Letter to the Former Comfort Women
Letter to the Former Comfort Women
Source: Koizumi, Junichiro. Letter from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Former Comfort Women. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan, 2001.
About the Author: Junichiro Koizumi became Prime Minister of Japan in 2001. During his tenure in office the issue of "comfort women" became a diplomatic concern in Japan's relationship with South Korea.
From approximately 1931 to 1946, the Japanese army and navy set up a network of official "comfort stations," designed to provide sexual services to soldiers. In the early years, the military advertised for prostitutes and willing sex workers to work in the brothels; workers found by middlemen and volunteers filled the brothels initially. The Japanese military assumed that by providing these sex services directly to soldiers, they would boost morale and control sexually transmitted diseases.
Over time, unscrupulous middlemen kidnapped young girls for use as "comfort women," or poor parents sold their daughters to middlemen with the understanding that their daughters would be given jobs. Women from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia were used as comfort women, though the majority came from Korea and Japan. As World War II (1938–1945) progressed, Japanese soldiers would capture women from villages during invasions. Military recruiters were given specific instruction for detention and set-up of comfort stations.
The daily experience for these captured women varied, but each day multiple soldiers—sometimes forty to fifty per day—raped the women. The women were forced to travel with troops, living in poor conditions and in danger on battlefields. Within a few weeks, the women—occasionally girls as young as twelve-years-old—normally acquired a sexually transmitted disease. Many died or became infertile as a result of syphilis or gonorrhea. Fresh recruits and captives were popular with soldiers, who believed them to be less likely to have a sexually transmitted disease. Virgins were prized. Scholars estimate that the number of comfort women used ranged from 100,000-200,000 during World War II.
When the war ended, the comfort women, who had received military provisions as they were forced to travel with the Japanese military, were summarily abandoned on site. Thousands of miles from home, diseased, abused, and without money or goods, tens of thousands of comfort women struggled to return home. For those in the Philippines, a return home could lead to accusations of being a Japanese sympathizer or a spy, resulting in banishment or death. Once home, former comfort women faced shame in their villages for their experiences.
After World War II, more than fifty military tribunals took place in Asia; only one addressed the issue of comfort women. Dutch authorities tried and later executed one Japanese officer for his role in forcing thirty-five Dutch women in Jakarta into sexual slavery as comfort women. Western authorities, including the United States, knew about the extensive network of hundreds of thousands of comfort women used by the Japanese military; after Japan's defeat, Allied Forces landing in Japan were offered comfort women as part of official Japanese diplomatic policy. However, this Dutch comfort women case is the only prosecution of its kind.
In 1990, former comfort women in Korea created the Korean council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery and filed suit against the Japanese government. Japan denied the official use of comfort women, instead blaming independent contractors and brothel owners for supplying such women to soldiers. Historians revealed defense documents proving official government responsibility for the management of brothels; in 1992, Prime Minister Miyazawa formally expressed regret to the Korean people for Japan's treatment of comfort women.
In this 2001 letter from Prime Minister Koizumi, the Prime Minister makes reference to the Asian Women's Fund. In 1995, the Japanese government created the Asian Women's Fund as a non-profit entity to channel money to comfort women survivors.
The Year of 2001
On the occasion that the Asian Women's Fund, in cooperation with the Government and the people of Japan, offers atonement from the Japanese people to the former wartime comfort women, I wish to express my feelings as well.
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.
As Prime Minister of Japan, I thus extend anew my 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.
We must not evade the weight of the past, nor should we evade our responsibilities for the future.
I believe that our country, painfully aware of its moral responsibilities, with feelings of apology and remorse, should face up squarely to its past history and accurately convey it to future generations.
Furthermore, Japan also should take an active part in dealing with violence and other forms of injustice to the honor and dignity of women.
Finally, I pray from the bottom of my heart that each of you will find peace for the rest of your lives.
Prime Minister of Japan
The Asian Women's Fund drew sharp criticism from both comfort women activists as well as conservatives who argued that Japan had committed no war crime and bore no responsibility to the comfort women. The Japanese government claimed that all legal questions and reparations between Korea and Japan had been settled in the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations and Agreement of Economic Cooperation and Property Claims Between Japan and the Republic of Korea. By issuing regrets and creating the Asian Women's Fund, Japan acknowledged moral responsibility but refused to accept legal responsibility. Accepting legal responsibility after the treaty could open Japan up to claims from other countries for various wartime activities, a diplomatic and financial dilemma Japan wished to avoid.
The International Commission of Jurists' 1994 report "Comfort Women: An Unfinished Ordeal" notes that neither the 1965 treaty nor a 1956 treaty with the Philippines addresses human rights violations. Reparations for forced sexual slavery, according to the report, should be provided by the Japanese government, with "adequate shelter, medical aid and a decent standard of living. Having regard to the years of neglect already suffered by the women, an immediate interim payment of U.S. $40,000 per victim is warranted."
By the 1990s, the youngest comfort women were already in their sixties; by 2001, when Koizumi wrote his letter regarding the Asian Women's Fund, most survivors were in their seventies. Comfort women activists accuse the Japanese government of playing a time game; the longer they wait, the fewer survivors they must pay. Japan, on the other hand, claims that the Asian Women's Fund is sufficient. In a 1997 survey in Japan, 50.7 percent of respondents believed the Japan should formally apologize to the comfort women and take full legal and financial responsibility. Conservatives—many war veterans—claim that the comfort women system was voluntary for the women and that its purpose was to prevent the rape of women in conquered territories.
In 2000, in Tokyo, a non-governmental organization created the Women's International War Crimes Tribunals on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery, an unofficial tribunal which found the Japanese government responsible for the rapes and sexual slavery of comfort women. The 1992 expression of regret by then Prime Minister Miyazawa had long been considered insufficient by comfort women activists. The word he used, "owabi," can be translated similarly to the words "excuse me" or "pardon me" in English. Prime Minister Koizumi's expressed apology in this 2001 letter gave the remaining 136 documented comfort women the first official apology from the Japanese government for its creation and management of the comfort stations.
Dolgopol, Ustinia. Comfort Women: An Unfinished Ordeal. International Commission of Jurists, 1994.
Hicks, George L. The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War. London: W. W. Norton, 1997.
Japan Policy Research Institute. "Japan's Responsibility Toward Comfort Women Survivors." May, 2001. 〈http://www.jpri.org/publications/workingpapers/wp77.html〉 (accessed April 26, 2006).