Why Did the 2015 Japan-Korea ‘Comfort Women’ Agreement Fall Apart?

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The agreement was flawed from the beginning, and continued denialism from the Japanese government undermined its spirit.
On December 28, 2015, the South Korean and Japanese governments announced an Agreement on Comfort Women, without showing the text of a formal agreement. Foreign ministers of the two countries read a statement, not the agreement, in front of a TV camera together.
At the time, Kishida Fumio, who was then foreign minister of Japan and is now the prime minister, said on behalf of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo:
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.
In addition, the Japanese government decided to offer 1 billion yen as an apology. The South Korean and Japanese governments confirmed that the comfort women issue will be resolved “finally and irreversibly” on the premise that these measures will be implemented steadily.
Therefore, the issue of “comfort women” in the Japanese military cannot be said to have been resolved unless “projects for recovering the honor and dignity and healing the psychological wounds of all former comfort women” – as expressed in the joint statement on the comfort women agreement – were implemented, as both ministers said at the press conference.
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However, just three weeks after the agreement, Abe told the Japanese National Assembly, “There was no document found that the comfort women were forcibly taken away.” This statement directly challenged the goals in the Japan-South Korea agreement on “recovering the honor and dignity and healing the psychological wounds” of the victims. About nine months after the agreement, the South Korean side asked Abe to “send a letter of apology directly to the former comfort women.” Abe’s reply was dismissive, saying, “I have no intention of apologizing again.”
Three days after the statement was announced, Sankei Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper that has right-wing tendencies, cited people close to the prime minister in reporting that “the comfort women agreement was a gamble that Prime Minister Abe makes to keep South Korea silent.” In other words, the Japanese government at the time viewed the agreement as more of a political strategy than a sincere apology to the comfort women victims.
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When the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women deliberated on Japan in February 2016, the committee strongly criticized the Japanese government’s response to the issue of “comfort women” in the Japanese military.
At this committee meeting, which was held about two months after the agreement, the Japanese government’s foreign affairs deliberation officer said, that “’forceful taking away’ of comfort women by the military and government authorities could not be confirmed in any of the documents that the Government of Japan was able to identify” in its own research. He also added that “the expression ‘sex-slaves’ contradicted the facts.”
In response, one of the U.N. Committee members said that “the answer of the delegation on the issue of comfort women was unacceptable and contradictory. On the one hand, the Government of Japan denied the existence of comfort women, while on another hand, the Government reached an agreement on that same issue.”
Through the government’s consistent denials after the joint statement, it was Japan who broke the spirit and promise of the comfort women agreement in the first place.
Another problem is that the deal targets “all former comfort women.” However, there are comfort women victims who did not accept the 2015 agreement. They filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government. This means that the premise of the Japan-South Korea agreement on “all former comfort women” was broken from the very beginning.
The results of the lawsuit came out in January and April 2021. In the January trial, the comfort women victims won the case, and the Japanese government ignored the ruling, so the comfort women’s victory was confirmed. In the verdict in April, the court granted Japan sovereign immunity, and the comfort women victim’s lawsuit was defeated. However, both trials acknowledged the victims’ claims that the Japanese forcibly took the comfort women and that the comfort women were actually sex slaves. The invocation of sovereign immunity does not mean that Japan has no responsibility in the issue of comfort women, but merely states the principle that a sovereign state (South Korea, in this case) cannot judge other sovereign states. Paradoxically, however, the April ruling made it clear that Japan’s sovereignty took the lead in the comfort women issue.
What emerged from this unfavorable situation in Japan was renewed claims, including by some Koreans, that comfort women were not sex slaves, but only sex workers – that is, prostitutes. These claims are not a new argument, but assertions that emerged from the Japanese right-wing, which opposes the Japanese government’s recognition of the forced deportation of comfort women by the Japanese military through the Kono Statement in 1993.
The Japanese right-wing argues that the comfort women were equivalent to the state-recognized licensed prostitutes under Japan’s licensed prostitution system. A licensed prostitute refers to a prostitute who signs a contract with a brothel owner and operates publicly. Such assertions – most famously made by Harvard Professor J. Mark Ramseyer in an article published earlier this year, which sparked a huge backlash – had appeared in Japan after 1993 and began to spread in earnest through a book called “Anti-Japanese Tribalism,” published in 2019 in South Korea.
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But these claims are false. Under the system of licensed prostitution, it was essential for pimps and women to exchange contracts to protect the minimum rights of women. However, in the case of South Korean comfort women, there is no evidence of such contracts. Even Ramseyer admitted that “I haven’t been able to find it.” Other evidence, however, directly refutes the idea that the comfort women operated in the same way as Japan’s licensed prostitutes. “Without any documents, they buy the daughters of poor peasants like human trafficking, make them work, and throw them away like slaves. In this way, there was no hope of gaining freedom until death,” a Japanese military surgeon wrote in his war diary (published in 1983). The testimony from this Japanese military doctor strongly supports the assertion that the comfort women were sex slaves. The same surgeon also describes a scene where a deceived woman was forcibly turned into a comfort woman.
I have compiled and published the tragic testimonies of these Korean comfort women, recounted by former Japanese soldiers, with translations in both Korean and Japanese. Based on these accounts, most comfort women were taken to the battlefield after being deceived into thinking they would be earning salaries working in restaurants for the military or assisting nurses at military hospitals. Japanese soldiers also recorded the testimonies of women who escaped and were killed.
In early 1938, the Japanese government’s Ministry of Home Affairs selected recruiters secretly and issued an official document instructing them to recruit women and move women to the brothels abroad. The recruiters ran these brothels, which were euphemistically named “comfort centers.” This is clear evidence that the Japanese government and the Japanese military managed the military brothels as well as the brothel recruiters. A number of other official documents have been found indicating that the Japanese government and the Japanese military decided to set up the military brothels and operate them together.
The Japanese were harsher on women in the occupied territories. After expelling the Dutch army and occupying Indonesia, Japanese forces took more than 60 Dutch women who had been captured and turned them into sex slaves. The mastermind was sentenced to death by a local military tribunal after the war. Many of these official records remain.
In China and the Philippines, as well, women were forced into sexual servitude. A Japanese military doctor reported that the Japanese military, which had occupied a village in China, ordered the village chief to take women and make them sex slaves. The comfort women regulation of one Japanese military unit (issued in 1940) says that one comfort woman was assigned for every 100 soldiers. One comfort woman would sexually service 70-80 soldiers on holidays or the day before a planned battle. Women were not given the right to refuse. This regulation also stipulated that the comfort women were not allowed to travel farther than 200 meters in all directions. These official documents clearly show that the “comfort women” of the Japanese military were, in fact, not free to either leave or refuse sex work. They were sexual slaves.
Under the 2015 comfort women agreement, Japan paid 1 billion yen to the comfort women victims. But it ignored more important responsibilities, such as educating young people or taking measures to prevent secondary harm to victims. On the contrary, the Japanese government has taken the lead in the secondary persecution of the victims. Although Japan is a developed country, it does not have a National Human Rights Commission, much less a system in place to listen to the voices of the victims of Japanese imperialism and provide redress.
Even if there is a state-to-state agreement in place, the individual right to claim restitution cannot be extinguished. Claims of Japanese privilege simply seek to avoid fundamental responsibility for human rights issues established by historical facts.
Yuji Hosaka is an emeritus professor of political science at Sejong University.

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