The “comfort women” victims – Unsung heroes who came forward to fight for justice

Posts Yang Mi-gangExecutive director of the Korean Commission for The ‘Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo in 2000’ during the time of the tribunal

  • Created at2020.12.03
  • Updated at2022.11.28

Illustration ©Baik Jung-mi

Marking the 20th anniversary of
the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery in 2000’


“Through this judgment, this Tribunal intends to honor all the women victimized by the Japanese Military Sexual Slavery System. The judges recognize the great fortitude and dignity of the survivors who have toiled to survive and reconstruct their shattered lives and who have resolutely faced fear and shame to tell their stories to the world and testify before us. Many of the women who have come forward to fight for justice have died unsung heroes.”
- Excerpts from the final judgment of the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery in 2000’
  (hereinafter the ‘Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’) held in The Hague, the Netherlands in December 2001

This article explores the story of unsung heroes who came forward to fight for justice. Those unsung heroes are the victims of the Japanese military “comfort women”. The victims of the Japanese military “comfort women” were forced to live as sexual slaves by the Japanese army in Japanese colonies or the areas under Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The victims' testimonies and the women's rights movement in support of the victims started from many Asian countries and spread across the world, but the Japanese government, which was the perpetrator, had not taken any steps towards resolving the issue for 50 years even after the war had ended.

This year of 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the ‘Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ held in Tokyo, Japan from December 7 to 12, 2000, under the slogan ‘bringing honor and dignity for the victims’. As we have witnessed controversies centered on The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (hereinafter ‘The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance’) emerging earlier this year, it is now meaningful to reflect on the significance of the ‘Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ which became a civic movement for all of Asia 20 years ago. It is because we need to realize the importance of learning the historical lessons left by the ‘Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ for the victims who have become shining stars in the sky, for the surviving victims who are still working at the forefront of the women's rights movement, and for the unwavering progress of the support groups around the world that are trying to form solidarity with the surviving victims and create a world free of violence.


Special moment - December 2020

The year 2000 marked the 10th anniversary of the activities of The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (hereinafter ‘The Korean Council’) which was initiated to honor the hopes of Kim Hak-sun, who first informed the world of the damage inflicted on the Japanese military “comfort women”. It was also the time when violence caused by civil wars and warfare as well as sexual violence perpetrated by states emerged as international issues, capturing the people’s attention along with the “Comfort Women” issue. However, there was no specific solution proposed about those problems at the time. Given the circumstance, we realized that there were inevitable challenges to go through in order to welcome the 21st century. Facing the dark past of the 20th century and starting the 21st century required bold determination. 

The year 2000 felt like an exceptional time, and so the surviving victims of the Japanese military “comfort women” and support groups from Asian countries organized and prepared the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’. The purpose of the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ was clear from the beginning. First of all, the intention was to do everything we could to resolve the Japanese military “comfort women” issue, which angered so many people around the world, to acknowledge that the wishes of the surviving victims are justified, and to recognize that we, living in this era, had a duty to respond to those wishes of the victims. Also, in the wake of the war crimes trials in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, we sought to establish the fact that although the statute of limitations for the responsibility on the “comfort women” issue has already expired in terms of international law, it is necessary to punish those responsible through a private tribunal. In a strict sense, the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ was a cry and movement of the victims towards the world’s citizens manifested in the form of a private tribunal, as well as a message towards the global media. 

Although the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ was a private tribunal that did not involve any legally enforceable obligation, as a human rights court it formed a consensus that the following three requirements must be satisfied. First, the affected countries must prove the damage through evidence so that no one in the world can challenge the authority of the tribunal; Second, the process should be conducted in the form of a criminal trial in which the perpetrators are held responsible for their crimes; Third, the judges who rule this case should be globally recognized international jurists and researchers. In order to alert the Japanese government, both the contents and format of the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ had to mimic an actual tribunal. Based on this determination, victims, support groups, and experts gathered all their strength to prepare for the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’. 

