Chicago Tribune: A watershed apology by Japan for a heinous wartime crime

DEC. 31, 2015 — For Japan, World War II is not resolved history. It is, incredibly, a recurring controversy.

Several times in recent decades, Japan’s leaders have expressed remorse and apologized for the nation’s rampage through Asia in the 1930s and ’40s. But to the governments and the surviving civilian victims in South Korea and elsewhere, the words and actions have always come up short.

Japan has issued mea culpas, yes. But also from Japan: Revisionist textbooks in schools, a Tokyo shrine that memorializes convicted war criminals, an opaque stance by prime ministers on atonement for the war that shifts between “heartfelt apology” and “eternal, sincere condolences.”

The unshakable impression is of a nation struggling to accept full responsibility for the past cruelty of its military.

This week the Japanese government tried again, negotiating an apology with South Korea’s government that the two sides say is intended to provide closure for a heinous Japanese wartime crime: the enslavement of thousands of women to provide sexual service to the Imperial Army.

If their agreement holds, Japan and South Korea may finally put aside the major source of bitterness preventing two advanced Asian democracies from being true friends. Just 46 South Korean victims are still alive. The deal has angered many of them. A civic group representing the victims said it was “humiliating.”

Japan uses the euphemism “comfort women” to describe the victims, but they were sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army. Before and during the war, as Japanese troops advanced across Asia, the army tricked or coerced many women and young girls into forced prostitution. Historians say 70,000 to 200,000 women were involved. Many were Korean, though some came from the Philippines, Taiwan and other countries.

The women were seized in their villages or fooled into thinking they’d been hired for far-off factory jobs, only to end up trapped in “comfort stations” — front-line brothels, where they were forced to have sex with dozens of men a day. “They had no personal freedom, were treated with violence and savagery by the soldiers and with indifference by the station operators and army doctors,” a 1996 U.N. report stated. Women were beaten, suffered from sexually transmitted diseases and were abandoned or killed by retreating Japanese troops.

For decades, Japan insisted the government was not directly involved in sex slave operations. When it did apologize in 1993, the government declined to contribute to a compensation fund, relying instead on private donations.

In the new agreement, reached by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean Prime Minister Park Geun-hye, Japan does better:

“The issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women, and the government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective.”

As Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.

Japan also agreed to pay $8.3 million, public money this time, into a survivor’s fund. In accepting the apology, South Korea and Japan said their deal represents “final and irreversible resolution” of the matter.

Will it? Abe did not read his statement in public; he called South Korea’s leader. Japan’s foreign minister read the agreement at a news conference in Seoul. The two sides also failed to resolve a Japanese complaint about a statue commemorating the comfort women that it wants removed from the street in front of Japan’s embassy in Seoul.

Through the years, though Japan has expressed official regret for its wartime behavior, powerful right-wing forces at home have clung to the idea that Japan was not the villain. Japan has never matched the depth of contrition for WWII expressed by Germany. It’s hard to avoid comparing Abe’s private phone call with the symbolism of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970, who unexpectedly fell to his knees in genuflection while visiting the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto.

Japan, a valued friend and ally of America, has made a significant act of contrition toward South Korea. The countries want to move ahead. If they can, they will see an economic and security benefit. The defense of Asia against North Korea, and the rise of China, will require far more cooperation from these partners.

Ultimately it’s up to South Korea to decide that the past is now the past. But Japan should continue to reflect publicly on the atrocities it committed, including the sex enslavement of women. It is a dark history.

By Chicago Tribune