea's nuclear program.

In 2014, the US signed a pact to serve as a go-between for military information between Japan and South Korea, after they were unable to reach an agreement to share information directly.

But Abe's apology, and the official fund for victims, did not pacify all survivors or their advocates. According to the Washington Post, some objected that the message came indirectly, via Japan's Foreign Minister, and did not address legal claims. It was unclear if the funds would go directly to survivors. 

And an apology from the top may not do much to change popular opinions, or other politicians' positions. 

"History is the core concern of Northeast Asian politics," Park Joon-woo, a former adviser to President Park, told the Monitor in July. "And that will continue as long as Japanese leaders try to erase their history." Japanese school textbooks routinely ignore comfort women, making it difficult for young adults to understand why the issue remains such a stumbling block for Japan-South Korea relations.

In Korea, meanwhile, fierce criticism greets scholars who question commonly held views of the women as helpless victims. Park Yu-ha, a professor at Seoul's Sejong University, was forced to redact more than 30 sections of a 2013 book in which she argued that the women were driven into the system by complex causes: a mixture of private Japanese recruiters, Korean collaborators, and brutal poverty.

Her doubt that the Japanese military was at the heart of the system rebuts findings from a United Nations report in the 1990s, according to The New York Times, and outraged many Koreans, even as many academics were outraged at perceived censorship of her work. 

According to 2014 polls, 54.4 percent of Japanese have an unfavorable impression of South Korea, and 70 percent of Koreans hold an unfavorable impression of Japan. Roughly 70 percent from both countries cited concerns over the legacy of World War II as the main roadblock to better relations. 

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