Asia 'Comfort Women' Get Little Empathy From Japan

The Japanese government's effort to atone for part of its World War II shame faces trouble on two fronts.

Its citizens are proving reluctant to contribute to a fund intended to compensate women who were forced to work as prostitutes for Japan's military during the war.

And a new United Nations report issued this week insists that the Japanese government must accept legal responsibility for the human rights violations.

The Japanese government has been encouraging its citizens to contribute money to the fund.

But the report on the so-called sex slaves has focused attention on the underwhelming response the fund has drawn: So far the Asian Peace and Friendship Fund for Women has a balance of 142 million yen ($1.34 million).

''It's totally inadequate, even after eight months,'' says Mutsuko Miki, a member of the fund's board of directors and the widow of former Prime Minister Takeo Miki.

The fund's secretary general, Masao Wada, acknowledges that his organization's budget for advertising - to elicit more contributions - is, at 200 million yen, larger than the balance.

''Of course we are not satisfied,'' adds Yasuo Matsui, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official who coordinates the government's support for the project. ''We will double our efforts.''

Some academic researchers in Japan have estimated that hundreds of thousands of women from Korea, China, the Philippines, and other countries were forced into prostitution. At least 72 women have sued for compensation in Japanese courts.

This week, Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan legal scholar appointed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to study violence against women, praised the fund as an expression of moral responsibility, but challenged the government's denial of legal responsibility for the sex slaves.

Nonetheless, says Mr. Matsui, echoing comments by elected officials in recent days, ''the government's position will not be changed.''

The fund was designed as a delicate solution to a sensitive problem.

In recent years, the accounts of women who say they were sexually enslaved by the Japanese military have proved increasingly embarrassing to the Japanese government. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the war's end, and many groups and individuals marked the occasion by filing lawsuits seeking official apologies and compensation.

Japan's leaders, who once denied that the military or the government had ever had a hand in providing women for Japanese troops, began to acknowledge the practice in 1993. Recent statements have even approached contrition, but the government refuses to consider any official compensation because it says that postwar treaties and agreements settled all such claims.

The Asian women's fund, technically a private organization, was created last August to demonstrate the Japanese people's sense of atonement without using any state money. The government has budgeted 450 million yen ($4.25 million) this year to cover administrative costs, says secretary-general Wada, but is not contributing to the fund itself.

In December, following a low level of initial interest, the government also made contributions tax deductible.

Ms. Coomaraswamy's report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Commission in March, reads like a legal brief, arguing that the Japanese government cannot evade legal responsibility.

She says that none of the treaties and agreements cited by Japan ''were concerned with human rights violations in general or military sexual slavery in particular'' and concludes that the government remains responsible for ''violations of international humanitarian law.''

Beginning in the 1930s, the Japanese military recruited and dispatched mainly Korean women, to service troops dispatched to other parts of Asia.

As accounts by former officers show, the genesis of the practice was a military project designed to prevent rapes by soldiers. Over time, many private operators participated in the maintenance of what were called ''comfort stations,'' and the government has previously argued that the brothels were largely private facilities.

Coomaraswamy writes that she is ''absolutely convinced that most of the women kept in the comfort stations were taken against their will, that the Japanese Imperial Army initiated, regulated, and controlled the vast network of comfort stations, and that the Government of Japan is responsible for the comfort stations.''

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