Comfort Women

Japan's Unpaid Reparations

Japanese War Crimes Trials. Manila
Comfort Women : Japan's Unpaid Reparations - Jeeyoung Choi


During World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army raped and tortured an estimated 200,000 women, mostly Korean and Chinese. Half a century later, documents were discovered within Japan’s Defense Agency (now called the Ministry of Defense) proving that state officials sanctioned underground brothels. To this day, the Japanese government refuses to directly acknowledge and apologize for its actions. The purpose of this paper is to argue that the Japanese government must admit to its past war crimes. The reasons are threefold: victims deserve an official apology; an admission of guilt would lessen Japanese tensions with its Asian neighbors; and it would reinforce the universal intolerance for war crimes as seen in the military tribunals of Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Nazi Germany.


On October 17, 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan made his fifth visit to the Yasukuni Shrine to honor those soldiers who died while serving the Emperor of Japan during the Meiji Restoration. Seoul called the visit “most regrettable,” and cancelled the annual “shuttle summit” scheduled later in the year and thereafter, until the Yasukuni visits ceased.[2] Even though Koizumi called his visit a private affair, officials of the People’s Republic of China responded by cancelling Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura’s scheduled visit in protest.[3] The Yasukuni Shrine is controversial because among those enshrined are fourteen Class A war criminals honored as “Martyrs of Showa.”[4] For North and South Korea, China, and most of Asia, the shrine represents Japan’s refusal to completely acknowledge its aggressive military past. When Japanese politicians visit the shrine, it is viewed as a direct offense to the Asian community.

Another similar controversy arose in the 1980s surrounding Japanese history textbooks and their depiction of Japan’s colonial behavior. The first serious Japanese textbook controversy between China and Japan took place in 1982, when the Chinese government accused the Japanese Ministry of Education of falsifying the history of Japanese militarists’ aggression against China by changing the word “aggression” to “advancement.” The second round of controversy occurred in 1986. The Chinese accused the New History Textbook of portraying Japan’s former imperialism and the war as a force to help free Asian countries from colonial rule. According to China’s Renmin Ribao, or People’s Daily, newspaper, the textbook “shamelessly justifies Japan’s invasion of Southeast Asia by saying that ‘victories over the Western powers there allowed countries in the region to achieve postwar independence.’”[5]South Korea protested in a more varied and extreme way. According to The Korea Herald, a Korean band performing at a rock festival at Mount Fuji in Japan tore the imperial Japanese flag in protest against the textbooks, to the cheers of the Japanese audience.[6] Korean citizens burned Japanese flags and businesses ran anti-Japanese advertisements.[7] The main issue is not about a shrine or a textbook, but Asian resentment towards the Japanese government’s pattern of denial of its aggressive military past, including the rapes of approximately 200,000 women, mostly from Korea and China. Until an official admittance of past war crimes is made by the government of Japan, its relationship with its Pacific neighbors will continue to be strained.

The comfort women issue, which began with calls for the Japanese government to apologize and make reparations to the surviving victims, has evolved into a problem that has greater implications for Japan. In this paper, I will argue that the government of Japan must admit to its past war crimes, particularly its state-sanctioned military brothels, and issue a formal apology to the victims and their families. This would lessen tensions in Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors, particularly South Korea and China. Furthermore, the Japanese government’s refusal to admit to its past atrocities has undermined the international community’s progress in condemning war crimes, including crimes against humanity following World War II. Through admittance of its past wrongdoings, the Japanese government has an opportunity to reinforce the universal intolerance against war crimes promoted in recent decades—for example, through the creation of the international military tribunals of Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Nazi Germany.

Comfort Women

In 1991 Japanese historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki unearthed a document entitled, “Regarding the Recruitment of Women for Military Brothels,” found in the archives of Japan’s Defense Agency. In this document were fifty-year-old detailed orders which set forth the setup of “facilities of comfort” and were made official with stamps from the Japanese high command.[8] This release of official proof initiated a movement beginning with South Korean protestors who were former comfort women. Kim Hak Soon was the first comfort woman ever to speak out, followed by more than 200 surviving Korean victims who came forward in the first year.

Since 1992, female Korean and Japanese leaders, former comfort women, and legal experts have persuaded international organizations, including the United Nations, to conduct a series of hearings and formal investigations into the matter. In her 1998 UN report on contemporary forms of slavery, Gay McDougall, UN Special Rapporteur and Executive Director of Global Rights, recommended that Japan pay state compensation to the individual comfort women and prosecute all those responsible for the comfort system who remain alive today.

