Speaking About Comfort Women Without Speaking About Them

Today I sat in on a senate hearing on the status of US alliances in Northeast Asia. The hearing was held by the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Yesterday’s snowfall has apparently had repercussions for the ability of senators to travel to the Hill because Senator Cardin, the Subcommittee Chair, was the only senator in attendance.

Several issues were covered including the relocation of 9,000 Marines from Okinawa, Japan to Guam and Hawaii, but most interesting to me was the discussion around what were cryptically labeled “sensitive historical issues” that are the subject of a diplomatic row between South Korea and Japan.

One such issue is the Japanese prime minister’s (PM) visit to the Yakasuni Shrine. Last year, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yakasuni Shrine where fallen Japanese WWII soldiers, including high officials convicted of war crimes, are interred. Korean and Chinese leaders, whose peoples generally view the Shrine as a symbol of Japan’s aggression toward them during WWII, were outraged by the visit. It is tradition for the Japanese PM to honor Japan’s war dead but visits to the controversial Shrine had been discontinued in recent years.

One other “sensitive historical issue” that wasn’t explicitly mentioned but that I think figures large in Northeast Asian affairs is Japan’s institutionalized use of Korean “comfort women” as enslaved prostitutes for Japanese military forces stationed close to the front lines in WWII. The issue of comfort women was repopularized in the US in 1996 when Nick Kristof wrote an article on a reparation fund for the Koreans forced into the comfort women system.

There have been a string of headlines in recent months about the comfort women system in Korea-Japan relations. The issue has even spread to Glendale, California, where a local resident with a Japanese-sounding name is suing the city to remove a statue honoring the memory of the comfort women. Japanese leaders maintain that Korea is focusing on the past to the detriment of the future, which seems to have been Senator Cardin’s attitude at today’s hearing.

This is why I’m more comfortable with human rights advocacy than with peacebuilding. Peacebuilding emphasizes the process of coming to terms with and moving past traumatic experiences so that groups in conflict can coexist without violence. It doesn’t discount justice processes per se, but if former oppressors are not interested in facing the music, then demands for justice can stand in the way of reconciliation. I prefer to see abusers deal with the consequences of their actions. I’m not sympathetic to their desire that we all move on.


  1. […] a quick update on yesterday’s post about Northeast Asian relations: Polling finds that Kim Jong-Un, dictator of North Korea, has […]

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