The supranational nature of the 'comfort women' issue and the ‘glocalization’ of memories, Part 2

Posts Shin Ki-youngProfessor at Ochanomizu University

  • Created at2019.03.18
  • Updated at2021.11.24

Pondering the 'comfort women' issue in a new light
The supranational nature of the 'comfort women' issue and the ‘glocalization’ of memories


3. International citizens' solidarity, including the 「Asian Solidarity Conference」, has been the main entity demanding the resolution of the 'comfort women' issue.

As damages associated with the 'comfort women' issue exist across the Asia-Pacific region, women and citizens' groups supporting the survivors have been led by the citizens of each Asia-Pacific country. The citizens of South Korea and Japan started to play a central role when the 'comfort women' issue first emerged. In particular, Japanese citizens championed the resolution of the 'comfort women' issue most seriously from the early stage when the issue was failing to draw much attention in South Korea and other Asian countries. Since the early 1990s when the full extent of the 'comfort women' issue was still unknown, Japanese citizens organized civic groups to support trials and to help the related organizations and survivors, especially when the survivors from each country began trials in Japanese courts. In doing so, Japanese citizens conducted investigations into damages inflicted in each Asian country, provided direct support for the victims, and organized countless testimony sessions for the survivors. Korean women residing in Japan also formed an independent network to support the Korean survivors residing in Japan and to serve as a bridge for the organizations in South Korea and Japan.

Support organizations in Asia formed a network called the 「Asian Solidarity Conference」 to share information on the survivors and to engage in joint initiatives via regular meetings. The greatest achievement since its first conference held in Seoul in 1992 may be its hosting of the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery, held in Tokyo in 2000. Citizens organized this people’s tribunal themselves, as the demands for the Japanese government's admission of responsibility and for the relief of the survivors were continuously being ignored. This Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo held a three-day trial with the participation of international law and wartime sexual violence experts and judges who played active roles in the international war crimes tribunal that tried the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda Civil Wars of the early 1990s. Sixty-four victims from nine countries including Asian nations and the Netherlands participated as defendants to testify in relation to the damage, and indicted the Japanese emperor and other Japanese Army officials responsible for the crime.

This trial process revealed in detail the various damages suffered by the victims in Asian countries. The Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal found these testimonies as valid, and thereby declared those responsible guilty in accordance with international law. This verdict was based on the perception that punishing perpetrators is not the only means to restore justice, but it is essential to confirm and judge the perpetrators' crimes in order to restore the victims' human rights and unveil the truth. This perception was based on international law developed in the course of dealing with the cases of grave human rights violations. The terms of resolution put forward by the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and other Asian support organizations, such as the admission of the truth, apologies, reparations, investigations of facts, history education, memorial projects, and the punishment of those responsible, were based on such an accumulation of the human rights law.

The Asian Solidarity Conference continued to call for measures from the Japanese government. In particular, the 12th conference held in Tokyo from May 31 to June 3, 2014 focused on preventing the regression of the 'comfort women' issue and proposing concrete solutions. It was an effort to address the denial of right-wing Japanese politicians with regards to the Kono Statement, which had already been acknowledged by the Japanese government, and the frequent remarks they made to diminish the 'comfort women' issue amid the unfortunate passing of many of the survivors.

The 12th Asian Solidarity Conference was held in Tokyo in 2014 for the Asian and Dutch activists of the 'comfort women' issue and the survivors. (Source : courtesy of Yang Ching Ja [梁澄子])

Participants in the Asian Solidarity Conference proposed that, "An apology is one of the important elements of the resolution sought by the survivors. The key issue here is for the perpetrating country to accurately recognize those who conducted which kind of violating acts, to acknowledge responsibility, to clearly and unambiguously express this apology both domestically and internationally, and take the continuing measures to make it credible and sincere. Only then will the survivors be able to accept it as a genuine apology", and demanded that the Japanese government recognize the following facts and responsibilities and to take measures for reparation.

1) Recognize the following facts and responsibilities:

- That the Japanese government and Japanese Army proposed, established, managed and controlled military facilities known as comfort stations.
- That the women were forced to become 'comfort women / sexual slaves' against their will, and were kept in coercive circumstances in the comfort stations, etc.
- - That there were various forms of the victimization of women from the colonies, occupied areas, and Japan who suffered sexual violence by the Japanese Army, that the scale of victimization was extensive, and that the suffering continues today.
- That 'Japanese military sexual slavery' was a serious violation of human rights which contravened a variety of both domestic Japanese as well as the international laws of the time.

2) Take the following measures based on the acknowledgement of the points mentioned above:

- Apologize to the individual victims in a manner that is clear, official, and cannot be overturned: Make compensation to the victims as proof of an apology
- Accounting of the truth: Make full disclosure of all documents possessed by the Japanese government; conduct the further investigation of documents within Japan and internationally; and have hearings of survivors and other related persons within Japan and internationally
- Measures to prevent the further occurrence: Implement school and social education including references in textbooks used in compulsory education; implement commemorative activities; and prohibit statements by public figures based on the incorrect historical recognition, and clearly and officially rebut similar kinds of statements, etc.

However, the Japanese government ignored this demand and the meaning of a clear, formal, and irreversible apology that the 12th Asian Solidarity Conference demanded was misused by the Japanese government for their claim that the 2015 'comfort women' agreement between the South Korean and Japanese governments is to be irreversible.


4. The 'comfort women' issue expanded international approval through recommendations from international organizations and resolutions from multiple parliaments across the globe.

