The ICAS Lectures

No. 98-1204-CSSb

 Human Rights and Humanity: 
 The Case of the "Comfort Women" 


Chunghee Sarah Soh

University of Pennsylvania
December 4, 1998

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch: Chunghee Sarah Soh



 Human Rights and Humanity: 
 The Case of the "Comfort Women" 

Chunghee Sarah Soh

Based on the ethnographic data on the "comfort women" issue collected during field research in Korea, Japan and the Netherlands, this paper examines the meaning of the concept of human rights, as it pertains to the politics of the comfort women movement for redress. "Comfort women" categorically refers to tens of thousands of young female of various nationalities and social circumstances who became sexual laborers for the Japanese troops before and during World War II. The question of the wartime forced recruitment of comfort women was first raised in the Japanese Diet in 1990, and Korean survivors filed a class action suit against the Japanese government in 1991. Filipino and Chinese survivors followed suit by filing a lawsuit against Japan in 1993 and 1995, respectively. In response to the mounting international pressure, Japan finally set up the Asian Women's Fund (AWF) in 1995 in order to deal with the compensation demands for former comfort women. Feminist and human rights activists, however, criticized Japan for shirking its legal responsibility and rejected to accept any money from the AWF. Nonetheless, the specific positions that the comfort women movement leaders and the governments of Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Netherlands have taken in response to the Asian Women's Fund vary significantly. This paper delineates their impact on the freedom of individual survivors to make their own decisions with regard to the compensation offered by the AWF, and questions the significance of human rights rhetoric in the everyday life of the women survivors.

The "Comfort Women" Issue

The issues involved in the comfort women case are complex, running the gamut from the problem of "militarized prostitution" to that of sexual slavery based on gender, age, social class, and ethnicity. The coerced sexual labor, i.e., sexual slavery, was inflicted primarily upon lower class young females of colonial Korea by imperial Japan during the Pacific War, but not every former comfort women had been forcibly drafted. In addition, while women from colonized Korea constituted the overwhelming majority, Japanese women and women of other occupied territories (such as Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, and Thailand) were also used as comfort women during the "Fifteen Year War" of aggression imperial Japan pursued, starting from the Manchurian invasion in 1931 to its unconditional surrender in 1945. There is no way to determine precisely how many of them were forced to serve as military comfort women. The estimates of the number of women used as comfort women range between 50,000 and 200,000 (see Hicks 1995; Kim 1976; Yoshimi 1995). It is believed that about 80% of them were Korean and that only about 30% of the comfort women survived the War (U.N. Press Release HR/CN/94/26, February 16, 1994).

After the war, only the Dutch government brought criminal charges against Japan. A number of Japanese military officers were prosecuted for forcing 35 Dutch women into prostitution (see Yoshimi 1995:186-188). They were selected from among the Dutch civilian internees who were residing in the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia) at the time of Japanese occupation of the island. In contrast, the survivors of other nationalities, including native women in Indonesia, had no recourse but to keep silent about their ordeals as comfort women. In the context of Korean sexual culture, for instance, which has traditionally regarded premarital sex for women as a taboo, women survivors feared that the revelation of their past life as comfort women would ruin their chances at marrying and leading a "normal" life as wife and mother.

In Korea it was not until 1988 when the subject of comfort women was first discussed in public as part of an international conference dealing with sex tourism. The so-called "kisaeng (professional female entertainer) tourism" had become enormously popular among the predominantly Japanese male visitors to Korea from the late 1960s. The commercially organized kisaeng tourism in fact became a source of personal income for some young Korean females and of valuable foreign currency for their nation. At that conference Yun Chong-ok's paper on Korean comfort women helped the participants to confront Japan's wartime legacy of exploiting non-Japanese female sexuality. For many Japanese participants, meeting with Professor Yun was their "first encounter" with the comfort women issue (Japan Anti-Prostitution Association 1995).

