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[Editorial] A last chance

The new Japanese government is showing a subtle change in approach to its responsibility for the “comfort women” during World War II ― one of the most troubling issues between Japan and South Korea. If Tokyo has any sincerity, they should first consider the short time left to resolve the problem. The issue must be settled before all the victims pass away.

New debates started in Tokyo over remarks by Seiji Maehara, a former foreign minister and present chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s Policy Research Committee, about the creation of a new fund to compensate the “comfort women.” Maehara, who is advising Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba on diplomatic affairs to supplement their lack of experience, floated the idea during his meeting with Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan earlier this month.

Japanese conservatives have opposed state initiatives on the comfort women issue. They supported the official position that the Japanese government or military authorities were not responsible for the operation of the brothels for soldiers and the recruitment of women for them from occupied countries. Yomiuri and Sankei newspapers quoted comments that all kinds of claims related to the Japanese colonial rule of Korea had been settled in the 1965 diplomatic normalization treaty.

The conservatives particularly noted Maehara’s emphasis on the humanitarian perspective, which they interpreted as indicating possible government role in addressing the comfort women problem. He wanted to renew discussions on the issue “from the humanitarian point of view,” suggesting compensatory steps “in observance of the example of the Asian Women’s Fund.”

The Asian Women’s Fund was established in 1995, 50 years after the end of WWII, under the Socialist Party-led coalition government. At that time Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama clarified that the wartime sex slavery was perpetrated with the involvement of the Japanese military and said that the Asian Women’s Fund was an expression of atonement on the part of the Japanese people.

About 600 million yen was collected from private donors to be used for medical, welfare and other projects for the former comfort women. But the Korean government declined to accept it on the grounds that it did not include any direct Japanese government contribution. The fund was dissolved in 2007 after relief activities for Philippine, Taiwan and other Asian victims.

Japan has rather moved backward on the comfort women issue since then, showing no improvement from the position of “no government involvement” and “full settlement under the 1965 rapprochement treaty.” Ignored was the fact that the former comfort women had hidden themselves in shame and disgrace until they reached old age and summoned the courage to make the accusation of inhumanity in the 1990s with the help of human rights groups.

Now we wonder how far the new center-left DPJ government can go with a new approach on the historical problems to advance friendship with Korea and other Asian neighbors. It is still unclear what difference the “humanitarian perspective” of Maehara and his sympathizers will make in the coming days.

If Japanese government leaders are willing to be truly humanitarian, they should listen to the voices of the survivors here. They may continue to claim that no authentic official documents have been found to prove the involvement of the Japanese government and military in the comfort women affairs. But the 100 former comfort women now under the care of the House of Sharing are the living witnesses whose memories are more real and correct than any piece of paper.

Of the estimated 200,000 comfort women, 234 in Korea reported their experiences as wartime sex slaves by 2007; about two-thirds have died since. The survivors will eventually come to the end of their lives one by one. After some years, there will no longer be any who can testify to the inhumanity they faced. Japanese administrators and politicians may then feel finally relieved of the burden, but they should know that when all these women have died the last chance of their country to atone for the past and demonstrate its moral rebirth will have gone.