Official emblem of the 'Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000' (screenshot from the Youtube Channel of WAM)

The movement for both South Korean and Asian citizens

The ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ was a large-scale private tribunal involving about 1,000 people, including 64 surviving victims and 200 South Korean participants, hosted by the executive committee consisting of the surviving victims and civic groups from Japan, the perpetrating country, and the affected countries including South Korea, North Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Netherlands, etc. along with international advisors from nine countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Costa Rica, etc. During the preparation of the tribunal for three years from 1998, the joint representative groups such as The Korean Council from South Korea, VAWW-NET Japan, and ASCENT from the Philippines organized the International Executive Committee with nine participating countries for the tribunal and formed international prosecution teams including the prosecutors from each country. About 40 key personnel participated in this process alone. It was a gigantic composition comprising of the International Executive Committee, the prosecutors and judges who were internationally recognized for their activities on the war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, along with the advisors, and the expert witnesses. The working-level staff for the tribunal toured Seoul, Tokyo, Manila, Taipei, New York, etc., holding eight International Executive Committee meetings, three international prosecution team meetings, along with international legal advisors’ meetings, judges' meetings, etc. 

The Korean Commission for The ‘Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo in 2000’, which was headed by The Korean Council, consisted of about 50 members and held 11 meetings over two years, serving as the highest decision-making body to handle large and small agendas concerning the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’. At that time, the working-level staff of The Korean Council simply comprised of the author of this article as the executive manager and three other staff members who were in their late 20s. In order to supplement the shortage of workforce to complete the tasks, South Korea’s prosecution team, which consisted of joint representative, executives, and researchers, spent hectic days performing their respective duties. The executive committee members and experts who worked with dedication earnestly fulfilled their tasks in their own areas. Volunteers also provided great assistance, and in particular, those convened around Christian women displayed their talents in professional areas, carrying out various activities to fund the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’, providing simultaneous interpretation, hosting cultural festivals, taking videos and photographs, and so on.   

With the hosting of cultural festivals in six regions and mock tribunals for college students with 11 colleges nationwide, and the recruitment of about 200 participants nationwide, each member of staff had tasks amounting to the tasks of at least 10 people, and there was too little time to manage them all. However, no one blamed the lack of funding or staff, or delayed tasks by claiming the work was someone else’s job. Instead, everyone joined their hearts to complete the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’. The burden on all of us was so great that we thought that if we were to die, we should wait until the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ was over, and everyone was united due to the sense of that mission. Through this process, the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ became a movement for both South Korean and Asian citizens.

The process of preparing for the tribunal for three years was never easy or smooth. The joint representatives traveled around the world to collect experts, rally ordinary citizens who cared about and supported the issue, promote the tribunal, and produce the funding needed to hold the tribunal. In particular, the activists from South Korea and Japan, tasked with great responsibilities, had to meticulously examine the whole process one step ahead at each stage and build a personnel and material foundation for other countries to follow. Things would have been challenging without a network called the Asian Solidarity Conference for the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Great help also came from our understanding of the global trend through working with international organizations such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), etc. and being in touch with the experts from all over the world. 


Unsung heroes who broke the silence,
solidarity between the Asian surviving victims

The winter in Tokyo was bleak on December 7, 2000. From early morning, about a thousand people dressed in various outfits gathered with nervous faces at the main conference hall of the Kudan Kaikan Hall located right next to Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine. Twenty-one South Korean “comfort women” victims, who were among the South Korean participants that arrived the day before the tribunal’s opening, also entered the venue meticulously dressed in their favorite hanbok clothes. Sixty-four surviving victims from South and North Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, etc. convened in one place. When all the participants, who were half excited and half nervous, sat down, the stage lights turned on, and they were greeted by the joint representatives of the International Executive Committee. 

Next, a flag engraved with the logo of the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ emerged on the podium. The drawing with the four symbols including the sun, flower, candle light, and eyes cleverly illustrated the purpose of the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’. The symbols represented the ten years the victims had spent with the only hope of solving the Japanese military “comfort women” issue; the flowers signified women all over the world who have fought for women's human rights; the ever-glowing candle lights represented an estimated 200,000 of the Japanese military “comfort women” victims from all parts of Asia; the eyes clearly staring at the world symbolized the wish to illuminate the justice of history. When the flag of the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ which showed harmony between the four symbols disappeared, the lights on the platform went out. 

