COMFORT WOMEN — “Who should be blamed for the thorny diplomatic problem between Japan and South Korea?”

COMFORT WOMEN — “Who should be blamed for the thorny diplomatic problem between Japan and South Korea?”

By Hidemi Nagao, Novelist, Yokohama, Japan

January 28, 2018

              Why is the problem so thorny?

              Read excerpts of the following 12 articles that appeared in renowned newspapers and news agency dispatches from January 8 through 12, 2018.  They were in response to the recent press conferences and public announcements of the South Korean and the Japanese governments.

              All the articles appear to be truthful and point an accusing finger at Japan.  Peruse their references to the women for a comparison purpose, and you will wonder why they are singularly and slightly different from one another.  The issue here is not the journalists’ style of writing but their perception of the subject matters.  All of them may be looking at a big picture, in which the women went through certain hardships.  Then, why circumstantial evidences surrounding them are different from one article to another?  Is it due to lack of knowledge or research on the part of the journalists?  When the topic has already been reported many a time before, is it unnecessary for the media outlets to question the sources of information for corroboration?  The agenda items mentioned in the articles pertain to serious, diplomatic relations of South Korea and Japan.  Slighting the details is fine, but is staying aloof of the problem what the press are supposed to do?


1.  The Asahi Shimbun:  S. Korea drops renegotiation plan for ‘comfort women’ deal -By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent – January 9, 2018 at 18:55 JST

SEOUL – Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Seoul will talk with Japan about what to do with Japan’s contribution to the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, which was established in 2016 to implement programs to help the former comfort women, who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II. Many of them come from the Korean Peninsula.

2.  The Japan Times:  South Korea leader Moon calls 2015 ‘comfort women’ deal ‘undeniable,’ but says Japan must still offer apology – Jan 10, 2018 – Kyodo, AFP-JIJI, Reuters, Bloomberg

SEOUL – South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday that although it is “undeniable” that the 2015 deal with Japan on “comfort women” forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels is official, Tokyo should still offer a “heartfelt” apology.

3.  THE STRAITS TIMES:  Japan PM Shinzo Abe rejects Seoul’s latest stance on comfort women as ‘unacceptable’ – Walter Sim, Japan Correspondent – Published Jan 12, 2018, 12:40 pm SGT

TOKYO – This came after a government study found that the Japanese Imperial Army had forced women to work in military-run brothels during World War II with many of them “recruited against their own will, through coaxing (and) coercion”.

4.  THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.:  South Korea Backs Off Japan Over Wartime Sex Slaves   Seoul won’t seek to renegotiate ‘comfort women’ deal – By Min Sun Lee and Kwanwoo Jun –Jan. 9, 2018 2:21 a.m. ET

SEOUL—South Korea stepped away from a potential clash with Japan over wartime history, saying it would abide by a 2015 agreement over women forced into sexual service for Japanese soldiers.

5.  The New York Times:  Japan Balks at Calls for New Apology to South Korea Over ‘Comfort Women’ – By Motoko Rich – Jan. 12, 2018

TOKYO —Three days after South Korea said it would not roll back a 2015 accord over women forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military during World War II, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan rejected on Friday “additional measures” sought by Seoul.

6.  Deutsche Welle:  ‘Comfort women’ dispute: Japan’s Abe to snub South Korea’s Olympics invite? – Date 12.01.2018 – Author Julian Ryall (Tokyo)

Under the agreement, signed by Abe and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Japan apologized to women who were forced to work in frontline brothels for the Japanese militaryfrom the start of the occupation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910 until the end of the war in 1945.

7.  Reuters:  Japan rejects South Korean call for extra steps over ‘comfort women’ – January 9, 2018 / 2:35 PM – Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – Japan said on Tuesday it can “by no means” accept South Korea’s call for more steps to help “comfort women”, a euphemism for girls and women forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels, a divisive issue that Japan says was resolved with a 2015 deal.  (The number of those women were as many as 200,000).

8.  The Washington Post:  South Korea ended its review of its ‘comfort women’ deal with Japan. Here’s what you need to know. – By Celeste Arrington January 11, 2018

On Tuesday, the South Korean government wrapped up a months-long process of reviewing a landmark 2015 agreement with Japan over the “comfort women” issue. In the agreement, Japan apologized for the sexual enslavement of Korean women in military brothels before and during World War II. … The 2015 agreement has been at least partly implemented. About half of the 1 billion yen (almost $9 million) from Tokyo has been spent, including payments to 34 of the 47 surviving sex slaves.