‘Comfort woman’ is a euphemism for a female sexual slave to the Japanese Imperial Army before and during World War II. Young, unmarried Asian women were mobilized by the Japanese military to brothels in China and other Asian and Pacific countries to “comfort” Japanese soldiers. The majority of these women were taken from Korea, Japan’s colony at the time. Chinese and Dutch women in today’s Indonesia were also victims. An estimated 200,000 women were victimized by the Japanese soldiers.[9]

The experiences that comfort women went through are unimaginable. From the perspective of a single victim, a comfort woman was raped an average of ten times a day, five days a week.[10]Jan Ruff O’Herne was one such woman who was taken into comfort stations and systematically beaten and raped each day. She recalled that “even the Japanese doctor raped me each time he visited the brothel to examine us for venereal disease. And to humiliate us even more, the doors and windows were left open so that the Japanese could watch us being examined, and this was as horrific as being raped.”[11]

Ms. O’Herne was inspired to speak on behalf of European women. “I realized there was no reason to be ashamed anymore,” she told Amnesty International. O’Herne recalled her reaction to the first Korean women to break the silence on television, and said that “if other women, also European women spoke out, maybe the world would pay even more attention.”[12] According to O’Herne, the hardest part was telling her grandchildren: “I was so ashamed of what happened to me that I couldn’t tell my daughter to her face. I wrote it all down and asked her to read it. After I spoke out I collected a box full of letters from people all around the world. Now I’ve been speaking out for twelve years.”[13] Ms. O’Herne has since published her autobiography, Fifty Years of Silence, translated into Japanese and Indonesian.

While Ms. O’Herne’s testimony is significant, South Korea’s Korean Council continues to lead the movement. The Korean Council initiated weekly Wednesday demonstrations in front of the Japanese Embassy on January 8, 1992. On February 13, 2008, it held its 800th demonstration. During this particular showing, held on a cold Wednesday, Kuno Ayako, a member of a Japanese civil organization, said that the Japanese government should be ashamed for its failure to apologize. She turned her body toward the Japanese Embassy and shouted, “Apologize!”[14] According to the Korean Council’s mission statement, “the efforts of the Korean Council are to seek justice in Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and to prevent the reemergence of militarism so that Japan will be the cornerstone in building the peaceful future of Asia and the world.”[15]

Japanese Government’s Response

The government of Japan has undermined the efforts to hold individual criminals accountable for war crimes by refusing to officially admit to its own direct involvement in the victimization of a quarter-million women. It is important to note that the abuses endured by the Japanese military’s comfort women would be categorized as crimes against humanity. Article 6(c) of The Charter of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East (IMTFE) defines crimes against humanity as “namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime with the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where it was perpetrated.”[16] A similar definition was later codified into Article 7 of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) statute definition of crimes against humanity. The importance of mentioning both Article 6(c) of the IMTFE charter and Article 7 of the ICC statute is to show that such defined “crimes against humanity” are considered gross violations of human rights, thereby appearing in different statutes of law.

In recent decades military tribunals have been established to punish aggressors who have committed war crimes, including crimes against humanity. Among them were the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and the International Military Tribunal for Nazi Germany. The International Military Tribunal of the Far East, known as the Tokyo Trials, was also established at the same time as Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Trials. However, the results were strikingly different. While nineteen of twenty-four German war criminals were punished either by jail sentences or death, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito and all the members of the imperial family were not prosecuted for alleged involvement in any of the three categories of crimes: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Such outcomes of the Tokyo Trials are attributed to a lack of official evidence, which did not emerge until fifty years later, in 1991. Unlike in Japan, the war criminals of Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia were all held accountable for their war crimes.

Prior to the emergence of official documents proving the Japanese Imperial Army’s direct involvement in the creation of wartime brothels, public and media reports increasingly began to circulate about comfort women. In 1990, citizens of South Korea formed organizations with the objective of pressuring the Japanese government to officially acknowledge its responsibility. The Japanese government’s initial response was complete denial. It declared that all brothels were run by private contractors that were not associated with the Japanese government. One year later, evidence to the contrary was discovered by Yoshimi Yoshiaki and led to the famous “Kono apology.” In 1993 the Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yohei Kono, issued a statement recognizing comfort stations, acknowledging the Japanese military’s involvement in them, and apologized to those victims who suffered. He admitted that “comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day,”[17] and that “the then Japanese military was, directly and indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women,”[18] and that government studies have shown that in many cases comfort women were “recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc. […] and that, at times, administrative or military personnel directly took part in the recruitments.”[19]

