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House Subcommittee Examines Abuses of Asian “Comfort Women”

On February 15, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment held a hearing on “Protecting the Rights of Comfort Women.” The hearing, which consisted of three panels, was held in conjunction with a resolution (H. Res. 121) that would urge the Japanese government to apologize for its military’s actions in forcing women from throughout Asia into sexual slavery.

In his opening remarks, Chair Eni Faleomavaega (D-AS) said, “I will say that in no way is this hearing meant to embarrass Japan. Like my colleagues, I appreciate that Japan is a close U.S. ally, and I have special love and affinity for the people of Japan and their leaders. But more sacred to me is our obligation to protect the human rights of those who were forced to be comfort women…Some may say the past is the past and that the U.S. is also an offender and violator of human rights. Maybe this is so. But nowhere in recorded history has the U.S. military as a matter of policy issued a directive allowing for the coercion of young women into sexual slavery or forced prostitution.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) noted that while he sympathizes with the victims of such forced sexual slavery and believes that it is fitting for the subcommittee to set the record straight on this period of Japanese history, he questioned the wisdom of adopting H. Res. 121. Rep. Rohrabacher contended that the Japanese government has done what the resolution requests and has offered several formal apologies for its role in subjecting young women and girls to military prostitution. “It is important to set the record straight for history, but we must be accurate about what actually took place,” Rep. Rohrabacher said.

Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA) was the only witness on the first panel. He testified that he introduced H. Res. 121 to call on “Japan to formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Force’s coercion of young women and girls into sexual slavery starting in the 1930s during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands. Euphemistically known as ‘Comfort Women,’ these violated women have too long been denied their dignity and honor.” He added that he looked to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, as a model for reconciliation. That bill “was a formal apology to U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry who were unjustly put into internment camps during World War II,” Rep. Honda said.

The second panel began with emotional testimony from three women who had been forced to serve as comfort women. Speaking through a translator, Yong-Soo Lee, representing the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, detailed how she was abducted from her home at the age of 16, beaten and raped by Japanese sailors aboard ships, then taken to a “comfort station” in Taiwan where she and other women served Japanese soldiers. “After my return, I could not dare think about getting married. How could I dream of marriage?…My parents and brothers did not know what I had been through; I could not tell them,” Ms. Lee testified.

Jan Ruff O’Herne, also a surviving comfort woman, represented the Friends of Comfort Women in Australia. Ms. O’Herne described how she was separated from her mother and sisters at the age of 19 and taken to a brothel to provide sexual services for Japanese military officers. During her time in the brothel, she was severely beaten and repeatedly raped. “I have forgiven the Japanese for what they did to me, but I can never forget. For 50 years, the ‘Comfort Women’ maintained silence; they lived with a terrible shame, of feeling soiled and dirty. It has taken 50 years for these women’s ruined lives to become a human rights issue,” Ms. O’Herne said.

Through a translator, Koon Ja Kim, representing the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, told the subcommittee how she was abducted from her foster home, taken to China, and forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers. Ms. Kim explained that for three years, she and other women like her were threatened, beaten, and sexually abused. “If we fought or resisted the rapes, we would be punished, beaten or stabbed by Japanese soldiers…It was common for girls to become pregnant and to contract sexually transmitted diseases. But if a girl became pregnant, she was forced to have an abortion.”

A lively exchange took place after the panelists finished their testimony. Ms. Lee challenged Rep. Rohrabacher’s earlier assertion that the Japanese government already had apologized to the victims. She also wondered why Rep. Rohrabacher, who had left the hearing, had received an apology from the Japanese government (a copy of a letter from former Prime Minister Junichro Koizumi) when she, a surviving comfort woman, had not received anything. “It’s strange to me that the victims have not received an apology,” she said.

When questioned by Del. Faleomavaega about what the victims want from the Japanese government, Ms. O’Herne responded by saying, “A real apology is followed by action, action that takes responsibility and owns up to its atrocities.” Ms. Lee added, “If you leave the Japanese government alone, violence against women in war will continue.”

The final panel sought to clarify why the apology issued by former Japanese prime ministers was insufficient and to explain why many surviving comfort women refused to accept compensation from the Asian Women’s Fund. Mindy Kotler, director of Asia Policy Point, stated that the “letters of apology to the Comfort Women by Japanese Prime Ministers (Hashimoto, Obuchi, Mori and Koizumi) do not constitute a government apology. The prime minister is not doing this with the approval of his Cabinet, thus these letters are only his personal views…The letters also only accompany the disbursement of funds to those women who are willing to accept Japan’s atonement money. They have also not been included in the ‘atonement’ settlement with the Dutch or sent to any Indonesian survivors,” Ms. Kotler explained.

Ok Cha Soh, president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, testified in detail about the Asian Women’s Fund, which was established in 1995 to compensate comfort women. Dr. Soh stated, “The private fund plan explicitly rejected Japanese government responsibility for the system of military brothels…The majority of surviving comfort women, especially in Korea, refused to accept the funds. There are several reasons for this. The South Korean government and other governments at last began providing old age pensions and medical help to many survivors…equally important, without a minimally acceptable official apology from the Japanese government, many comfort women regard the Japanese money as a thinly veiled insult a perception that was reinforced by public comments from Japanese officials.”

When asked by Chair Faleomavaega why more survivors had not accepted funds from the Asian Women’s Fund and what Congress could do to help more women gain access to the money, Ms. O’Herne responded that “we have too much pride to accept the funds. I will only take money from the government, not from a private fund. It is an insult.” Ms. Lee added through her translator that the Fund uses the term “comfort women” to describe the victims. She added that the term is an insult because it implies that the women volunteered to provide comfort to Japanese soldiers, but the truth is that they were taken by force. “The Fund has given us a dirty name, ‘comfort women.’”

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