No comfort for the women (Part 2 of 2)


For 50 years, Jan Huff O'Herne clung on to a secret she could not tell her family because she was too ashamed

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Because of the trauma her body had gone through, O’Herne suffered four miscarriages and had to have a major operation before she could bring a baby to term.

O’Herne was the mother of two daughters and in a loving marriage, when she was asked to be a witness at an international hearing on Japanese war crimes. It was in that same year, 1992, when Korean "comfort women" came forth and demanded an apology and compensation from the Japanese government.

Watching them on television, O’Herne felt compelled to speak out and support them. The problem was that it meant her daughters would find out about her shameful past. It was then that O’Herne chose to write the letter to her daughter, Eileen.

After the hearing, O’Herne intended to return to anonymity in Australia, but she soon realised that testifying meant that the humiliation she had found so difficult to verbalise would have been exposed in the media. Deeply ashamed, she wondered how she would face the people she knew. When she walked to church for mass, they were waiting for her.

On the seat where she always sat, they had lain flowers. They put their arms around her and said, "Welcome home" and "Well done".

Encouraged, O’Herne decided she was going to speak out for the protection of women at war, and she has been doing that since then.

Following O’Herne’s testimony, the US Congress will be voting on a non-binding resolution, calling on Japan to "formally acknowledge, apologise, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces' coercion of young women into sexual slavery, and have this official apology given as a public statement presented by the Prime Minister of Japan in his official capacity".

Finally last September, lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, agreed to bring to vote that resolution—after it was shelved twice, in 2001 and 2005—because of politics. There is a strong pro-Japan lobby in Washington that includes former House Majority Leader, Bob Michel, who is currently senior advisor at Hogan & Hartson, the largest Washington D.C.-based law firm. Hogan & Hartson is paid US$60,000 to protect Japanese interests, something it's done for the past forty years.

Much of this has to do with America’s desire to use Japan as a buffer against China’s growing might, says Mindy Kotler, director of Asia Policy Point, a research

centre on northeast Asia, in an interview with Harper’s Magazine.

"Any issue that the Japanese have defined as disturbing has been shunted aside to ensure that nothing upsets the alliance with Japan," Kotler says.

Tokyo's reaction to all this has been, to say the least, muddled.

First, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared in early March that there was "no evidence of coercion" of the "comfort women"— a complete turnabout from a 1993 statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, who admitted women were "recruited against their will, through coaxing, coercion" and "administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments".

The prime minister's words incensed China and South Korea, already riled up by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi's continued visits to the Yasukuni Shrine where Japan's war dead, including war criminals, are being honoured.

After Abe’s denial, conservative members of his Liberal Democratic Party announced new investigations into the issue of "comfort women" were to be launched.

The cabinet's eventual conclusion? "No evidence of coercion." This was a view shared by a significant number of Japanese scholars who maintain that the women were paid prostitutes.

But a week after the release of such finding, Abe changed his mind.

"I apologise here and now as prime minister," he said on the subject of "comfort women".

Six months into his premiership, Abe is a man with his eyes set firmly on July's elections and on the latest polls showing his popularity sliding to under 40%. His initial denial of the coercion involving the "comfort women" was intended to align him with the right-wingers in the dominant LDP, whose support he needs to continue in office.

Yet the pragmatic politician in him would have realised how his stance on the “comfort women” could easily lose Japan its moral high ground on the international front, particularly in the six-party talks over North Korea.

Indeed, just two days before Abe’s public apology, The Washington Post made this scathing criticism:

"That the Japanese government has never fully accepted responsibility for their suffering or paid compensation is bad enough; that Abe would retreat from previous statements is a disgrace for a leader of a major democracy."

And as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits Japan in April to improve bilateral ties, former LDP Vice President Taku Yamazaki makes this revelatory observation of Abe who—as Japan's first prime minister to be born after the second world war—is "simply unable to understand the horror of war and how valuable peace is".

All this Japanese flip-flopping will mean little to the estimated 200,000 women who served the Japanese as sex slaves during the war (according to Amnesty International, 2005).

A Japanese fund of donations from private individuals despatched about US$10 million in medical and welfare services for the "comfort women". Two hundred and eighty-five of them received close to US$20,000 each.

Yet critics like O'Herne have refused to accept anything from the fund, calling it an insult. They want compensation from the Japanese government, not private enterprise.

In any case, this fund was shut when its mandate expired this March, and the onus of reparations is once again back on the government.

All in all, the majority of the "comfort women" will receive nothing more than an apology, if any, for their sufferings.

Taiwan's Women's Rescue Foundation estimates that up to 2,000 Taiwanese women were forced to become "comfort women" but so far only 45 have stepped forward. The head of the organisation says shame has led those once enslaved to commit suicide or keep the truth from their family or relatives.

78-year-old Filipina Virginia Villarma's husband walked out on her and their five children, when he found out that she was raped by as many as 40 men a day while she served as a "comfort woman" at the age of 14.

In 2001, in a letter to the "comfort women", Abe’s predecessor, Koizumi, wrote: "I pray from the bottom of my heart that each of you will find peace for the rest of your lives."

It may be up to the successor he groomed to help bring about that peace. The "comfort women" want a clear and public acknowledgement by Japan that its military had forced women into prostitution, but they won’t be waiting around much longer for Abe to make that happen.

As O'Herne points out, "After 60 years many of us are already dead."



*Every Wednesday at noon for the last 15 years, former "comfort women" wait in front of Seoul's Japanese embassy, demanding for an apology. Their determination will only defeated by their mortality.



The case for having "comfort women"

According to the Japanese government's study on "comfort women" the so-called "comfort stations" were established to:

1. "prevent anti-Japanese sentiments from fermenting as a result of rapes and other unlawful acts by Japanese miitary personnel against local residents"

2. "prevent loss of troop strength due to venereal and other diseases", and

3. "prevent espionage", presumably since the women were guarded at all times.

Along with locals, Japanese women were also made to serve as "comfort women".



Blind man's bluff
Apology for a rape


Download full story here.


First Published: 
April 2007


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