While one might argue that Kono’s apology was sufficient, it was neither an official apology by the government of Japan nor a credible one that would require the Japanese government to directly compensate victims. Instead, the Asian Women’s Fund was privately created. The Japanese government made annual donations to it. Furthermore, the “Kono apology” has been denied and reaffirmed by succeeding Japanese prime ministers, fluctuating in response to domestic and international pressure. This has undermined its value over time. For example, in 2007 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied Kono’s assertion that women were forced into military brothels throughout Asia, stating, “The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion.”[20] Prior to this statement, a group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers discussed plans for a proposal to urge the government to dilute parts of Kono’s 1993 apology and deny direct military involvement.[21] Led by Nariaki Nakayama, the 120 lawmakers sought to play down the government’s involvement in the brothels by comparing it to a school that hires a company to run its cafeteria.[22] Abe’s statement also came hours after South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun marked a national holiday honoring the anniversary of the 1919 uprising against Japanese colonial rule with a statement that urged Tokyo to come clean about its past.[23] President Roh said that “no matter how hard the Japanese try to cover the whole sky with their hand, there is no way that the international community would condone the atrocities committed during Japanese colonial rule.”[24] Abe was eventually pressured to take back his statement.

In all cases—denial, apology, and rescinded apology—the Japanese government has consistently refuted legal responsibility. In her 1998 UN report on the Japanese government’s legal position regarding compensation, McDougall wrote that the Japanese government had made various apologies since the early 1990s, including one by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in July 1995 that specifically mentioned the Japanese military’s involvement in crimes against comfort women. However, the Japanese government denies legal liability for the creation and maintenance of the system of “comfort stations” and comfort women used during World War II.[25] This reaffirms that the Japanese government still owes an official apology, which would be validated through concrete action taken to show regret, including direct compensation to victims and acceptance of legal responsibility.

The government of Japan’s contributions to the Asian Women’s Fund are not considered state compensation to victims. This independently-run initiative was established in 1995 by Haruki Wada, who claimed that compensation, whether made formally or informally by the government, should be enough to put Japan’s war crimes in the past. It is not. The fund was run through private donations, with annual contributions from the Japanese government of 300 million yen (approximately $4.5 million) from the time of its creation until it was disbanded on March 31, 2007. Controversy about the fund was further exacerbated by a letter of apology signed by the Japanese prime minister and distributed to each victim by the Asian Women’s Fund rather than by diplomats. Activists in South Korea and Taiwan claimed that the letter was a personal one rather than an official one, and that the money available was from charity funds rather than state compensation.[26] Furthermore, the money from the Asian Women’s Fund has been used to support graduate students studying under Japanese professors, whose names appear as supporters of the fund.[27] Many of these professors view Yoshimi Yoshiaki and other scholars who spoke against the Japanese government as leftist traitors.[28]

The International Response

While the government of Japan still refuses to formally acknowledge its role in the military brothels, apologize, and compensate surviving victims, the international community has increased pressure to do so. The United States, the Netherlands, Canada and the European Parliament have spoken out since the mid-1990s. On December 3, 1996, the U.S. Department of Justice created a list of 19 Japanese war criminals who were prohibited from entering the United States. In April 1997, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale told the press that Japan needed to issue a full apology for its war crimes.[29] Through the spring of 1997, legislators worked with human rights activists to draft a bill that would condemn Japan for the mistreatment of American and other prisoners during World War II and demand an official apology and compensation for its wartime victims.[30]

The greatest headway was made in July 2007 when the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution 121, sponsored by Congressman Mike Honda, a Democrat from California. The resolution denounced the Japanese military’s enslavement of Asian and Pacific Island women during World War II. It expressed the sense of the House of Representatives that the Japanese government should apologize and accept historical responsibility for its actions. In 1999, Honda had also introduced California State Assembly Joint Resolution 27, which called on Congress to urge the Japanese government to issue an apology to the victims of the rapes of Nanking, comfort women, and prisoners of war who were used as slave laborers. Honda made his intention clear that his goal was to reach historical reconciliation in order to be able to move forward.

