International struggle for 'comfort women'

Dan Steinbock
If one simple statue in Manila can remind us about Japan's wartime sexual slavery, that will ultimately unite us all against forced silenceabout wartime sexual slavery.
Dan Steinbock

RECENTLY, a Manila statue commemorating Filipino “comfort women” has sparked a major controversy. Yet, history cannot be ignored, especially in the year 2018 which many promote as the “Year of the Woman.”

In early December, a memorial was erected along the Roxas Boulevard facing Manila Bay. It commemorates the Filipino “comfort women,” who were forced to work as sexual slave labor in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

Soon thereafter, a spokeswoman from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was “extremely regrettable” that “comfort women” statues, including the one in the Philippines, had been erected.

And yet, until recently, the extent of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery has been downplayed. The very notion of the “comfort women” is a euphemism for sex slaves and historical revisionism. In reality, the number of Japan’s wartime sex slaves is estimated at some 200,000 women. According to Chinese scholars in Shanghai, in which a “comfort station” was established in the Japanese concession already in 1932, the real number of “comfort women” may have been as high as 360,000-400,000.

Most women were from areas occupied by Imperial Japan, particularly China and Korea, but also the Philippines. There were also “comfort stations” in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, China’s Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, East Timor and other Japanese-occupied territories. Additionally, hundreds of women in the region were involved from the Netherlands and Australia.

The Philippines protest is a part of a broader regional debate. In December 2015, Japan agreed to pay US$8.3 million to a fund supporting surviving victims, while South Korea would refrain from criticizing Japan regarding the issue and to work to remove a memorial statue for the victims. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s deal was signed by conservative President Park Geun-hye who was later impeached for corruption.

Recently, Seoul has demanded more recognition for its victims. Similarly, in 2016 the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women demanded “an unequivocal official apology recognizing the full responsibility of the then-Japanese government and military, as well as adequate reparations.”

Dan Steinbock

Violation of human rights

Yet, last fall, a UNESCO committee deferred its decision on the listing of the “comfort women” archives on its Memory of the World Register, which preserves documentary heritages — after Japan resisted paying its UNESCO dues.

Thereafter, the UN human rights agency (OHCHR) called on Japan to acknowledge its violation of the human rights of “comfort women,” expressing also concerns regarding the Japanese government’s revisions of history textbooks. As these debates continue, the remaining “comfort women” are passing away, amid a painful struggle for recognition.

Unlike his predecessors as Prime Minister and the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, Prime Minister Abe has far-right views about history. He would like to restore the “honor” of his beloved grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, and the wartime generation. Yet, the conduct of the former and many of the latter cannot be condoned.

As Santayana once said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If one simple statue in Manila can remind us about Japan’s wartime sexual slavery, that will ultimately unite us all against forced silence about wartime sexual slavery.

Dr. Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognized strategist of the multipolar world. and the founder of Difference Group. He has served at the India, China and America Institute (USA) , the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see

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