Subsequently, leaders of women's organizations in Korea and Japan demanded of their governments that the issue of forced sexual labor of the comfort women as members of the Chongsindae ("Volunteer" Labor Corps) be investigated and that the victims be compensated. Frustrated by the indifference and evasive responses of their governments, movement leaders took the issue to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1992 (see Soh 1996). Since then the international advocates of the comfort women issue have represented them as sex slaves of imperial Japanese troops and have exerted pressure toward the Japanese government in the form of the prevailing opinion of the international community.

The Asian Women's Fund Controversy

In response to the mounting international pressure, the Japanese government initiated the establishment of the Asian Women's Fund (AWF) in July 1995 with "the aim of expressing a sense of national atonement from the Japanese people to the former 'comfort women' and to work to address contemporary issues regarding the honor and dignity of women" (Asian Women's Fund 1997:3). However, to the redress movement leaders in Japan and elsewhere who have represented the comfort women issue as a war crime for the gross violation of women's human rights, the AWF is viewed as an expedient evasion of the legal responsibility by the Japanese government, which has consistently maintained that all postwar claims of compensation between Japan and other nations had been settled by various agreements and bilateral treaties. As a result of the controversy, even though the AWF has raised enough money to pay to 240 survivors, the AWF has been able to pay the atonement money to only about 80 former comfort women since it began paying the "atonement money" to former comfort women in the Philippines in August, 1996, and the majority of the recipients are Filipino survivors (Hata 1998). What is noteworthy here is the contrastive positions that the comfort women movement leaders and the governments of Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Netherlands have taken, as discussed below.

Taiwan: In Taiwan, the official positions of the movement leaders and the government have been to reject the AWF and to seek Japan's formal apology and legal compensations for the violation of women's human rights. Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation (TWRF), a private organization whose mission is to rescue and to support women and children from sexual assaults, has helped the payment to each victim NT$500,000, equivalent to the "atonement money" of 2 million yen "in order to maintain the dignity for victims and to defend our country's pride" (Wang and Chiang 1997:1). The money was raised through non-governmental donation and auction of 100 items of artwork held on August 31, 1997 in Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. The Taiwan government announced in September, 1997 on the tenth anniversary of TWRF that it would distribute NT$500,000 (the same amount of money as the AWF's) to each survivor as an advance of the legal compensation Japanese government should pay (Wang and Chiang 1997:8).

South Korea: In South Korea, women's organization leaders formed the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (the Korean Council hereafter) in 1990 and Yun Chong-ok as a co-representative has worked closely with the feminist and human rights activists in Japan (see Soh 1996). In October 1996, two months after the AWF began disbursing the atonement money in the Philippines, a new group, the Citizens' Coalition for the Resolution of the Forced Recruitment of Comfort Women by Japanese Military (hereafter referred to as the Citizens' Coalition), came into being by bringing into the comfort women redress movement the support of 40 non-governmental organizations in South Korea. The stated purpose of the Citizens' Coalition was 1) to raise funds for the comfort women in order to help the survivors resist the temptation of accepting the AWF money, 2) to campaign for a postwar compensation legislation in Japan, and 3) to request the Korean government to raise the monthly welfare stipend for the survivors (Citizens' Coalition 1997).

In the meantime, the AWF was able to establish direct contact with some of the Korean survivors and arranged a private meeting to disburse the atonement money of 2,000,000 yen plus the welfare money of 2,280,000 yen per person to seven Korean survivors in January 1997. According to a newspaper report, to avoid the impression that the Japanese government paid the welfare money, they sent the money under the name of a ghost company, Asia Dialog. The direct and stealthy dealings with the survivors outraged the Korean movement leaders and supporters. A major Korean daily newspaper (Han'guk Ilbo January 30, 1998) commented in its editorial:

We are indeed dumbfounded. During his last visit to Korea the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Ikeda stated that they would seek a solution to the disbursement issue for the compensation money upon consultations with Korea. Reversing the statement within a few days by paying the welfare money in the lump sum of 2,280,000 yen concerns the issue of trust between nations.

