Interview with Totsuka Etsuro, an international lawyer representing Japan’s conscience, Part 2

Posts Totsuka Etsuro (戶塚悅朗)

  • Created at2019.11.15
  • Updated at2022.11.25

Totsuka Etsuro (戶塚悅朗)


After Kim Hak-sun's testimony about her victimization as a ‘comfort woman’ through the press conference in August 1991, one Japanese lawyer officially raised the issue of Japanese military’s ‘comfort women' issue, using the term ‘sex slave’, at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR, currently the UN Human Rights Council) in 1992. Totsuka Etsuro (戶塚悅朗) did not lower his voice despite the harshest criticisms of the reporters from his own country. The following year, UNCHR's Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities adopted a resolution on wartime slavery, which brought the ‘comfort women’ issue to the public sphere internationally.

Born in 1942 but still hale and hearty despite turning 78 years old in Korean age this year, the senior jurist travels back and forth between South Korea, Japan and the world, enthusiastically engaging in legal activities to advocate for international human rights and peace, voicing his opinions on the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ issue, as well as on the illegalities of the Protectorate Treaty between Korea and Japan concluded in 1905, and the Japan-Korea Annexation in 1910. The Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (RIMSS) had a written interview with Totsuka Etsuro, a lawyer representing Japan's conscience, ahead of the Memorial Day for "comfort women" Victims of the Imperial Japanese Army in August.


A cool-headed endeavor in the legal research to come closer to the resolution of the issue

Q. You used the term 'sex slave' when raising the issue at the UN. In what aspects is the term 'sex slave' important?

The UN does not allow speeches that only address 'the violation of domestic laws' or 'concerns about the victims'. Instead, one must argue the violation of international laws such as the UN Charter or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc. When I heard about the experiences of the ’comfort women’ victims, I shuddered thinking, ‘Had I been the victim, I wouldn't have been able to endure it.'
It was forced to them against their will, and anyone in that situation would be considered a slave; that is why 'sex slave' was the only term that could describe it. It is common knowledge for jurists that slavery has long been banned in international law. As many people know, it was in the mid-19th century when the President Lincoln of the USA fought against slavery at the risk of the American Civil War. When the League of Nations adopted the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery in 1926, the Japanese Empire, which was a permanent member of the League of Nations’ Executive Council, promised to ratify the convention, but evaded it under the pretext of war. However, it is generally known internationally that the slavery was banned under customary international law even before the World War II. No other country but Japan would deny that fact. For instance, in the early days of the Meiji era, the Japanese government has rescued Chinese coolies who were being taken on a Peruvian ship, as Japan acknowledged the ban on slave trade. So it does not make any sense that the Japanese government does not recognize the slavery ban now. The UNCHR, the UN SCPPHR, the ICJ, the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), and the Special Rapporteur eventually arrived at the same conclusion.

Q. While dedicating your activities to the 'comfort women' issue for a long time, what areas did you pay attention to or focus on the most?

I focused on my research the most. Rosalyn Higgins, who taught international law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, was the first female judge at the International Court of Justice and was elected its President. I think I was truly lucky to have met her. Once, I asked her for advice after deliberating over and over on how to legally explain the 'comfort women' issue. She smiled and said, ‘You’ve encountered a very interesting question!' and then advised me to go to the library. I think that was the best teaching of all the teachings I have ever received, as I went to the library afterwards to bury myself in research. The more I studied, the more discoveries I made. The discoveries that I regarded as particularly important were: 1) the criminality (the discovery of the document on the Nagasaki District Court's ruling in 1936); 2) the issue of gender (issues related to sex and life go hand in hand [1]); 3) and the nature of reconciliation (if one can admit facts and make a sincere apology, then even grave crimes can be forgiven, and if so, Japan can possibly become a great country as well as gain friends).

Q. Did you have any memorable personal episodes related to your work on the 'comfort women' issue?

I had great opportunities to meet with the ’comfort women’ survivors, not only from South Korea but also from North Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and so on. I have sat together with Kim Hak-sun during a meeting with the president of the Asian Women's Fund (AWF). I also cannot forget Hwang Geum-joo and Kang Duk-kyung, whom I worked with at the UN. I’ve learned a great deal from many extraordinary female activists. Most of the male newspaper reporters from Japan were faulty examples, but some of them were wonderful journalists. Ito Yoshiaki (伊藤芳明) of the Mainichi Newspapers was one of them. Matsui Yayori (松井やより) continued to offer criticisms and encouragements even after she retired from the Asahi Shimbun. I also cannot forget Park Won-soon (the current mayor of Seoul) with whom I discussed and studied together on the 'comfort women' issue at the LSE.

