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A Good Time to Move Beyond the Comfort Women Issue

Japan and South Korea are important neighbors. It’s time to look at the records, pay respect to Korean society of the era, and overcome the issues between these two Asian democracies.

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A controversial statue representing a comfort women in Seoul is a symbol of a war era dispute dividing Japan and South Korea.

On Jan 4, 2022, Harvard Professor J. Mark Ramseyer responded to critics of his 2020 article “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War.” His response, published in the Harvard Olin Center for Law, Economics and Business, is accessible here.  

His original article drew considerable criticism from critics who denied that contracts were entered into by comfort women. Critics also claimed that force was used to make women work as comfort women.

Professor Ramseyer provides detailed responses to his critics, citing more than ample primary source documents. He makes clear that his area of investigation is limited to Korea and Japan and that he is not making a moral judgment on the comfort women system. 

While quite lengthy, Professor Ramseyer’s detailed explanations of comfort women recruitment are a “must-read” for those who are interested in how Korean women were recruited for work as comfort women for Imperial Japan’s armed forces. The professor makes clear the women were not abducted, they were working under contract to repay loans that had been advanced. The professor also provides a very detailed explanation on the nature of the contracts. 

While not by Professor Ramseyer, an article in JAPAN Forward in September 2021, “Role of Pimps can set the Record Straight on Recruitment of Korean Comfort Women,” makes mention of “Zegens,” an organized group of Koreans who recruited Korean comfort women. They made all the necessary arrangements for comfort station operators, from recruiting and travel arrangements, to establishing their operation in the field with the Japanese military. Zegens had no official ties to the Japanese government or the military.

The existence of Zegens makes sense because it would be very difficult for someone without connections to make those necessary arrangements with Japanese authorities. From what could be determined, Zegens were the only ones engaged in this activity. 

While Zegens recruited the women and assisted comfort station operators in getting established, they did not operate comfort stations. The source of the Zegen article was a former Japanese soldier who was curious as to how the comfort women were recruited and investigated the matter. 

Professor Ramseyer has debunked the myth that comfort women were recruited by force. There is no reason to doubt his source documents. There are inexplicable points in the allegations that comfort women were recruited by force. 

South Korean soldiers salute in front of a huge national flag for the 73rd anniversary of Armed Forces Day in Pohang, South Korea, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Understanding Korean Culture

Comfort women were recruited in Japan and Korea, then transported thousands of miles to the war zones. The recruiters sought to minimize contacts by soldiers with local women, prostitutes or otherwise, to avoid creating hostility amongst the local populace. 

If Korean women were recruited by force, it would create intense anti-Japan sentiment in Korea and could have even resulted in civil war in Japan/Korea. The fact that there was not a single case of resistance by Korean men or women to recruitment of Korean comfort women is ample proof that Korean women were not taken by force. 

Since there was no resistance to recruitment, stating that Korean comfort women were recruited by force is an insult to Korean men since it implies Koreans are spineless cowards who did nothing while their women were being abducted. This is an impossibility. Korean men were far from helpless and would not have tolerated forced abduction.  

Korea became a protectorate of Japan shortly after the turn of the 20th century, and then was annexed by Japan in 1910. Japan and Korea became one. 

By the time of WWII, there were nine Koreans who were general officers in Japan’s armed forces, with many lower ranking officers and an estimated couple of hundred thousand Koreans in Japan’s Imperial armed forces. 

Recruiting Korean women by force and using them as sex slaves would have resulted in mutiny and possible civil war. It would have been the height of stupidity on the part of Japan. There is not a single piece of documented evidence of any resistance by Korean men to the alleged forced recruitment of their women. 

Lee Jae-myung, a ruling party candidate for the March presidential election (Chung Sung-Jun/Pool Photo via AP)
Yoon Suk-yeol, a presidential candidate for the main opposition Party (PPP). Ahn Young-joon/ Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Korean Courts Reconsidered

Recently, the Korean court system rejected a lawsuit against Japan by former Korean comfort women. The reasoning was that this was an international issue and not within the jurisdiction of the Korean court system. 

This was logical yet a surprising occurrence since it was a Korean court. Perhaps Korea is changing. 

There is little doubt that relations between Korea and Japan are less than harmonious. No other former colonized nation has played the victim card against their former colonizer to the extent Korea has against Japan. 

Even Taiwan, which came under Japanese domination a decade before Korea has not exhibited such hostility. On the contrary, Taiwan has had very close and friendly relations with Japan and a few years ago, according to several surveys, including one by the Japanese monthly periodical, “Bungei Shunju,” many Taiwanese considered Japan as their most favorite nation in the world.

Korea is not a third world developing country. It is among the developed nations of the world. Playing the victim card against Japan after all these years is unfortunate and should cease. 

Many former colonies of various powers around the world had it much worse than Korea. Taiwan, which was under Japanese domination a decade longer than Korea, does not hate Japan. Was Taiwan treated more favorably by Japan? Hardly. An obvious evidence of that is although Taiwanese also served in Japan’s military, there were no Taiwanese generals in Imperial Japan’s armed forces. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi walk out together at the end of a joint press in Honolulu, Feb. 12, 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)

It is long past the time for Koreans to shed their anti-Japan sentiments and victimization complex. Korea faces many very serious future challenges and its relationship with Japan could have a significant impact on the future of South Korea. Ignoring past international agreements simply leads to the loss of trust and credibility. 

On March 9, South Korea will elect a new president. While neither candidate has made any earth-shaking announcements concerning Japan, the new president’s decision on South Korea’s relationship with Japan and the actions of the South Korean people will have a tremendous impact on the country’s future. Hopefully, South Korea will use this golden opportunity to improve its relationship with Japan.      


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Author: Archie Miyamoto

Find other articles by the author, including those related to the relationship and history between Japan and South Korea at this link.