9.  FINANCIAL TIMES:  South Korea will not renegotiate ‘comfort women’ deal with Japan – Bryan Harris in Seoul and Robin Harding in Tokyo – JANUARY 9, 2018…

South Korea will not seek to renegotiate a contentious deal with Japan over Tokyo’s wartime use of sex slaves, the foreign ministry in Seoul said on Tuesday. The decision follows months of speculation that South Korea might scrap the 2015 pact under which the nations agreed to “finally and irreversibly” end a dispute over Japan’s use of Korean “comfort women” in military brothels during the second world war.

10.  THE DIPLOMAT:  The Japan-South Korea ‘Comfort Women’ Agreement Survives (Barely)   After months of speculation, Moon’s administration decides to keep to the 2015 agreement – Tokyo Report – By Yuki Tatsumi – January 11, 2018

The “comfort woman” issue — referring to the women who were mobilized by the Japanese authorities (or those who claimed to be acting on behalf of the Japanese authorities) for sexual slavery during World War II— has long been the thorniest issue in Japan-South Korea relations. The Japanese government’s earlier effort to resolve the issue took place in the 1990s.

11.  YONHAP NEWS AGENCY:  (2nd LD) S Korea to announce stance on comfort women deal on Tuesday – 2018/01/08 20:00 –

SEOUL, Jan. 8 (Yonhap) — South Korea will announce Tuesday its stance on and follow-up measures to a controversial deal with Japan to settle the grievances of Korean women forced into wartime sexual slavery for Japanese troops, the foreign ministry here said Monday. … Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, were forced into sexual servitude during World War II.

12.  Bloomberg Business Week:  South Korea Decides Against Scrapping Sex-Slave Deal With Japan – By Kanga Kong with assistance by Emi Nobuhiro, and Isabel Reynolds – January 9, 2018 15:16 JST

South Korea won’t seek to reopen a landmark accord with Japan over wartime sex slavery, shelving for now a potential dispute as the two U.S. allies seek to deal with the North Korean threat. … In addition to the fund, Abe issued a historic apology to South Korea’s “comfort women.” … Historians estimate that anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women — many of them Korean — served in Japan’s military brothels. Japan had apologized in 1993 and set up a compensation fund that was rejected by some victims because it was privately funded.


              What I meant by stating, “singularly and slightly different from each other” is explained below:

(1) The descriptions of the women were as follows:

              They were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers, forced to work in military-run brothels (many of them “recruited against their own will, through coaxing (and) coercion”), forced into sexual service for Japanese soldiers; forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military; forced to work in frontline brothels for the Japanese military; sexual enslavement of Korean women in military brothels; wartime use of sex slaves; and mobilized by the Japanese authorities (or those who claimed to be acting on behalf of the Japanese authorities) for sexual slavery.

              In common language, brothels provide sexual services, for which men pay money.  Merriam-Webster gives this example on a brothel:  A building in which prostitutes are available: bordello.  The dictionary also states, prostituting is to offer indiscriminately for sexual intercourse especially for money.

              Is sex slavery or sexual enslavement compatible with providing sexual services at brothels?  A brothel owner is known to rip off a good amount of the prostitutes’ earnings, however, didn’t they have the liberty of spending their income?  One woman mailed home 5,000 yen in 1945 (*) from Burma to Korea, according to her biographical book (*).  She deposited 26,000 yen in Japan’s postal savings account by the end of the war (*).  It is worth 360,000 dollars today.

              Merriam-Webster gives an example on slavery; the state of being a slave as in “She was sold into slavery.” If the women were sexual slaves, did they always shoot a hostile look at the brothel managers and the troops (*)?  Were they not allowed to go shopping or go on a picnic, or go out to watch movies (*)?  Were they chained and shackled?

              Were many of the women recruited against their own will, through coaxing (and) coercion?  Merriam-Webster gives this example on recruit:  Public schools are recruiting new teachers.  The schools pay them salaries, don’t they?  Did the women sign any employment contracts at all as teachers do?  Who coaxed and coerced them?  Were their fathers and mothers or private agents not involved in the recruiting process?  Didn’t natural disasters or poverty explain their turning to this occupation?  Did none of them volunteer (*)?