Subsequently, the Korean government issued in July 1997 a notification to Usuki Keiko that she would be denied entry to South Korea for her actions taken on behalf of the AWF to pay the "atonement money" to the seven former Korean comfort women. From the Korean perspective, acceptance of such money allows Tokyo to avoid legal responsibility for the state's complicity in establishing and maintaining the comfort women system.

A declaration which was issued on May 28, 1997 when the Citizens' Coalition disbanded, revealed that they were able to raise over 550 million won (approximately US$700,000) and that they would disburse the money among the survivors except for the seven who had accepted the AWF money in January. They exhorted the survivors to fight against the AWF, thereby contributing to stopping wartime organized rapes that are being perpetrated across the globe. The statement also demanded that in order to maintain the honor of the survivors and the pride of the nation, the Korean government should take a proactive measure like the government of Taiwan and request Japan to withdraw the AWF.

The seven Korean women who had accepted the AWF money were treated as turncoats by some of their fellow survivors and the movement leaders. Indeed, the representatives of the Citizens' Coalition at their meeting with the minister of Health and Social Welfare on March 25, 1997, had discussed the possibility of discontinuing the payment of the monthly welfare stipend to the seven recipients of the AWF money (Citizens' Coalition1997: 5). In May when the Citizens' Coalition announced that it raised 550 million won and that the money would be distributed among 151 Korean survivors (3,600,000 won each, approximately US$4,500) but would exclude the seven women recipients of the AWF money.

In the fall of 1997, several Korean survivors after receiving the money from the Citizens' Coalition gave interviews to the Japanese newspaper and television reporters in which they expressed their desire to accept the AWF offer. In response, Yun Chong-ok, a co-representative of the Korean Council, appealed in the September 9, 1997 issue of Dong-a Ilbo, a major daily newspaper in South Korea, for another nationwide fundraising drive to help the needy survivors so that they would not need to give in to the monetary offer of the AWF. Within a month all the survivors who had been in contact with the AWF recanted and signed a statement that pledged their determination not to accept the AWF money.

In contrast, the AWF supporters in Japan think that the atonement money is from the people of Japan to express their feelings of atonement for the sufferings of the wartime comfort women caused by imperial Japan. Furthermore, they strongly question whether the voices of the Korean survivors are forced into silence again, this time by the Korean government and the movement leadership. Wada Haruki, a Japanese historian of Russia and Korea and one of the proponents of the AWF, has consistently argued during our interviews and in his recent article (1998) that since it was the coming out of the victims themselves that prompted the Japanese government and people to respond by offering their atonement through the AWF, the survivors have the right to accept the atonement money even if it is not sufficient for compensation. In contrast, Hata Ikuhiko (1998), another Japanese historian, states that the position of the Korean government and the movement leaders on the AWF is fundamentally a "domestic affair" about which Japan is not to intervene. As Wada (1997:2) wrote, the controversy over the AWF turned into a tug of war between the movement leaders and the AWF to win the support of the survivors to one's own side in the redress movement.

Indonesia: In Indonesia, the government was against the idea of the AWF offering the individual survivors the "atonement money," in which case the Indonesian government would have had to authenticate the more than 20,000 self-proclaimed survivors. To the disappointment of the survivors, the AWF and the Indonesian Department of Social Welfare signed an agreement in March 1997 whereby the AWF will support for the next 10 years building 50 facilities for needy elderly with no relatives and who are unable to work because of illness or disability. The facilities will be built primarily in those areas where Japanese forces were stationed during the Second World War. Priority for admission to these facilities will be given to women who proclaim themselves as having been comfort women (AWF 1997).