Japan is a signatory of various international human rights treaties. For example, after becoming a member state of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985, Japan has been submitting periodic reports on the implementation of the treaty, as per the obligation imposed on all the member states, and been subject to review. In addition to the CEDAW, Japan ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (ICPPED). Women's groups have been taking the 'comfort women' issue to the committees of these human rights treaties ever since the 'comfort women' issue emerged. The committees for those treaties have been consistently making recommendations regarding the 'comfort women' issue in almost all of their review reports on Japan. Among them, the Japanese and South Korean organizations focused most of their activities on the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which addressed the 'comfort women' issue for the first time in its second and third universal review in January 1994. International human rights treaty committees still continue to urge the Japanese government to resolve and take measures on the 'comfort women' issue even after the 2015 Korea-Japan Agreement announced by the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers. That is, despite the Japanese government's claim that the two countries had declared a permanent resolution on the issue, international human rights organizations still consider the issue to be unresolved.

Still, the UN agencies and human rights laws during the 1990s post-Cold War era virtually failed to fulfill their expected roles. International organizations have yet to bring about meaningful changes in the Japanese government, especially because they lack the authority or legitimacy in affecting the governments of developed nations such as that of Japan. Nevertheless, thanks to continuous recommendations from global human rights organizations, the Canadian, the US, and European parliaments adopted new types of resolutions in the late 2000s urging the resolution of the 'comfort women' issue. This contributed significantly to the international community's growing awareness on the issue.


5. The 'comfort women' issue is expanding throughout the world via voluntary local engagements such as the construction of memorials and cultural activities.

As many survivors have passed away over the years, activities addressing the 'comfort women' issue are shifting the focus from "resolution" to "remembrance". While the current Japanese government is remaining passive on resolving the issue for the survivors, it is reacting sensitively to citizens' activities aimed at remembering the 'comfort women' issue. In particular, it shocked the world by forcefully demanding the removal of the Statue of Peace. Nevertheless, this political development rather elevated the sense of crisis among citizens and served as an opportunity to heighten the attention to the 'comfort women' issue and local engagements. If the education of the next generations and the remembrance of history are the most important parts in preventing the recurrence of serious human rights violations, then the memorial monuments and museums play a central role in the remembrance. The Statue of Peace (literally "Statue of Girl"), the original 'comfort women' monument commemorating the 'comfort women' history, was built to mark the 1,000th Wednesday Demonstrations and was installed across from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

The Statue of Peace infinitely stretched the limitations of the symbolic gathering space for the 「Wednesday Demonstrations」 and the time constraints of citizens. Each individual who saw the Statue of Peace became the medium for remembering. Consequently, the memorial monuments built by local residents are spreading to the whole country and the world. Thus, localized memorial monuments, varying in size and shape to reflect each region or founder, are now being built. 

The comfort women memorial at the Constitution Park, Fort Lee, New Jersey, USA 
(Source : courtesy of Linda Hasunuma)


The comfort women memorial at the Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden, Fairfax County, Virginia, USA
(Source : courtesy of Mary McCarthy)


As shown in the pictures, the butterfly figures and the various forms of women all demonstrate the localized (and regionalized) remembrance of the 'comfort women' issue. When the Statue of Peace was first erected in Seoul, there were concerns that the statue would affix a specific image to the 'comfort women' issue. However, the notions of "universal human rights" or the "'comfort women' issue" themselves do not have uniform meanings that transcend locality or time. Instead, the world's citizens sympathize with the 'comfort women' issue within their own history and experience to re-examine its meanings. Therefore, the entities who remember the 'comfort women' issue, the way they remember it, and the contents of their remembrance, are all open to infinite possibilities.


6. The 'comfort women' issue historically expanded the understanding of sexual violence in the era of the global #MeToo movement.

With the worldwide spread of the #MeToo movement since the end of 2017, the 'comfort women' issue is once again being newly pondered. This development serves as an opportunity for us to recognize the social structure underlying sexual violence that has remained robust to this day. The patriarchal social structure, which distorted the 'comfort women' issue for decades after the war while also silencing the survivors, continues to reproduce countless sexual violence daily while still silencing victims. The distorted perception of women revealed in the #MeToo movement, victim blaming, and the gender power structure that exploits women all serve to explain the reality in which the 'comfort women' issue still remains unresolved. In this sense, it is no coincidence that those who have been supporting the 'comfort women' survivors note that the 'comfort women' survivors are actually the original #MeToo activists.

Ito Shiori (a freelance journalist), the symbol of Japan's #MeToo movement, visited South Korea last year and met with the 'comfort women' survivors. While struggling with her own trial against the perpetrator, she is also investigating and recording victims of sexual violence around the world to enlighten people about the status of sexual violence, relief measures, and the bravery of the survivors. The lives and fights of the 'comfort women' survivors give courage and comfort to the survivors of the 21st century who called out #MeToo such as Ito Shiori.

Thus, the 'comfort women' issue is no longer a matter that can be reduced to the damage of the survivors and the resolution, and nor is it a matter that can ever be eliminated with a declaration by the government of one country. The 'comfort women' issue originally emerged as an international issue alongside the 1990s’ historical progress in women's human rights, and became an international matter thanks to the solidarity of Asian women who advocated the survivors. As many of the survivors have passed away over the years, citizens who have been supporting the survivors for decades are now embarking on another long journey towards remembrance and education. These endeavors include international solidarities’ effort involving the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Memory of the World Register, and the overdue launch of a government-funded research institute in South Korea. However, more meaningful than all these efforts would probably be the creative and localized remembrance and educational activities that the world's citizens are implementing in their own areas. The 'comfort women' issue will remain and be inherited thanks to the global spread of such voluntary local engagements.


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Writer Shin Ki-young

Professor at Ochanomizu University, Japan