              Does “military-run brothels” mean the military owned them and made profits from sales of sexual services?  Is it why the military could mobilize the women?  According to Merriam-Webster, to mobilize is to put into movement or circulation as in mobilize financial assets.  The women were not military assets.  Records indicates there were contracts between the women (or their parents) and agents (*).

              According to the articles of Reuters, Yonhap News Agency, and Bloomberg Business Weekly, there were “as many as 200,000 women,” “up to 200,000 women,” or “500,000 to 200,000 women.”  Though they say most of them were Koreans, a general understanding—accepted in certain United Nations’ reports (*)—is all of them were Koreans.  In any case, the brothels must have made a fortune because they owned so many women.

              Why?  Each brothel was believed to have housed 125 to 500 women on the average as there were not more than 400 frontline brothels (*).  Each woman was making 1,000 yen per month (*).

              The figures above, although speculative, would translate to the women’s earnings of 125,000 to 500,000 yen at each brothel and the brothel owner/manager’s pocketing more or less 125,000 to 500,000 yen every month.  In another word, the brothel’s net profit would amount to 173,000 to 692,000 dollars in today’s value.  How much was the then prime minister of Japan’s monthly pay?  It was 800 yen (*).

              Grounds to cite 50,000 to 200,000 Korean women as forcibly taken to wartime brothels have already crumbled because certain claims of novelists Seiji Yoshida and Kako Senda were disproved (*).

(2) How many years did the women work in the brothels?  The articles state as follows:

              They worked during World War II; before and during World War II; over wartime history; from the start of the occupation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910 until the end of the war in 1945; or in Japan’s wartime.

              Japan fought in the Chinese Continent; the Second Sino-Japanese War was from 1937 to 1945.  World War II was from 1941 to 1945.  The Korean annexation to Japan was 1910. Japan had business interests in a part of Manchuria from 1905 through 1945.  Japan’s war against China was stalemated in the Chinese Continent, excepting Manchuria.  It was only after 1941 when Japan did enlarge its territory to South East Asia.  The territory was the largest in early 1942 as it began to diminish after Japan lost the Battle of Midway to the U.S. Navy in June 1942.

              Isn’t known history supposed to tell with ease the exact time span, in which the women were recruited, mobilized, or enslaved?

              Excepting street walkers, all the women in areas where Japan had control were registered prostitutes (*).  There were 3,810 Japanese prostitutes and 7,942 Korean prostitutes in the Korean Peninsula, according to a 1942 record (*).  Were they among the 50,000 to 200,000?

(3) The press are public entities, known for fighting for freedom of speech.

              “Belief is a wonderful way to pass the time until the facts come in.”  Carl R White.  Freedom of speech is unnecessary if the people to whom it is granted do not think for themselves.”  Mokokoma Mokhonoana.  “Be passionate about what you write, believe in your ability to convey timeless ideas, and let no one tell you what you’re capable of.”  Christina Westover.  Let every writer tell his own lies.  That’s freedom of the press.”  Norman Mailer.

              When the 12 media outlets—whose nationalities are different—present their articles with conflicting and dubious descriptions on the women, whose sayings readers should believe, White, Mokhonoana, Westover, or Mailer?

(4) Should the thorny problem between Japan and South Korea be left untended?

              This problem is truly serious not only for the two nations but also for the East Asian regional security.  Journalists might as well write as they please, however, the East Asian security situation cannot afford getting indulged in congenial rhetoric that is disguised as thoughts or analyses.

              The following insights may be taken into consideration to understand the bilateral estrangement.

              Professor Jun Sakurada of the Toyo Gakuen University stated in the Seiron column of the Sankei Shimbun on January 26, 2018:

              Japan places in a big picture the Japan-U.S. alliance; it is not only for defense of the nation and the stability of the Asia-Pacific region but also for upholding and protecting modern day values.  South Korea, on the other hand, regards the South Korea-U.S. alliance as merely a shield of convenience at best.  …  The width of the awareness gap for modern day values is quite indicative of an utmost reason for the bilateral estrangement of today (author translation).

              Professor Sakurada’s observation about Japan’s new commitments for the Asia-Pacific region is endorsed, in part, by Richard Armitage, former Deputy Secretary of State, who came to Japan recently.  He said, according to the morning edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun of January 22, 2018, the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” has been launched not by Washington but by Tokyo (author translation).

              The ability of journalists is supposed not to complicate but to clarify the problem for solution, is it not?

Note:  The statements with (*) are not provided with references herein because this opinion piece becomes lengthy.

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