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Silence Broken

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Broadening the discussion
While there seems to be racial discrimination against the Asian comfort women, Kotler feels that, on the other hand, it has been very difficult to make the Korean activists understand that Korean women were not the only victims of the comfort women system. “Dead men tell no tales,” says Kotler, touching on the fact that many women died making it difficult to know exactly who and what nationalities were victims. Soh adds, “It’s not only an Asian or racial issue, it is also a violation of fundamental human rights regardless of the color of the woman.”

Adding to the discussion, Dr. Margaret Stetz, women’s studies and humanities professor at the University of Delaware and co-editor of Legacies of the Comfort Women of World War II (M.E. Sharpe, 2001), feels that the shared perspective between Asian and Western feminists has made it possible to openly converse not only about the systematic rape of the comfort women, but also rape in war. In Chapter 5, titled “Wartime Sexual Violence Against Women: A Feminist Response,” Stetz writes, “Today, thanks to Asian and Western feminist agitation, no historian, government, or international tribunal can afford to treat the story of any individual ‘comfort woman’ as lacking ‘significance within the larger picture.’”

According to Stetz, Japanese feminists and academics are “leading the way” on the comfort-women issue. They have organized protests, written books, and have recorded and made public interviews with former comfort women. They also arranged a mock tribunal, the Women’s International Tribunal of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery, in December of 2000, which was attended by experts on the Japanese army, international law, and psychology, and saw 75 survivors of the comfort system give oral evidence on the atrocities. Although invited, the Japanese government did not attend. The mock tribunal’s judges found Emperor Hirohito, the Emperor of Japan during World War II, guilty of war crimes and the Japanese government in violation of international law.

The heart of the matter
In 1992, Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a professor at Chuo University in Tokyo, found official documents pertaining to the establishment of the comfort-women system from the 1930s stamped with seals of high-ranking Imperial Army officers. This discovery forced the Japanese government to admit what they had previously denied: that the Japanese Imperial Army had played a role in supervising and managing the slave system.

Over the last 15 years, there have been a handful of apologies from various prime ministers and chief cabinet secretaries. Former comfort women do not see the apologies as an official apology from the Japanese government, only from individuals. “The Japanese government, if you understand how the Japanese legislative process works, never did a formal, legal apology to the comfort women,” says Kotler. “What these women felt in their hearts was correct. When you hold [the apologies] up to the critical test—the legislative process and even linguistically—nothing passes as formal.”

“An apology by a Japanese prime minister is an individual’s opinion,” Kotler clarified at a February 2007 congressional hearing prior to the adoption of HR121. “For an apology to be official, it would have to be: a statement by a minister in session of the Diet, which is their Parliament; a line or lines in an official communiqué while on an overseas visit; or to be a definitive, a statement ratified by the Cabinet. None—and I repeat, none—of these conditions have been met.” The Asian Women’s Fund, which operated from 1995 to 1997 to monetarily compensate comfort women from South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines through private sources, provided a letter of apology from the prime minister in its compensation package on the condition that the comfort women did not pursue further compensation. Most of the women rejected this package and continue to campaign for an official apology from the government, which includes compensation through government funds and recognition of their ordeal through government-approved educational textbooks, which currently contain a watered-down version of their story.

US House Resolution 121
Asia Policy Point and Washington Coalition for Comfort Women, which Kotler and Soh are respectively affiliated with, and other US-based grassroots organizations were instrumental in the July 2007 passage of HR121. Sponsored by Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) who is of Japanese descent, the resolution calls for Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces’ coercion of young women into sexual slavery.” Asia Policy Point demanded use of the word “unequivocal” in the resolution, thus requiring absolute clarity of any apology put forth by the Japanese government, inclusive of the criteria stated by Kotler before Congress.

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