Philippines: In the Philippines, the controversy over the Asian Women's Fund has resulted in the split of the original activist group into two: LILA-Pilipina and Malaya Lolas. LILA-Pilipina is an organization of Filipino comfort women survivors including Maria Rosa Henson, who was the first Filipino women to give public testimony of her life as a comfort woman in 1992, accepted the AWF offer in 1996, and died in the following year. Nelia Sancho, a longtime activist and the coordinator of the Asian Women's Human Rights Council-Manila Office, is the coordinator and national chairperson of LILA Pilipina which has taken a pragmatic dual approach to the AWF. While the official position of both the Asian Women's Human Rights Council and LILA Pilipina is to demand state reparations (Asian Women's Human Rights Council 1997: 10), LILA Pilipina respects the personal decisions of the survivors and has assisted them to receive the AWF money, if they so decided, by playing the intermediary role between the survivors and the government of the Philippines which handles the distribution of the AWF money. At the same time, LILA-Pilipina supports those survivors who have filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government. Accordingly, some of the members of LILA-Pilipina who received the AWF money wrote letters to their Japanese friends and partners informing them that they accepted the "Private Fund" (i.e., Asian Women's Fund) because of their financial problems but that they would continue with their struggle for "justice from the Japanese government" and for legal compensation (e.g., F. David's letter of November 18, 1997).

In contrast, Malaya Lolas is an organization which was set up in August 1996 by Filipino former comfort women who reject the Asian Women's Fund. It is a program of the Asian Centre for Women's Human Rights (ASCENT), a regional NGO working on "training, documentation, reporting and monitoring of women's human rights violations, specifically in Asia" (ASCENT 1997:3). Indai L. Sajor, the executive director of ASCENT, leads the Malaya Lolas, whose members include Gertrude Balisalisa, the second Filipino comfort woman to tell her story publicly and spokesperson of the Malaya Lolas.

Although both LILA Pilipina and Malaya Lolas support the Filipino comfort women survivors who have filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in 1993, their different stances toward the AWF have contributed to deep enmity and underlying professional rivalry between the movement leaders toward each other. For example, the Japanese lawyers and activists saw to it that Sajor and Sanchos could avoid each other's presence when they scheduled their appearance at the same courtroom, escorting the Filipino survivor plaintiffs from their own organizations for the hearings in the Tokyo District Court in the fall of 1997.

Netherlands: In the Netherlands, the AWF negotiated for over two years with the Foundation for Japanese Honorary Debts (FJHD), an NGO formed in 1990 of Dutch war victims including former POWs, civilian internees, comfort women, and forced laborers from the former Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia) (SJE 1992) but the FJHD has rejected the AWF as a solution to their demands for compensation for Dutch war victims. In July 1998, a new organization, Project Implementation Committee in the Netherlands (PICN), was formed and it signed an agreement with the AWF to carry out the welfare program for the Dutch ex-comfort women. The chair of the PICN is a retired general who is head of the Pension and Benefit Board for former Resistance and War Victims. The Vice Chair is a woman who used to be on the Board of the FJHD, and two more members of the FJHD Board severed their ties with the FJHD to join the PICN. More than 60 Dutch women survivors have communicated with the Vice Chair of PICN so far and only two Dutch survivors have rejected the AWF project to provide welfare and medical goods and/or services to them.

Who Decides?

To sum up, the individual survivors in the Philippines and the Netherlands have been given the freedom to make a personal decision to accept or reject the atonement money, while in Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia, the actions of the leadership or the government have disallowed the survivors to decide on their own. In the case of Taiwan and Korea, the movement leadership has represented the AWF to the survivors as being a deception on the part of the Japanese government to avoid legal responsibility and has exhorted the survivors to form a unified front of rejecting the AWF. Their rhetoric of rejection included the metaphor of a "second rape" of the survivors with the temptation of money and the angry charge of "militarism" to Professor Wada Haruki for his active support of the AWF project.

