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[Herald Interview] Seeking justice for sex slavery victims

The following is the 10th in a series of articles on Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Asian women on the occasion of the 61st anniversary of the foundation of The Korea Herald on Aug. 15. ― Ed.


In 2007, U.S. lawmaker Mike Honda set a milestone in the issue of Japan’s sexual enslavement of Asian women during World War II by spearheading the adoption of a resolution at the House of Representatives calling for Tokyo’s apology.

The resolution played a key role in boosting awareness in the international community and shedding new light on the victims’ harrowing past as a universal subject of human rights. 

Seven years on, though the number of survivors has dwindled and Japan’s position has backtracked, his message for its leaders remains simple and unchanged: Apologize.

“I only care about bringing peace and justice to the survivors. Their courage and stand for truth and reconciliation propels me forward in this issue,” Honda said in an email interview with The Korea Herald.

“This isn’t a Japanese issue, or a women’s issue; this is a human rights issue.”

For Honda, whose past career includes a science teacher and school principal, the prime driving force behind his cause was Japan’s attempt to omit or undercut the tragedy of the so-called comfort women in schoolbooks.

“As a teacher interested in historical reconciliation, I know the importance of teaching and talking about tragedy and injustice without flinching from the details,” he added.

The House Resolution 121 was modeled on one that passed California’s state legislature in 1999, which called on Congress to urge the Japanese government to issue an apology for the comfort women, the victims of the massacre in Nanking in 1937-38 by the Japanese Imperial Army, and civilian prisoners who were confined in camps and forced into slave labor during World War II.

Born in California in 1941, the Democrat of Japanese descent himself suffered from wartime atrocities and injustices. Less than a year after his birth, the West Coast was declared a military zone and more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to evacuate.

His family was incarcerated behind barbed wire at an internment camp in Colorado readied exclusively for those of Japanese ancestry. They returned to their hometown in 1953. 
Mike Honda, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, delivers a speech at a fund-raising event hosted by Korean-American groups in Los Angeles in January. (Yonhap)
Mike Honda, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, delivers a speech at a fund-raising event hosted by Korean-American groups in Los Angeles in January. (Yonhap)

“My parents raised me talking about the injustices of camp, how it was a violation of the Constitution, and how Japanese-Americans had been mistreated. I’ve since followed in their footsteps by advocating for social justice and publicly serving communities that do not have a voice,” Honda wrote on his official website.

Honda’s crusade for seeking justice for the sex slavery victims has been no easy task. Thanks to his dedicated efforts, he basked in the admiration of the Korean-American community, an influential voting bloc in California, but he also faced criticism that his efforts put a strain on the U.S.’ relations with its regional ally Japan.

In February, Honda sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, calling him to more actively seek justice for the victims.

The congressman also arranged a meeting in July between two visiting sex slavery survivors ― Lee Ok-sun, 87, and Kang Il-chul, 86 ― and officials from the White House and the State Department. The gathering would hopefully “put a face and personal story to this issue, as well as the broader topic of systematic violence against women,” he said.

“The U.S. also has a key role to play in resolving this issue, as it impacts the Asia-Pacific regional cooperation and trust,” Honda noted.

“As someone who deeply understands the role of an official government apology for past mistakes, the U.S. can set an example of a mature democracy and strongly urge the government of Japan to finally, thoughtfully and unequivocally address this issue.”

In recent years, civic groups chiefly consisting of Korean-Americans have been raising their own voices, leading to the erection of memorials across the U.S. dedicated to the sex slavery victims.

While praising the passion and drive by the grassroots communities, Honda stressed the significance of the monuments as a tool to teach the next generation that it is “up to each of us to uphold the human rights of our neighbors.”

The Korean-American community rallied behind Honda early this year, as speculation had mushroomed that his pursuit of an eighth term in Congress may be in jeopardy due to the rise of young lawyer Ro Khanna who has the blessing of high-tech magnets and Ivy League colleagues with enormous firepower.

A series of fundraising soirees ensued, in part with the help of Chinese-Americans enraged by Tokyo’s revisionist push. Data showed that Honda ultimately outraised Khanna as of the end of the second quarter, and finished first in the June primary with 48.2 percent of the vote. The two candidates will face off in the November general election.

“The community should continue to call for justice and reconciliation for these survivors; educate the future generation; and build broader coalitions with allies who are also fighting for human rights,” the lawmaker added.

“For as long as it is my privilege to serve in Congress, I will continue to fight to bring justice to the comfort women.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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