The lights vanished, and the photos of the victims who had already passed away appeared one by one. Under the dim bluish light, Professor Kang Hye-sook in a white hanbok dress began her Exorcism Dance. It was as if the victims, who had been forced to remain silent for more than 50 years after liberation, were now walking out of their portrait photos. The dance move between each picture was a healing dance that convened the spirits of the deceased, and it penetrated the hearts of the people watching it. Afterwards, the surviving victims who were present at the venue each took flowers and went up to the podium to pay silent tribute in front of the photos of those who had already perished. The queue to the podium was long. There were 64 surviving victims waiting in line, but would that have been as long as the 50 years that had passed?

After the opening ceremony, the indictments from South and North Korea, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Indonesia, and East Timor ensued for four nights and five days, and the 35 surviving victims gave their testimonies. The testimonies were replaced with videos in case the surviving victim’s health was an issue, but most of them attended the tribunal and testified in person. One of the surviving victims Liang Li-hua stood up, shouted, and then collapsed while giving her testimony during China’s indictment, as if her pain had been revived. The hall was rattled and an ambulance was dispatched to carry her out on a stretcher. It was the moment when I felt with my body that the pain and wounds of the victims have never ceased. 

The judgment on December 12, 2000 was replaced with a summary judgment, and the final judgment was made a year later in The Hague, Netherland on December 6, 2001. Four judges, including Judge Gabrielle McDonald and others, read a 250-page long written judgment. In their judgment, the panel of judges applied the crimes of rape and sexual slavery which correspond to crimes against humanity. Citing that it had been demonstrated beyond doubt that many women had been taken by the Japanese Army for sexual slavery during the Second World War to be raped, the judges declared that all of the eight people who had been indicted, including Japanese Emperor Hirohito, were guilty. 

Hirohito was found guilty! How long have people been waiting for that moment? The surviving victims raised their arms and hugged each other in jubilation. The judges called the names of each country’s surviving victims who attended the final judgment, and brought them to the front to hand them the written judgment to embrace. It was an overwhelming moment. Although the responsibility of the perpetrator could not be held legally, the judgment on the punishment of the perpetrators by an internationally trusted panel of judges melted the slightest bit of deep sorrow engraved in the victims' hearts.

The surviving victims who attended the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ saw other victims gathered from all over the world and so exchanged their sympathy with each other, which created a strong sense of solidarity between them. Not only that, with such a heartfelt welcome by the support groups from all over the world, they felt true sisterhood and brotherhood after having wandered through a long tunnel of darkness. 

Twenty years later, 16 out of those 240 “comfort women” victims are still alive today. They are over 90 years old. Over the 20 years since the tribunal, the victim's movement has advanced to the extent which some of the victims have now established themselves as human rights activists. The late Kim Bok-dong, who became an inspirational figure for peace and human rights, and Lee Yong-soo, who is taking the lead in solving the “comfort women” issue while claiming that she is still the perfect age to work at over 90 years old, asked other people to call them women's rights activists. Instead of remaining as victims, they found their own identities themselves as women's rights activists who actively work to solve the “comfort women” issue. As such, the victims are taking one step at a time to move forward. Instead of remaining merely as victims who receive support from others, they are proudly leading the front line of the women's rights movement. 


A historic joint indictment between South and North Korea and the final judgment

Where did the authority of the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ originate from? It did not come from any legal coercion by the state. The international prosecution team stated that the tribunal is empowered by the demands of the world's citizens who want to solve the “Comfort Women” issue. The panel of judges and the international prosecution team strictly requested data and evidence from each country’s prosecution team. Based on their experience in the International Criminal Court for Yugoslavia and others, they anticipated the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ to become a historical tribunal.

