Impossible to forget: the grip of a former slave of the Japanese Imperial Army tightening around my left forearm as the voice attached to its fingers revealed a then 74 year-old woman repeating to me, "We came to tell the truth. We are telling the truth."
Now 88, Kim Bok-dong recently visited the Japanese embassy in Seoul to protest a new Japanese government report that casts doubt on the history she lived. "I am a witness of history," she declared, "as I was coerced into sexual servitude until the age of 21 after I was dragged at 14 (into brothels)."
For decades, historians have combed archives and interviewed victims and perpetrators alike to confirm the truth that she and others tell. She is one of 54 known South Korean survivors of the approximately 200,000 women, girls, and young men from throughout Japan's empire that brokers forced and coerced during the 1930s and 1940s into a state-sponsored system of sexual slavery. Girls as young as 12 lived in what organizers euphemistically named "comfort stations." The term gave impunity to the soldiers who lined up in front while erasing the horror that occurred within: the repeated rapes, torture, and forced abortions. Many survivors recall having to have sex up to forty times a day. Many recall Japanese soldiers jumping on their stomachs to push out near term fetuses.
The Japanese government has long acknowledged that this system existed. Yet now some -- most egregiously current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo -- would again play to a small minority by using these women to whip up jingoistic themes, denying the facts for personal gain. This view explains that there is no evidence of force or coercion; instead, the system's participants were prostitutes, even the 12 year olds.
On June 20, the Japanese government released a review of what is known as the "Kono Statement," a brief statement that then Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei made in 1993 about this history and which is Japan's first stab at apologizing for it:
Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day. The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.
With the Kono Statement most Japanese acknowledged this history, and the Japanese government maintains that even with the report it will not change the statement's words. Nonetheless, the review and its advocates shamelessly discredit victims by questioning their claims of being "'forcibly taken away,'" determining that such accounts "could not be confirmed."
At a time when regional tensions are already at an all time high over territorial disputes and Japan's ramped up military posture, the review also does irreparable harm from a security standpoint among allies of the United States by declaring the Japanese government had to "accept the... requests of the Government of Korea" in crafting the "Kono Statement."
Obscure to those outside the region, the report insinuates that Korea forced Japan to apologize for actions that Japan now claims cannot be substantiated, suggesting that the Korean government and victims made things up while apparently responsible Japanese officials continue to discover the "truth."
And yet this is exactly what Japanese officials such as Kono Yohei did 20 years ago, whose efforts the current government now trashes.
The review outraged the few surviving victims in Korea, China, the Philippines, Australia, and Indonesia, and stern editorials criticized its intentions. Washington warned Japan to uphold the initial apology, and eighteen congressional representatives delivered a formal protest to Japan's ambassador. Beijing condemned the act, and the South Korean parliament adopted a resolution against the review. Pope Francis invited the South Korean survivors to Mass on August 18 when he visits Seoul, and extremely rare criticism came from Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: "Unless you can put the Second World War behind you and not keep on reopening issues of comfort women, of aggression, of whether or not bad things were done during the war, I think that this is going to be a continuing sore."
Importantly, matters now go far beyond the Abe administration's demonstrated strategy of blaming the victim for the crime and semantic brinksmanship. Under Abe, Japan will select from international law at whim.
The Japanese government is aware of the United Nations' Security Council's October 2000 adoption of Resolution 1325 calling on member states to "take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict." A number of additional resolutions have appeared since, including Resolution 1820's labeling of sexual violence in wartime a "tool of war" and constitutive of war crimes and crimes against humanity. A week before the Japanese government's review of the "Kono Statement" called into question Japan's proven perpetration of just such crimes, the prime minister's brother, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Kishi Nobuo made remarks in London at Angelina Jolie's Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict that laid bare this Japanese administration's duplicity in understanding international responsibility: "Sexual violence in conflict is a war crime under the relevant international law... With this situation in mind, Japan has been focusing on strengthening the judicial systems of the countries involved in conflicts and on providing training and raising the awareness of the judicial personnel concerned."
There has been no public follow-up in the context of the Kono review.
Two things are needed for moving forward. First, in July 2012, Hillary Clinton directed her staff at the State Department to use the phrase "enforced sex slaves" when discussing this history, which prompted the Japanese government to explain that Mrs. Clinton used an "incorrect expression." She was right, however. We must scrap the term "comfort woman" to honor victims with the right words for their suffering: call a slave a slave.
Second, Washington is Japan's security guarantee in the region and must insist that Tokyo uphold the "Kono Statement." What Japanese officials did historically must not be validated through denial today. To do so discredits the country's present and future role as an international leader; it violates the majority view of Japanese people who acknowledge what happened; and most unforgivably it continues to deny the dignity of being believed to those who suffered as victims in this system. In urging Japan, the United States must also take responsibility for American histories of violence in the region; our failure only fosters willful revisionism. Together we must follow the "Kono Statement's" key lines:
We shall face squarely the historical facts... instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history.
The victims of the region's pasts see this clearly. As Mrs. Kim explained, "Japan must tell the truth over the issue as it is and make atonement if the country really wants to repent for its wrongdoings and promote world peace."