June 4, 2020

Hidemi Nagao ( Former Civil and Media Liaison Officer of the Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Japan, Novelist and Non-fiction Writer )


Lee Yong-soo, a self-proclaimed comfort woman, accused Seigiren and its leader Yoon Meehyang in Tague, South Korea, on May 7.  Since then, her accusation has been rocking the entire South Korean society.  I would like to personally offer an observation about the situation which I call a clatter involving Seigiren (the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan).    Honorific titles are not used herein.

  1. Limits of the clatter

1.1.        I set aside the definition of the comfort women here.  The comfort women cenotaphs and statues being built in South Korea and foreign countries symbolize the use of comfort women by the Japanese military in warfront.  Their significance will not be called into question by the South Koreans even if Seigiren gets denied and disestablished.

1.2.        Seigiren, established in South Korea in 1990, became the first civic entity to support the self-proclaimed comfort women.  The South Koreans consider the existence of similar groups important.  Accordingly, anti-Japan campaigns will not come to an end as far as the comfort women issue is concerned.

1.3.        Most of the expenses for Seigiren campaigns is said to have been borne by donated funds from the public at large.  The prosecutors will investigate the case for misappropriation and breach of trust in bookkeeping. Investigations would probably be completed by making its leader Yoon Meehyang and her accountant and family members face the fire.

1.4.        It is said to be Etsuro Totsuka who first began to call comfort women sexual slaves.  He used the phrase at a United Nations committee in 1992.  Sexual slavery is used with specific reference to comfort women in Seigiren’s English name.  It is unknown who first used the phrase.  Its usage—to refer to licensed prostitutes—began to prevail by mid-1990s.  Things have made an abrupt turn backward on May 25 when Lee Yong-soo said at the media availability she had detested the naming as abominable.  The South Korean Foreign Ministry, in its English homepage, favors sexual slavery to refer to comfort women.  It is, therefore, inconceivable for Seoul to bother to retract the naming at the U.N. committees.  It is because there is no substitute phrase that can carry as much social impact as sexual slavery does even if the premise of the victim-centered approaches is being upheld.

1.5.        As mentioned above, the environment regarding the comfort women issue would not drastically change.  I would like to make a proposal here, despite such an observation.  Seigiren has been accusing Japan by making the comfort women issue a case of women’s rights violation.  If it seriously intends to advance the women’s rights, its name should reflect the existence of comfort women for the South Korean military and the U.N. command during the Korean War and the South Korean comfort stations and Lai Dai Han during the Vietnam War, too.  I would recommend the following name if volunteers are to establish a new coalition after the Seigiren clatter, which requires courage of the South Koreans.

The Korean Council for the Women (and Lai Dai Han Mothers) Abused by the Japanese Military, the South Korean Military, the U.N. Command

  1. Establishment of a public comfort women support organ

2.1.        Trying to turn the challenge into to opportunity, the South Korean government is believed to establish and manage a new support agency for the comfort women as public trust for Seigiren has reached its nadir.  The new organ would belong to either the ministry of foreign affairs, the ministry of health and welfare, or the ministry of gender equality and family, depending on what the Blue House prioritizes, i.e., diplomacy, social welfare, or promotion of women’s rights.

2.2.        This new organ must clearly understand what the comfort women want to accomplish.  If the women may merely ask for provision of consolation money, this organ would fulfill its role when it completes provision of the money to all comfort women and their bereaved families.

2.3.        If the women, on the other hand, calls on the government to negotiate with the Japanese government for the purpose of making the latter unequivocally acknowledge the national responsibility for having institutionalized the comfort women system in warfront.  Predicted at present are two situations below.

2.3.1.     The Japanese government would claim the issue to be settled domestically in South Korea by referencing the Kato statement, the Kono statement, the Asian Women’s Fund, and the recent bilateral agreement.  Because it is unrealistic for Japan to make concessions, the donation of one billion yen for the Foundation to Support Former Comfort Women would get out of hand now that the South Korean government already disestablished the foundation.  The comfort women issue would remain unresolved.

2.3.2.     The comfort women may propose a compromise.  They would accept the consolation money on condition that the South Korean government pledge to continue its efforts to call for Japan’s concession.

  1. South Korean “Han” against Japan

3.1.        The Japanese government should be aware of three things while observing events in South Korea.  All of them relate to “Han (see Note at the end)” the South Koreans have toward Japan as mentioned by Chun Yung-woo, former chief diplomatic adviser to President Lee Myung-bak.  He emphasized two points below in the Japanese language edition of the Chosun Ilbo of May 24.

“It is necessary for fellow citizens to continue to erect girl statues and reflect on the violence Japan inflicted upon us as a historical lesson, even after all comfort women pass away.