While considering the most appropriate format of the tribunal for South Korea and Asia, the Korean Commission for The ‘Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo in 2000’ defined the nature of the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ as a human rights tribunal, and proposed to North Korea that a joint inter-Korean prosecution team be formed to work on joint indictments for the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ which was going to be a historic tribunal. Since there was no direct channel of communication between South and North Korea, Japan was inevitably put in charge of facilitating the communication back and forth between the two sides. The Korean Council from South Korea and the Committee on Measures for Compensation to the Former Comfort Women for Japanese Army and Pacific War Victims (COCOPA) from North Korea served as the secretariat, while North Korea actively engaged with the International Executive Committee. And for three years, South and North Korean researchers put their heads together to write the joint bill of indictment to indict the perpetrators – the Japanese government and the Japanese Army.

South and North Korea, the most negatively affected countries from the Japanese military “comfort women” system, were put in charge of reading the first bill of indictment for the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’. Regarding the victims’ testimonies, Park Young-sim from North Korea and Kim Bok-dong from South Korea stepped forward in consideration of the balance between the two Koreas. The South and North Korean joint prosecution team tracked the route where Park Young-sim had been taken to Burma via Nanjing and Singapore from her hometown of Nampo, Pyeongannam-do. A photo of Park Young-sim, which had been taken by the Allied Forces during the war in 1944, most symbolically captures the damages inflicted on the “comfort women”. As South Korean witnesses, Kim Bok-dong and others took part to corroborate the facts regarding the route of the Japanese Army and that of the victims, and questioned Japan's legal responsibility under international law. The contents of the South and North Korea’s joint indictment unraveled the process of abduction, crimes perpetrated in the comfort stations, followed by the crimes committed after liberation, etc. and concluded at the end with arguments about the application of the law. The South and North Korean joint prosecution team indicted eight people, including Emperor Hirohito and Tojo Hideki, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

The prosecutors from the two Koreas met in Tokyo three days before the opening of the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ for the joint indictment. They exchanged opinions and started coordinating the contents of the indictment that they have been preparing, but South and North Korea found themselves at a loss due to the basic difference in their directions of approach, and there were also concerns that a joint indictment was not going to be possible because of the difference in their opinions that could not be resolved. However, the two Koreas overcame those challenges and shared the presentation and their roles for the three hours of the indictment that they were given. North Korea emphasized Japan's state responsibility ahead of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Japan North Korea, while South Korea emphasized the content and format of the indictment based on the evidence from the victims.

The two Koreas’ joint indictment was a historic occasion. The solidarity that the two Koreas showed in unison was stronger than ever. The two Koreas had been actively cooperating and even making mutual visits regarding the issues of “comfort women”, forced mobilization, Japanese textbooks, and Dokdo Island. The ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ inherited the spirit of the ‘Debate on Peace and the Women's Role in Asia’ held in 1993 for which women from South Korea visited North Korea, thus achieving the women-centered unification movement. The inter-Korean joint indictment was an opportunity for the two Koreas to finally bring justice, which had been delayed for about 50 years, through the power of the people. Sadly, as the inter-Korean relationship has worsened since then, the private-level activities between them have also dropped, making it difficult to achieve the same level of solidarity as before.


People to remember -
Matsui Yayori and Yun Chung-ok

The ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ was a tribunal that could not have been accomplished without Yun Chung-ok and Matsui Yayori from its beginning to end. When I was in Switzerland with Shin Hye-soo to participate in the UNCHR in April 1998, Matsui introduced her ideas about the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ and said she would propose the hosting of the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ at the Asian Solidarity Conference in April that year. She had long hair and always carried a large leather briefcase on her shoulder, which was bursting with all kinds of documents as if it was her portable office. Matsui was a passionate feminist, journalist, and researcher. While working as a reporter for The Asahi Shimbun, she came across the “comfort women” issue by accident and became interested in it. She then introduced the “comfort women” issue to the Japanese civil society and established the VAWW-NET JAPAN which addresses issues on violence against women. Matsui's perception of the problem was always crystal clear. She said that the reason why she, who was Japanese, was so focused on the “comfort women” issue was because she thought that Japan, the perpetrator, could become more inclusive only if it faced its history properly. 

