Comfort Woman Statue Erected Outside of Japanese Embassy in Seoul

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    A South Korean civic group has erected a bronze statue of a comfort woman in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul:

    A civic group demanding that the Japanese government apologize to and compensate Korean “comfort women,” who were forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II, erected a bronze monument symbolizing the victims in front of the Japanese Embassy here on Dec. 14.

    The monument, referred to as a “peace statue,” was unveiled during an official ceremony on Dec. 14, a day that also marked the group’s 1,000th protest in front of the Japanese Embassy, held every Wednesday since January 1992.

    The statue sits directly across the street from the gate to the Japanese embassy. There is an empty chair beside it, allowing tourist to have their picture taken with the comfort woman.

    As you can see from the embedded news clip from Japanese TV, this has received a considerable amount of attention in Japan. In addition to clips of South Korean protesters demanding more compensation for surviving comfort women, it shows footage of Japanese people holding protests in Tokyo. Japanese police kept apart two groups of protesters: one in favor of more compensation for comfort women, and one opposing the statue.

    When the Japanese news anchors discuss the issue at the end of the clip, they call on Prime Minister Noda bring up the issue of the statue during an upcoming meeting with South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak. The statue could hurt Japan’s image and encourage an incorrect understanding of the comfort women issue.

    The Japanese government has already officially objected to the statue, citing the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a treaty that both Japan and Korea have signed. Article 22 of the Convention states that host countries must impair the “dignity” of foreign embassies:

    2. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the
    mission or impairment of its dignity.

    The South Korean government brushed aside official Japanese complaints about the plan to erect the statue, and now that it’s complete, it seems doubtful that they will change their minds.

    Background Information on Japan’s Official Response to the Comfort Women Issue

    The issue of war reparations was addressed during the negotiations of the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea. The South Korean government accepted a huge sum of money from Japan, stating that it would take care of the distribution of reparations to individual Korean victims of Japanese imperialism. The South Korean government agreed that its citizens would no longer have the legal right to demand compensation payments from the Japanese government.

    Unfortunately for the victims, the South Korean government hid the reparations agreement from its citizens and used the money for other purposes. For decades, South Koreans believed that Japan had not properly paid reparations to their country. The South Korean government eventually admitted the truth in 2005:

    In January 2005, the South Korean government disclosed 1,200 pages of diplomatic documents that recorded the proceeding of the treaty. The documents, kept secret for 40 years, recorded that South Korea agreed to demand no compensations, either at the government or individual level, after receiving $800 million in grants and soft loans from Japan as compensation for its 1910–45 colonial rule in the treaty.
    The documents also recorded that the Korean government demanded a total of 364 million dollars in compensation for the 1.03 million Koreans conscripted into the workforce and the military during the colonial period, at a rate of 200 dollars per survivor, 1,650 dollars per death and 2,000 dollars per injured person.However, the South Korean government used most of the grants for economic development, failing to provide adequate compensation to victims by paying only 300,000 won per death in compensating victims of forced labor between 1975 and 1977. Instead, the government spent most of the money establishing social infrastructures, founding POSCO, building Gyeongbu Expressway and the Soyang Dam with the technology transfer from Japanese companies.

    The documents also reveal that the South Korean government claimed that it would handle individual compensation to its citizens who suffered during Japan’s colonial rule while rejecting Japan’s proposal to directly compensate individual victims and receiving the whole amount of grants on the behalf of victims.(emphasis added)

    Despite this evidence, many Koreans insist to this day that Japan never paid any form of compensation to their country. They have also dismissed or ignored the Japanese government’s numerous apologies to victims of imperialism.

    When the comfort women issue gained international attention in the 1990’s, the Japanese government decided that it was a special case. Despite the fact that the previous treaty had legally settled the reparations issue, measures were taken to aid former comfort women. Directly paying reparations would violate the 1965 agreement, so the Japanese government instead established the Asian Women’s Fund to raise funds and deliver compensation payments.

    As noted on the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s homepage, the official response to the issue included apologies and the distribution of billions of yen in reparations to surviving comfort women:

    Recognizing that the issue known as “comfort women” was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of a large number of women, the Government of Japan, together with the people of Japan, seriously discussed what could be done for expressing their sincere apologies and remorse to the former “comfort women.” As a result, the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) was established on July 19, 1995 in order to extend atonement from Japanese people to the former “comfort women.” Having decided to provide necessary assistance for the AWF by a Cabinet decision in August 1995, the Government of Japan, with a view to fulfilling its moral responsibility, had been providing all possible assistance for the AWF, including bearing the total operational costs of the AWF, assisting its fund-raising and providing the necessary funds to implement its activities (approximately 4.8 billion yen from the AWF’s founding through fiscal year of 2005), in order for the AWF to attain its goals.

    The AWF closed its doors in 2006, after having spent a decade searching for surviving comfort women and delivering compensation and apologies to those willing to accept them. Sadly, many former comfort women rejected the apologies and compensation. This was because Korean nationalists had convinced them that a foundation established and funded by the Japanese government was “unofficial,” and thus the AWF’s work did not amount to a “sincere” effort by Japan. The civic group that erected the bronze statue is made up of people who hold such a view of the AWF.

    Update: Here are two important points that should probably be addressed.

    • Korea wasn’t a democratic country in 1965” – Apparently, some people think that the entire 1965 agreement should be scrapped because Park Chung-hee was not a democratically elected ruler. Unfortunately, that’s not how diplomacy works. Japan had no control over the form of government in South Korea, and it had to deal with the South Korea that existed at that time. Compensation payments were necessary to normalize relations, and Japan had to agree to pay that money to the South Korean government before the treaty could be signed. Waiting decades to see if South Korea would ever democratize was not a realistic option. And it isn’t fair to expect that Japan should repay that money because the South Korean government didn’t properly execute the domestic end of the agreement. [ It's also strange to think that Japan should be held accountable for the actions of its pre-1945 undemocratic regime, but that Korea should ignore the actions of its previous undemocratic regime.]
    • “Why doesn’t Japan just make a direct payment of compensation to the women?” – Since the end of World War II, Japan has used bilateral agreements to settle reparations issues with all of the countries that suffered due to Japanese imperialism. Billions of yen were paid to the national governments of countries. The agreements made individual compensation a legal matter between the people of those countries and the governments of those countries. These kinds of state level agreements are widely recognized throughout the world, and are far more common than agreements that leave open the possibility of compensation lawsuits from individuals. If Japan were to void its agreement with South Korea by paying direct individual compensation to the former comfort women, it would in effect void all the other postwar reparations agreements. Reparations that were already legally settled and already paid at the state level would have to be re-paid at the individual level. The Asian Women’s Fund allowed Japan to avoid the legal mess of voiding treaties, while still being able to satisfying a desire to pay special compensation to the surviving comfort women. (To learn more about Japan’s state level compensation policy, check out Japan’s Contested War Memories by Philip Seaton and flip to page 59.)

    This summary of the apology/compensation issue is not meant to belittle or insult the former comfort women. Their suffering was great, and they deserve compensation and apologies. This post was meant to provide a calm and rational look at how the postwar Japanese government has already taken very real actions in response to the situation – including very real apologies and very real monetary compensation.

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