The question to ask at this point is whether the leadership position in Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia is justified, that is, whether the survivors have been robbed of their right to self-determination regarding the proper resolution of their victimization as wartime comfort women. When I discussed the matter with a Dutch professor of law, he opined that it was "not right" for the survivors not to be able to decide on their own. From the perspective of the leaders of the Korean Council, however, the survivors (the majority of whom are uneducated or undereduated), are not capable of making the right decision. In fact, the recantation statement discussed above revealed that two survivors expressed their regret admitting that they had made a "wrong" judgement momentarily by agreeing to accept the AWF money. Indeed, many survivors seem to take the position of trustful followers from a variety of reasons. Some seem to feel self-reproachful about their misfortune. A Korean survivor stated during our interview that she left her home at the age of eighteen in rebellion against her father's patriarchal gender-role ideology, and she now blamed herself for having incurred the hard life as a comfort woman as a result of her willful action. In her mind, if she had followed her father's wishes and stayed home, she would not have become a comfort woman. Others are so grateful to the leadership for fighting on their behalf that they are willing to simply follow the decisions made by the leaders. Nelia Sanchos, the Filipino movement leader, also mentioned during our interview in 1997 a similar sense of gratitude that the Filipino survivors felt toward Japan's AWF, which, in her opinion, led to their "manipulation" by the AWF for media publicity photos and statements regarding the successful implementation of its project.

In South Korea, people in general and activists in particular have embraced the concept of human rights in the context of the military authoritarian regimes which often imprisoned political dissidents without due process. Nevertheless, because of the historical and cultural legacy of the hierarchical social relational patterns, many Koreans have yet to learn how to practice in everyday life the rhetoric of human rights in the sense of respecting personal autonomy of the individuals regardless their gender, age, and social status. To my knowledge, there has been no public debate in Korea regarding the self-determination of the survivors, even though there may be some who would wish the Korean leadership to take a more pragmatic approach as practiced by the Filipino and Dutch leaders.

A staff member at the AWF stated to me that the Korean movement leaders are telling the survivors that they are the pride of the nation and that the survivors should fight against the AWF in order to win state compensation, which they regard is the only acceptable resolution. This, in his opinion, parallels the wartime imperial Japan's position that exhorted the Japanese people to sacrifice themselves in the name of the Emperor. It is ironic that while remarkable success of the Korean comfort women redress movement is based on the representation of the comfort women as victims of gross violations of human rights, the emphasis on the part of the leadership has been on righting the wrongs of the past, and scant attention has been paid to help the survivors exercise the right of self-determination regarding the AWF offer.

The Korean and Taiwanese responses to the AWF controversy underline the predominance of ethnic nationalism over feminism and/or human rights advocacy in the comfort women movement in the two countries due largely to their history under Japanese colonial rule. Further, the movement leadership behavior in Korea and Taiwan is rooted in the traditional elitism that regards the masses as uninformed and the leaders as wise benefactors. The Indonesian response may reflect among other things the will of a strong state to maintain friendly diplomatic relations with Japan.


The diverse responses that the comfort women redress movement leaders in different countries have shown to the AWF controversy underline the variegated patterns of leadership behavior in allowing the principle of self determination on the part of the survivors. In spite of the fundamental importance of the concept of human rights in making the comfort women redress movement an international precedent setting debate on women's human rights, the AWF controversy has contributed to silencing the dissident voices of some survivors in Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia, in the name of a united national front in the politics of the redress movement against Japan. Although the controversy also contributed to splitting the redress movement in Japan, the Philippines, and the Netherlands, it is noteworthy that the freedom of individual survivors to decide their own response to the AWF offer is not compromised in the Philippines and the Netherlands, which reflects among other things the centrality of the individualism in the Judeo-Christian cultural tradition shared by the two countries.

To the extent that the concept of human rights has been upheld as a fundamental value in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, it is not surprising that in the other three Asian nations whose cultural heritage is rooted in either Confucian or Islamic tradition, there exists little public concern about depriving individual survivors of their freedom to decide in the AWF controversy. Human rights is not a static concept (American Anthropological Association Committee for Human Rights 1998), and in different cultural contexts its definition may vary in terms of its emphasis of particular aspects of human life conditions. Ellen Messer (1993:241) states that anthropologists may contribute to the human rights framework in the analysis of human rights rhetoric as this penetrates local parlance and informs advocacy and practice. Given the social and cultural context, what conclusion can an anthropological analysis draw regarding the question whether some survivors in Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia are being victimized anew or not by the redress movement leadership?


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