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The Clock Is Ticking: 68 Years of Denial

Japan’s 68-year refusal to recognize, compensate WWII sex slaves remains a stain as victims pass.

August 15 holds a special place in the memory of many people. This year’s anniversary marked the 68th year since the historic V-J (Victory over Japan) Day for some and Independence Day for others. But it also marked 68 years of suffering for a group of women who, now in their late 70s or early 80s, continuously seek compensation and apology from Japan.

From 1932 to 1945, as many as 200,000 women were “recruited” from Korea, China, Indonesia and other parts of Asia (including Japan) to “comfort” Japanese soldiers as sex slaves. Koreans, whose country was colonized by Japan, were easily targeted, making up 51.8 percent of the victims. Thirty-six percent were from China.

This issue of the so-called “comfort women” – a debatable term, according to some activists – is a hot topic largely in Asia and within international human rights communities. In July 2013, however, it aroused the city of Glendale in southern California, when the city officials decided to install the “Peace Monument.”

When the news of the bronze monument of a teenaged girl wearing Korean traditional hanbok got around, the response was quick. Many Japanese-Americans protested this installation, sending emails against the “phony propaganda” and taking to the streets of the city that praised prostitution. Such furious outcry mirrored how Japanese hardliners reacted when the first Peace Monument was installed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea.

Of course, not all Japanese or Japanese Americans share the same opinion. In 2007, California’s Rep. Mike Honda drafted a resolution that got unanimous support from his peers asking the Japanese government to apologize and acknowledge a part of its history. Kathy Masaoka, cochair of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, is another Japanese American who sides with Rep. Honda. In mainland Japan, much beloved anime producer Miyazaki Hayao also has openly expressed his concern with the issue.

Nonetheless, backed by its nationalistic citizens, the Japanese government denies any related charges. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo also insisted no documents proved that these women were trafficked, reversing previous official statements from the government that acknowledged the issue, but failed to procure compensation. (Korean victims do not recognize the Asia Women’s Fund, a volunteer-led fundraiser, as government-issued compensation.)

Twenty years of weekly protests by the “comfort women” and their supporters and the United Nations’ recommendation did little to change such attitudes.

But the issue means more than strained international relations among some Asian countries or a group of people dwelling in the past. This is a serious war crime that has remained unresolved for almost 70 years, for which everyone as a global citizen should feel a sense of guilt and take responsibility. However it is defined – a systematized mass rape or a forced prostitution, the case of “comfort women” must be resolved to stop present-day “comfort women” from suffering in war zones such as Sudan and Congo.

A 2010 study on “elderly German women who experienced wartime rapes” found an unsurprising result of posttraumatic stress leaving a lasting impact on victims’ lives. The writers conclude, “as far as World War II trauma is concerned, there is an urgent need for treatment programs” for the elderly generation. But how much can the treatments heal when the actual event remains largely unacknowledged, haunting the survivors to this day?

Many of these women have deceased. The few remaining ones are growing old. The clock is ticking for these women. But so it is, for everyone else.

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