As it is now, it was not easy at the time for a Japanese person to hold Emperor Hirohito responsible for war crimes. What was more, it was unconventional and even dangerous for anyone to expose themselves by inviting people from all over the world to hold the Emperor accountable in the Kudan Kaikan Hall which is located next to the Yasukuni Shrine in the middle of Tokyo, Japan. The threat of terrorism against Matsui from the Japanese right wing was already forewarned by loud shouts and car protests surrounding the Kudan Kaikan Hall at the time of the tribunal. In fact, after the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’, Matsui was marked as the No. 1 traitor in Japan, and right-wingers even visited her work place and home to intimidate her. 

Matsui, who faced her fear with courage, unfortunately died of cancer in 2002 after finishing her role for the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’. I wondered if the reason why she had cancer was because the passion she poured into the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ burned out her body. Before she left this world, President Kim Yoon-ok, who had long exchanged and built a sisterhood with her, visited Tokyo on behalf of The Korean Council to deliver the certificate of merit. I heard that Matsui was grateful, and said at the time that the certificate of merit she received from The Korean Council was more valuable than any other medals. What she was truly thankful for before her death was the sisterhood of The Korean Council, which continued to fight together with her until the end against her own shameful country, the Japanese government. I still bow my head in front of the portrait of Matsui, who had devoted her life to the good fight. 

Just as there was Matsui in Japan, there was Yun Chung-ok in South Korea. Yun Chung-ok was the first person to inform South Korean society of the “comfort women” issue. Yun Chung-ok, who was living in the same era as the victims, heard rumors at the time that her female peers were being taken to the Korean Women's Volunteer Labour Corps during the Japanese colonial era in Joseon, and her school also forced her to volunteer to the Korean Women's Volunteer Labour Corps, so, she became curious about the news of her friends. Afterwards, while serving as a professor at Ewha Womans University, she became interested in the “comfort women” issue and began her investigations in earnest. Since then, she has played a central role in Korea's movement to solve the Japanese military “comfort women” issue, by reporting on her expedition regarding the “comfort women” at a sex tourism seminar hosted by the Korea Church Women United in 1988 and also by leading the formation of The Korean Council in 1990. 

Yun Chung-ok, who felt responsible as an intellectual who lived in the same era with the victims, joined forces with the victims to promote the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’. Being the typical example of someone who was gentle in appearance but tough in spirit, Yun Chung-ok worked with her unwavering principles and convictions to solve the "comfort women" issue. She raised her voice to demand an apology and compensation from the Japanese government according to its legal responsibility, and although she was well over 70 at the time, she worked more enthusiastically than anyone else. After the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’, her continued interest in women's rights transferred to her work on violence against women that had occurred during the Vietnam War. The ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ would have been unimaginable had it not been for those seniors who had burned their own lives with time, passion, and dedication. I feel extremely grateful. 

What will we remember and inherit from the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ for its 20th anniversary? The movement would not have come this far without the courageous testimonies and participation of the victims of the Japanese military “comfort women”, who as unsung heroes broke the long silence and stepped to the forefront of history. And without the first generation of activists who dedicated their time, passion, and everything else, this movement would not have lasted. The movement would not have been as influential without the numerous volunteers around the world, in Asia, and in South Korea who had unconditionally donated their talents to accomplish the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’. Just like the tightly intertwined lines of latitude and longitude, the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’, which was built by the blood and sweat of the many people, was a historic tribunal movement achieved by the victims, activists, experts, support groups, and citizens. Above all, it is necessary to reflect on the fact that at its core there was a global consensus that the victims' desire to solve the problem was justified and that such damage should never be repeated again.

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Writer Yang Mi-gang

She served as the secretary general of The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (The Korean Council), the former version of The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance) from 1997 to 2002, and was in charge of starting and finishing the ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal 2000’ as the executive director of the Korean Commission for The ‘Women's International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo in 2000’. Since then, she has worked for the Asia Peace and History Education Network for history discourses, served as the Head of the Korea Organizing Committee for the International NGOs Conference on History and Peace for history reconciliation, and an advisor to the Northeast Asian History Foundation, focusing on the history issues of South Korea, China, and Japan for 25 years. She has also been interested in the #MeToo movement, the 5.18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, and issues related to sexual violence. She is considering a new way of promoting movements through her active presentations on Korea-Japan relations, including the "comfort women" movement.