The Comfort Women Monument in New Jersey
For the past couple weeks, the international media has reported about the Japanese government’s failed attempt to remove a monument from a park in Palisades Park, New Jersery, a town where over 50% of the population is ethnically Korean. The monument contains the following inscription, calling attention to the Comfort Women issue:
IN MEMORY OF THE MORE THAN 200,000 WOMEN AND GIRLS WHO WERE ABDUCTED BY THE ARMED FORCES OF THE GOVERNMENT OF IMPERIAL JAPAN.
1930’s – 1945
KNOWN AS “COMFORT WOMEN,” THEY ENDURED HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS THAT NO PEOPLES SHOULD LEAVE UNRECOGNIZED. LET US NEVER FORGET THE HORRORS OF CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY.
For some reason, the Japanese consul general thought that the monument could be removed if Japan requested it:
The first meeting, on May 1, began pleasantly enough, he said. The delegation was led by the consul general, Shigeyuki Hiroki, who talked about his career, including his work in Afghanistan — “niceties,” Mr. Rotundo said.
Then the conversation took a sudden turn, Mr. Rotundo said. The consul general pulled out two documents and read them aloud.
One was a copy of a 1993 statement from Yohei Kono, then the chief cabinet secretary, in which the Japanese government acknowledged the involvement of military authorities in the coercion and suffering of comfort women.
The other was a 2001 letter to surviving comfort women from Junichiro Koizumi, then the prime minister, apologizing for their treatment.
Mr. Hiroki then said the Japanese authorities “wanted our memorial removed,” Mr. Rotundo recalled.
The consul general also said the Japanese government was willing to plant cherry trees in the borough, donate books to the public library “and do some things to show that we’re united in this world and not divided,” Mr. Rotundo said. But the offer was contingent on the memorial’s removal. “I couldn’t believe my ears,” said Jason Kim, deputy mayor of Palisades Park and a Korean-American, who was at the meeting. “My blood shot up like crazy.”
Given the widespread ignorance about the issue in the United States, it was probably necessary to provide a reminder that the Japanese government has acknowledged and apologized for what happened. But the request for the removal of the monument and the offer of gifts in exchange for the removal was unbelievably stupid. How could anyone in the Japanese Foreign Ministry have thought that such a plan would work? Instead of removing one monument, they have now increased the chance that other areas will build more monuments.
The consul general’s request has been interpreted as part of a Japanese effort to erase history. A recent editorial in NJ’s Star-Ledger put it like this:
There’s no dispute about what occurred. Japan has apologized and established a private fund to pay reparations to descendants. They just don’t want reminders of what they did. Koreans around the country are now determined to create more monuments to the comfort women.
Good. The effort to erase history in a small New Jersey town should leave everyone angry and incredulous.
Think of the precedent it would set if anyone acceded to Japan’s demands.
Japan might ask us to stop commemorating Dec. 7.
Germany could demand the United States shut down the national Holocaust museum.
The United States could ask Japan to halt its annual remembrance of the American A-bomb destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This kind of response is understandable, but it is not fair to depict the Japanese request in this manner. How exactly would the removal of a monument in New Jersey erase history? If the Japanese government hell-bent on trying to erase the Comfort Women from history, why is its foreign ministry openly spreading the word about Japan’s official recognition of their existence?
The New Jersey monument does not promote a better understanding of history. The hearts of its creators may have been in the right place, but the wording on the monument conforms with a Korean nationalist narrative of history. In this nationalist narrative, Japan’s military is blamed for “abducting” hundreds of thousands of women. It invokes imagery of Japanese soldiers busting into Korean villages and forcibly kidnapping women at gunpoint.
While there were definitely women who were abducted by the military in newly-conquered territories, the situation within more integrated parts of the Japanese empire was different. Many of the Korean Comfort Women were recruited, tricked, or sold by fellow Koreans. The same goes for Japanese women, a lot of whom were sold by impoverished or debt-ridden family members. Under a legal system that allowed poor girls to be sold into prostitution, civilians within the Japan/Korea/Taiwan imperial state were the ones who provided Comfort Women to brothels. Military abduction was not the norm.
By simplifying the issue into one of 200,000 women and girls being abducted by the Japanese military, the New Jersey monument allows visitors to “remember” the Comfort Women without facing uncomfortable historical truths. There is no need to remember Korean collaboration in the system. Nor is there a need to remember that the widespread exploitation of Korean women continued after the war, when the South Korean government provided brothels for the U.S. military. Human rights violations are to be remembered, but only within a context that narrowly focuses on the Japanese.
In Western media reports the Comfort Women issue is often presented as two extremes. On the one side, there is the Korean narrative in which modern Japan is trying to cover-up the story of its wartime military abducting/kidnapping/enslaving over 200,000 women. On the other side are Japanese right-wingers who use the flaws in the Korean narrative to push the idea that almost all of the comfort women were well-paid and willing prostitutes. The Japanese right-wingers are understandably portrayed as wrong, but few journalists are willing to question the Korean narrative.
The reasonable concept of remembering the suffering of Comfort Women without engaging in nationalist myth-making is often dismissed as more Japanese “whitewashing” of history. Japanese who insist on accurate descriptions of very complicated events are criticized for “nitpicking.” They are expected to accept distorted and oversimplified Korean narratives of history at face value.
[ Since some people who come across this story may only be familiar with the Korean nationalist spin on the comfort women issue, here is a repost of some background information I wrote for a previous post.]
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 and despite the fact that South Korea had paid compensation to the women, measures were taken to provide additional aid to 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.
And finally, here are two frequently mentioned 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 today's Japan should be held financially 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 deserved compensation and apologies. This summary 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.