The Japanese government reacted negatively to U.S. House Resolution 121. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the House resolution on sexual slavery “regrettable,”[31] and when asked whether he would comply with the resolution’s demand for an apology, he said, “The twentieth century was an era in which human rights were violated. I would like to make the twenty-first century into an era with no human rights violations.”[32] The Japanese government’s reaction is also confirmed on the Embassy of Japan’s Web site in the United States, which states that “draft House Resolution (H.Res.121) is erroneous in terms of the facts. Its adoption would be harmful to the friendship between the U.S. and Japan.”[33]

Following the U.S. House of Representatives’ unanimous approval, Amnesty International organized a comfort women’s speaking tour in Europe during the first two weeks of November 2007. The tour included a trip to The Hague, Brussels, Berlin and London to urge the European Parliament and Council of Europe to take a similar stand to the U.S. against the Japanese government. On December 13, 2007, the European Parliament adopted Resolution B60525/2007, which passed with a clear majority. The resolution urged the government of Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical and legal responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Force’s coercion of young women into sexual slavery” and to “implement effective administrative mechanisms to provide reparations to all surviving victims of the comfort women system and the families of deceased victims.”[34]

The lower house of the Dutch Parliament also joined the movement, unanimously passing a motion on November 20, 2007, urging the government of Japan to financially compensate the women forced into sex slavery during World War II. “This should send a strong and clear signal to the Japanese government and the Japanese people, that so many years after World War II, people in the Netherlands still want the Japanese to recognize the war crimes of the past and to recognize the victims,” said Hans van Baalen, who tabled the motion in the Foreign Affairs Committee.[35] “It is a matter still taken seriously in the Netherlands,” he said.[36]

Canada’s lower house also unanimously approved a draft motion on November 28, 2007 that urged the Japanese government to make a “formal and sincere apology” to women who were forced by the Japanese military to provide sex for soldiers during World War II.”[37] The motion called on the Japanese government to “take full responsibility for the involvement of the Japanese Imperial Forces in the system of forced prostitution, including through a formal and sincere apology expressed in the Diet to all those who were victims; and to continue to address with those affected in a spirit of reconciliation.”[38]


Increased international pressure on the Japanese government is the greatest achievement for the comfort women’s movement thus far. However, the Japanese government continues to avoid responsibility for the rapes of 200,000 comfort women by withholding a state apology and state compensation. War rape is not a new occurrence. There were more than 100,000 rapes in Berlin alone following World War II, and it was a pervasive and popular occurrence during the Holocaust.[39] In the Jewish ghettos, nightly checks were carried out by Nazi officers during which vulnerable women and girls were habitually raped by their captors.[40] Similarly, the Japanese Imperial Army is guilty of gross war rapes that were even state-approved through the establishment of comfort houses specifically for raping women. The difference is that Nazi Germany paid for its war crimes through its International Military Tribunal following World War II, but the Japanese government did not. Lack of evidence and testimony, which did not emerge until fifty years later, led to the immunity of the Japanese Imperial Army during its Tokyo Trials. Following recent emergence of proof, the Japanese government’s continued denial has created negative repercussions in three areas.

First, the number of surviving comfort women is declining rapidly and few, if any, will die with a proper apology. Most of the women are in their eighties. The Korean Council demands acknowledgment that all the facts about military sexual slavery by Japan be recorded in Japanese history textbooks, that a memorial and a museum be built, and that those responsible for the crime be punished. Of the rightful demands, the primary objective is for the Japanese government to offer a proper apology followed by state compensation to victims for its unpaid crimes against humanity before and during World War II. A proper apology would consist of a public apology by the government of Japan, followed by direct state compensation to victims, with the amount of payment negotiated between victims and their families and the government. In a visit to Japan, Ms. O’Herne sat directly in front of a former soldier who admitted to raping women during World War II. The former sexual slave and the former war rapist were able to engage in a civil dialogue in which the soldier recalled comparing comfort women to a pack of cigarettes to consume, but said he now realized the wrong he did.[41] This is an illustration of reconciliation at the micro level, which demonstrates the way in which the Japanese government can also come to terms with its guilt.

Furthermore, the government of Japan’s denial of its past war crimes has strained relations with the two Koreas and China, and most recently created tensions with the United States and Europe. For the two Koreas and China, the wounds from Japanese war crimes committed during World War II are still fresh. The Japanese government’s failure to officially acknowledge and apologize for its treatment of comfort women has led to resentment that has also manifested itself in bitter debates about issues such as the visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and distortions of history in Japanese textbooks. To the credit of the Japanese government, sixteen out of eighteen high school textbooks refer to the comfort women issue, and all eighteen describe the suffering endured by people in neighboring countries during World War II and Japan’s responsibility in these matters.[42] Additionally, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese officials have been more discreet.

