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Ending the ‘comfort women’ euphemism

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Published : 2012-07-11 20:24
Updated : 2012-07-11 20:39

What are the right words to describe Asian women who were forced into sex slavery for Japanese troops during World War II? Should they be called former “comfort women” as they have been so far, or be referred to as just “sex slaves?”

The terminology has become a new point of contention in the long-standing controversy over Japan’s wartime sex crimes, creating a subtle rift between Japan and its key ally the U.S.

It started Monday with a news report that U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton ordered the use of the term “enforced sex slaves” instead of the euphemism in her department. U.S. officials neither confirmed nor denied the report. 
Civil activists from Asian countries participate in a weekly rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Wednesday in support of women who were forced into sex slavery for Japanese soliders during World War II. (Yonhap News)

The next day, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told reporters that officials were verifying whether Clinton really did give the order to change the terminology.

“If that is confirmed, I will tell her that it is an incorrect expression and explain to her the steps that we have taken, including an apology by the prime minister and the creation of a fund to support women in Asia in order to help comfort women,” he said.

A separate news report suggested Wednesday that Japan has ordered its diplomats in the U.S. to step up efforts to block the planned construction of monuments there for the victims of Japan’s forced sex slavery by Korean-American groups.

The issue of the victims has been highly controversial, hindering diplomatic ties between Seoul and Tokyo for years. Korean groups claim that thousands of women from Korea, China and the Philippines were drafted to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. They demand a sincere official apology from the Japanese government.

Japan, however, claims it has done enough already.

They appear to fear that Clinton’s stance on the use of the term to describe the victims could be a sign that the U.S., which has so far avoided getting involved in the historical dispute, may side with Korea and other Asian countries on the issue.

The term “comfort women” is widely used in Korea, both by the government and the victims themselves.

“It is an established term in Korea and is also used in laws. But if victims and their supporters want it to be changed, we will consider it,” an official in Seoul said.

Kim Dong-hee, secretary general for a Seoul-based civic group Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sex Slavery by Japan, said that in Korean, the euphemism carries the connotation that they are the victims of forced sex slavery.

But, when translated into English, it seems to lose that meaning.

By Lee Sun-young  (milaya@heraldcorp.com)

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