We must continue to learn about the issue while thinking about the victims

Q. Some argue that the 'comfort women' issue has already been resolved. What are your thoughts on that?

I submitted a brief to the Constitutional Court of Korea to convey that, it is wrong to claim “the 'comfort women' issue was settled by the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problem concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between the Republic of Korea and Japan". Regarding the claim, ”the 2015 South Korea-Japan Agreement on the ‘comfort women’ confirmed the final and irreversible resolution of the ‘comfort women’ issue between the two countries,” I think the agreement was nothing more than a deal between the governments devoid of regard for the victims. The biggest problem was that Japan’s Prime Minister not only failed to deliver a sincere apology, but also has reportedly requested a secret agreement to prevent the use of the expression 'sex slave'. If this is true, I believe this Korea-Japan agreement is invalid (the violation of an erga omnes obligations). The episode [2] of Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata's (羽田孜) unofficial meeting with a ‘comfort women’ victim can show us what kind of apology can move the hearts of the victims.

Q. Do you think the ‘comfort women’ issue can end through an agreement between the two countries? What directions do you think individuals or countries should be taking to resolve the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ issue?

It is a difficult question. I have repeatedly suggested reconciliation, but all mainstream Japanese politicians have rejected this suggestion. They ran away from the opportunities of reconciliation. There were also times when the timing did not work out with South Korea. Japanese people, especially Japanese politicians, need to learn more to recognize the crime committed by Japan. This applies to me as well. Learning about the ‘comfort women’ issue made me realize and reflect on the fact that I had been ignorant and fully imbued with the culture of a male-centered society.

Q. What issues are you interested in and focusing your activities on lately?

Discussing the illegality of the colonial rule used to be a taboo in Japan. I think this has created insufficient awareness and distortions in history, and hindered the reconciliation between Japan and South Korea. I also believe the ordinary Japanese people and most jurists in Japan including lawyers have inadequate information and thus lack historical awareness. It is necessary to deal with this problem. Therefore, I plan to organize the research I have been working on for the past seven years and publish it in a book.

Q. Lastly, please offer some advice for the South Korean readers.

South Korea and North Korea have been building a relationship in many aspects for a long time. Therefore, I think some of the problems occurring in Japan can also be found in South and North Korea. As much as it is necessary to criticize Japan, it is also very difficult but necessary to straighten out one’s own attitudes at the same time.


  1. ^ Totsuka Etsuro, 『ILO and Gender (ILOとジェンダー:性差別のない社会へ)』, 日本評論社, 2006.
  2. ^ 山下英愛「金学順―半世紀の沈黙を破る」『ひとびとの精神史〈第8巻〉 バブル崩壊―1990年代』2016年、岩波書店、198頁。

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1992년 2월 유엔 인권위원회(CHR)에서 일본군'위안부' 문제를 최초로 제기한 일본의 인권변호사다.


1942년 생으로, 1973년부터 1982년까지 스몬(SMON) 약품공해소송의 피해자 소송대리인이었고, 1982년부터 1988년까지 정신장애인 인권 옹호에 전념하면서 유엔에 이 문제를 제기해 일본의 정신위생법 개정에 크게 기여했다. 이후 런던정경대(LSE)와 워싱턴 대학에서 국제 인권법을 공부했고, 1992년 NGO 국제교육개발(IED)을 대표해 조선인의 전시 강제 연행 문제와 ‘위안부' 문제를 유엔 인권위원회(CHR)에 제기했다. ‘위안부'의 호칭으로 "Sex slave(성노예)"를 사용할 것을 제창하며 일본 정부의 보상 및 사죄, 유엔의 대응을 요청해 왔다. 1993년부터 국제우호협회(IFOR)를 대표하여 국제 인권 운동을 계속하고 있다. 2000년 일본 참의원에 처음 발의된 ‘전시 성적 강제 피해자 문제 해결 촉진 법안’ 작성에 참여했다. 고베 대학 국제 협력 연구과 조교수와 류코쿠 대학 법과 대학원 교수를 역임했고, 1993년 동경변호사회 인권상, 1996년 한국여성단체연합회 올해의 여성운동상을 수상했다.