We would never be able to say enough is enough when it comes to revenge campaigns against Japan.  It is unwarranted, on the other hand, for our country to turn our attention solely to the past.  Our country has core values more important than the anti-Japan commitment.  We must remember that our goal of overtaking Japan shall slip away if we lose our moral superiority over Japan.”

3.2.        The Japanese government must also bear in mind the third point, which also relates to “Han” Chun narrated.  According to the Japanese language edition of the Chosun Ilbo of May 26, Yee Yong-soo said at the press conference of May 25 as follows.

“What I would like to say is not to quit the campaigns but to change the way they are carried out.  The pillar of our philosophy is Japan should continue to apologize for the comfort women issue for thousands of years to come.

Key players in our history are students of both South Korea and Japan who are to solve the comfort women issue.  We must strive to lead them to develop righteous historical perceptions and encourage them to mutually exchange.”

3.3.        A Japanese would clearly see in the background of the thoughts Yee and Chun mentioned is the annexation of the Korean Empire by Japan in 1910.  It is meaningless here to mention to the South Koreans the present relationships between the former colonial power and the former colonized territory in the days of imperialism; Britain and India, France and Indochina, the Netherlands and Indonesia, and the U.S. and the Philippines, for example.  When it comes to matters involving South Korea and Japan, they are irrelevant, period.  It is, therefore, meaningless what the yangban, the ruling class since the Yi Dynasty in the Korean Peninsula, did or did not do when their homeland was annexed to Japan.

  1. What Japan is supposed to do?

4.1.        Pyon Jinil, editor-in-chief of the Korea Report, contributed on May 27 an opinion piece titled “Five reasons why a bombshell statement by a former comfort woman is good news for the Abe administration.”  The gist is as follows.

Merit 1:  Seigiren’s legitimacy is denied.

Merit 2:  The published comfort women statements are questioned.

Merit 3:  The Wednesday demonstrations are not encouraged.

Merit 4:  The phrase of sexual slaves is detested.

Merit 5:  Congressperson Yoon Meehyang’s political voice will decline.

4.2.        I hate to reiterate this, but the Japanese government issued the Kato statement in 1992, the Kono statement in 1993, established the Asian Women’s Fund in 1994, issued the Murayama statement in 1995, and reached an agreement with South Korea in 2015, regarding the comfort women issue.  Whatever the U.N. committees presented as conclusive observations/recommendations in the past and whatever they will issue in future, what Japan did in earnest has been carved in stone.

4.3.        On the other hand, what South Korea and the U.N. committees have done so far is to merely link the comfort women issue with women’s rights violation in today’s ethical standards.  They have never attempted to scrutinize the comfort women system—which the Japanese military used from 1932 to 1945—from the sociological or legal viewpoints.  They have not paid any attention to the geopolitical situations of the Far East up until the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty of 1910, either.  Any discussion without reviewing the how and why of the past events are irresponsible per se.  The mission of each U.N. committee is to issue a recommendation to the state party concerned in response to a presented claim.  It is, therefore, not appropriate to question the committee members’ wisdom.  They happen to be there for talking as writers till the day is done.  No one can expect more from them because they are no more than bystanders.

4.4.        Lastly, what Yee Yong-soo recommended must be reviewed.  She encouraged students of South Korea and Japan to be given righteous history education and to engage in cross-pollination of ideas.  Presenting historical materials to students of both countries would not usher in any solution to the comfort women issue.  For, it is not possible to ask them to reduce into writing contentious and divisive issues, to examine each, and to come up with a reasonable judgement.  It is, however, possible for such an interaction to become a means to inspire hope.  This hope will become realistic only on condition that no decisive conclusion is to be made by both students.  In other words, they are supposed to accept pros and cons of the issue as a result of historical consideration.

4.5.        The Japanese government has nothing to do but to wait and see till the clatter subsides.

Note:  Han in Japanese is an emotion of rage and hate against others.  Han is a concept of an emotion, variously described as some form of grief or resentment, among others, that has been said to be a characteristic of Korean culture.  Han is a modern phenomenon that did not exist in premodern Korea.  Han is not found in the first Korean–English dictionary, published by James S. Gale in 1897, according to Michael D. Shin of Robinson College.  Shin says almost any negative emotion can be called Han and argues that the central aspect of Han is loss of identity, in that the complex of emotions that result from the traumatic loss of collective identity, according to Wikipedia (browsed on May 30)  One seasoned journalist who is well-versed in Korean language and has years of professional experience in South Korea said, “Han is an emotion to be generated when one’s pursuit of an ideal gets undermined by a person or an organization, which, therefore, never goes away.”

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