Finally, the Japanese denial of legal responsibility has undermined the role and importance of military tribunals, which were established to punish crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against peace. If the Japanese government can sidestep accountability for war crimes, then there is logically no real incentive for future war crime offenders to take these international declarations of intolerance seriously.

Surviving comfort women, who have overcome personal shame to speak out, continue to protest every Wednesday without fail. Ms. Jan Ruff O’Herne speaks for comfort women when she says, “I’m still hoping that something will happen because the women are getting old, and we deserve a proper apology.”[43]

It is now up to the Japanese government to close a shameful chapter of its colonial history and thus begin to restore human dignity, improve international relations, and uphold the universal intolerance for crimes against humanity.

Notes & References

  1. Norimitsu Onishi, “Call by U.S. House for Sex Slavery Apology Angers Japan‘s Leader,”The New York Times, August 1, 2007.
  2. James Card, “A Chronicle of Korea-Japan ‘Friendship,’” Asia Times Online, December 23, 2005,
  3. Compiled from AP, Kyodo, staff reports, “China Cancels Meeting with Machimura,” The Japanese Times Online, October 19, 2005,
  4. James Card, “A Chronicle of Korea-Japan ‘Friendship,’” Asia Times Online, December 23, 2005,
  5. Jian Yang, “Chinese Concerns,” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies Vol.2, No.3 (2001): 181.
  6. Soh-jung Yoo, “Korean Rock Band Tears Japanese Flag during Fuji Rock Festival,”Korea Herald, August 9, 2001
  7. Chang-sup Lee, “Business Has No Nationalism,” Korea Times, July 25, 2001
  8. Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 53.
  9. Karen Parker, “U.N. Speech on Comfort Women,” 51st Session of UN Commission on Human Rights
  10. Ibid.
  11. Testimony of Jan Ruff O’Herne to Amnesty International, Australia, June 2005.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. “The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan,” tbl=M081&mode=V&id=139&SN=0&SK=&SW=.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Article 6(c) of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East.
  17. “Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the result of the study on the issue of ‘comfort women,’” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, August 4, 1993, women/fund/state9308.html.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Hiroko Tabuchi, “Japan’s Abe: No Proof of WWII Sex Slaves,” The Washington Post, March 1, 2007,
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. “An Analysis of the Legal Liability of the Government of Japan for ‘Comfort Women Stations’ Established During the Second World War,” Report of the Special Rapporteur on Systematic Rape, UNHCR, June 22, 1998,
  26. Chris Hogg, “Japan’s Divisive ‘Comfort Women’ Fund,” BBC News, April 10, 2007,
  27. Ibid.
  28. Margaret Diane Stetz and Bonnie B. C. Oh, Legacies of the Comfort Women of World War II, (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001),150.
  29. “War Apology Due, Mondale Tells Japan,” The New York Times, April 10, 1997,
  30. U.S. House of Representatives, “Protecting the Human Rights of Comfort Women,” February 15, 2007, hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment
  31. Norimitsu Onishi, “Call by U.S. House for Sex Slavery Apology Angers Japan’s Leader,”The New York Times, August 1, 2007, 01japan.html?_r=1&oref=slogin.
  32. Ibid.
  33. “Comfort Women Issue,” Statement of the Embassy of Japan,
  34. Amnesty International, “European Parliament Adopts Resolution on Comfort Women,” Report, December 14, 2007,
  35. “Dutch parliament demands Japanese compensation for ‘comfort women,’” China View, November 21, 2007,
  36. Ibid.
  37. David Ljunggren, “Canada Urges Japan to Apologize to WWII Sex Slaves,” Japan Today News, November 28, 2007,
  38. Ibid.
  39. Kelly Dawn Askin, War Crimes Against Women: Prosecution in International War(Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1997), 184.
  40. Ibid., 202.
  41. Testimony of Jan Ruff O’Herne to Amnesty International, Australia, June 2005.
  42. “Comfort Women Issue,” Statement of the Embassy of Japan,
  43. Norimitsu Onishi, “Call by U.S. House for Sex Slavery Apology Angers Japan‘s Leader,”The New York Times, August 1, 2007.
JEEYOUNG CHOI is a graduate student at the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Previously, she earned a B.A. in Spanish language and literature from Georgetown University. Her areas of concentration are International Relations and International Law and Organization.