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Comfort Women: There Are Better Ways for Creating a True Symbol of Peace

If those who promote the comfort women issue want the statues to symbolize peace, then remove the divisive inscriptions and let them be universal symbols.

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This comfort woman statue is in Central Park, Glendale California, near Los Angeles in the United States. It was the first of several to be erected in the United States. (©Hirokazu Sato)

Defining the problem in the comfort women issue often creates a chicken-or-egg argument between the Japanese and South Korean governments. Each one has its own perspective about what they said and what they didn't say at the time. 

Still, the evidence points to the fact that before and during the war, comfort women earned exceptionally high incomes relative to other professions. Large numbers of them were recruited without conscription. 

South Korea's former president Park Geun-hye REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo)
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers questions after South Korea dissolves the comfort women agreement.

Bridging Gaps in the 2015 Agreement

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was recently interviewed by the South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo. Reflecting back on the 2015 negotiations of the Japan-South Korea comfort women agreement, she told the Korean paper that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe "raised the white flag," according to an October 6, 2023, Sankei Shimbun report on the article. 

On the other hand, another perspective is presented in Shinzo Abe's Memoirs (Abe Shinzō kaikoroku). The volume was published in Japanese in February 2023 by Chuokoron-Shinsha. According to the memoir, Mr Abe was initially cautious about entering into the comfort women agreement. That was because South Korea has a history of not keeping its promises. 

Ghosts in the Neighborhood
Former South Korean President Moon Jae In with a South Korean comfort woman on August 14, 2018, the same year the South Korean government designated the date as "Comfort Women Day."

Broken Promises

In the memoir, Mr Abe also revealed that he had several arguments with President Park over the comfort women issue. However, if it were to be a final and irreversible solution, he said he felt the agreement was unavoidable. 

In the end, Japan contributed ¥1 billion JPY ($6.73 million USD) of Japanese taxpayer money to a fund for the comfort women. And Mr Abe apologized. Even so, he did not agree there was forced recruitment up to the end.

As Japanese people, we still remember that President Moon Jae In unilaterally abrogated this agreement. Then in in 2019, he dissolved the foundation that had received Japanese funds. 

I believe that the current president, Yoon Suk-yeol, is a reasonable leader with logical thinking. But if the president changes in the next election, there is a risk that the current Japan-South Korea agreement will be broken once again. Then, another back-and-forth debate about what was said and what wasn't said could be repeated all over.

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Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida signs the 1951 Peace Treaty on behalf of Japan Kyodo)

Use Countermeasures Standard in International Agreements

It is inferred that there may be no common minutes or agreed documents that have been kept from the 2015 intergovernmental meetings. Merely keeping separate minutes and agreements by both parties is not evidence of agreement. 

I come from the private sector, where it is common sense to keep common minutes and agreements in English when it comes to international conferences and talks. 

The same applies in the case of government-to-government bilateral meetings and talks. Two copies of the same minutes and agreements are kept in English. Both parties get signatures from each person in charge, and each party takes home one copy.

Afterward, this document will serve as evidence if a problem like the one involving the 2015 comfort women agreement occurs. If the other party attempts to unilaterally renege on the contents of the agreement, Japan's credibility would be maintained by submitting the signed minutes and documents to an international court or disclosing them to the international community.

Likewise, the other party would lose international credibility if they unilaterally violate the agreement. So they will not be able to do so easily.

Adhering to such common-sense protocols matters not only to business leaders and government officials. It matters to ordinary Japanese, too. 

For example, many Japanese people seem to think that the historical issues of comfort women and wartime labor have nothing to do with them. But because of misinformation, Japanese people are looked at with a disbelieving eye by people from overseas. Therefore, it is an issue that cannot be ignored.

Etching the Perpetuation of Falsehoods

As some of you may remember, the late Professor Koichi Mera, who was a professor at the University of Southern California at the time, advocated for the removal of comfort women statues on behalf of the local Japanese American community. The strongly racist language put Americans of Japanese ancestry in a position of shame. A lawsuit was filed to have it removed.

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Almost at the same time, in February 2014, an organization called the Global Alliance for Historical Truth (GAHT) was established and I was a member. We appealed to the US Supreme Court, but the case was rejected. Since then, the issue of comfort women statues has remained completely unresolved.

Inscription on the Comfort Women statue in Glendale, California. (©Hirokazu Sato)

Nothing More than Racist Shaming 

One persistent problem is the inscription beside the comfort women statues. For example, the inscription on the Glendale statue in the photo starts as follows.

"I was a sex slave of Japanese military"

"Torn hair symbolizes the girl being snatched from her home by the Imperial Japanese Army"

In short, the inscription says they were forcibly taken from their homes and made into sex slaves. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. 

To begin with, the local residents left behind would not remain silent. Moreover, when Japanese researchers contacted local residents in Korea to verify the reports, the local residents said they had never heard of such forced abduction. 

Initial evidence proved to be fabricated. Thereafter, it was withdrawn by the newspaper that published it. Nevertheless, the international record has never been corrected.

The issue of comfort women statues came up late, several decades after the war. Installing comfort women statues now is nothing more than a conspiracy to perpetuate racist falsehoods and admitted fabrications. 

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comfort women
Osaka City Ends Sister City Tie with San Francisco City Over San Francisco's biased ‘Comfort Women’ Statue. (© Sankei by Kyosuke Sumi)

What Do Comfort Women Statues Accomplish?

There is one more problem besides coerced transportation and sex slavery. That is the number of military comfort women in Asia at that time.

Look at the bottom lines in the inscription shown so-called "Statue of Peace" in the above photo. Although some lines are difficult to read due to the shadow of the statue, which can be read as "In memory of more than 200,000 Asian and Dutch women who were removed from their homes in Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, East Timor and Indonesia, to be coerced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Armed Forces of Japan between 1932 and 1945."

A parade of Asian nations is depicted as victim countries.

However, data show that most of the comfort women, including those countries were Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese.

How many wartime comfort women existed in Asian countries at that time? The actual number is not known yet even today. Some say the number must be less than 100,000. Others say less than 20,000, considering the number of Japanese soldiers in Asia at that time. 

I was there in 2017 when another comfort women statue was erected by the Chinese in San Francisco's Chinatown area. An elderly woman and American citizen who lived in a nearby town was also there. She agreed with my assessment of the wartime comfort women situation. In her view, even the number of 100,000 was too large. She thought it was more likely there would have been about 20,000 wartime comfort women.

Correcting the Record of the Past

What should we do now? I don't think the misinformation conveyed on the inscriptions can be left like this forever. 

If those who promote the statue want it to symbolize peace, wouldn't it be better to remove the inscription and let the statue stand on its own as a universal symbol? Shouldn't the inscription at least be removed? 

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I believe that if the international community gains understanding, there will be momentum toward such a resolution.

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Author: by Hirokazu Sato

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