The Korean film “Spirits’ Homecoming”, which tells the story of young girls who were dragged off to be “Comfort Women” – a euphemism for sexual slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army – has become a hit at the box office after its release last month. The movie was crowdfunded by Korean citizens and was produced over a period of 14 years. Having premiered in Japan, it is on its way to screening in America, Canada, and England. The movie has renewed efforts to secure justice for the women who were forced into sexual slavery – especially as some of them are still alive.
The Japanese government stooped to various extremes to coerce women into meeting the sexual desires of Japanese soldiers, before and during the Second World War. Sometimes they framed requisitions, or else they resorted to human trafficking, kidnapping and bribing. The Japanese government acquired these young women mainly from Korea, but also China, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and other occupied territories. A few even came from America and the Netherlands.
Supposedly, only women over 18 were supposed to be taken, but the reality is that some of the girls that soldiers had freedom to abuse were just 12. By 1945, it seemed clear that the Japanese were going to lose the war, prompting the Japanese Army to slaughter most of the women by the government’s command.
200,000 Comfort Women were Korean. The government has registered only 236 who survived. 44 of those women are still alive.
These victims have been putting pressure on the government for several reasons. They are demanding that the Japanese government sincerely apologizes and admits that the survivors were once enslaved, as well as putting more effort on teaching the true turn of events to its citizens in the long term. However, except for a few Japanese cabinet members, the Japanese government itself does not acknowledge that the survivors were victims. Lawsuits from Korean, Taiwanese and Philippine survivors followed after the official announcement, denying that comfort women existed. When countries such as the US, Netherlands, and Canada put their name to a resolution demanding Japan’s official apology and compensation through the UN, this became an international human rights issue.
Especially to Korea, the history of comfort women is a disgrace, and a cause for lasting resentment against Japan. In examining the diplomatic conflict between Korea and Japan, the issue of comfort women issue is the most sensitive, even more so than the ongoing territory fight over the Dokdo·Ulleungdo Islands and Japan’s distortion of Korean history.
The Abe government apologized to the Korean government on the comfort women issue two years ago. The attempts at reconciliation sunk after Koreans were outraged by two incidents occurring the very next day. First, the prime minister’s wife, Mrs. Akie Abe, uploaded a picture of herself on social media worshipping at Yasukuni Shrine – which is said to enshrine imperial Japanese war criminals. Then Japanese politicians handed an official written statement, repudiating Japan’s responsibility for comfort women, to the UN.
Countless people have asked the Abe government for an apology. One of the Korean survivors flew to America and waited at the gate of Harvard’s Kennedy School with a hundred Harvard students after she heard Abe was visiting the school for a lecture. She failed to meet him and demand an apology, though, for he left through the back door. Incidents like these are not isolated and the relationship has never healed.
After the film ‘Spirits’ Homecoming’ was released, however, Japanese audiences displayed an unprecedented reaction. Most Japanese paid respects to the surviving victims and expressed their regret. What Koreans do not take into account is that the majority of ordinary Japanese only gain superficial knowledge of history after the Meiji Restoration. For example, there is only one line about the Japanese colonial exploitation of Korea in some school textbooks, which means Japanese fail to grasp the gravity of the content. The few Japanese who understand the atrocities are doing their part. The number of Japanese organisations campaigning for the survived comfort women increased after the movie was released. But those who are uninformed can easily be hostile towards Koreans, not understanding why it is such a sensitive topic.
Despite international pressure to make education reforms, the books still are accused of historic distortion by the majority of Koreans. No Japanese learns as much about imperial exploitation as a Korean. This indirectly encourages the Japanese to be less opinionated not only on history but also the affairs of their government.
It is imperative that the governments and citizens strive to improve the relationship between the two nations, not only because their cooperation could bring about new levels of economic development, but also because their peaceful relationship would set the tone for peace in Asia. To achieve this, solving historical issues should be the first priority. Conversation based upon different knowledge from both sides will never find a conclusion.
The first step towards a peaceful relationship is to uphold the dignity of the women involved by making a formal apology. No one wants disputes, arguments, or lawsuits anymore. It is time to pump out the water of the past that has been stagnant for so long.