On the eve of the 69th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, dozens of rights advocates yesterday demonstrated outside the Japanese representative office in Taipei, calling on Tokyo to formally apologize for forcing hundreds of thousands of women and girls to serve in military brothels during the war and to compensate them.

“The Japanese military forcibly recruited more than 1,000 Taiwanese women to serve as ‘comfort women’ in military brothels during World War II. Only five are still alive,” Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation executive director Kang Shu-hua (康淑華) told the crowd outside the Interchange Association, Japan’s Taipei office.

“They are over 90 years old and their physical condition does not allow them to be here. Therefore, it is our obligation and responsibility to continue the struggle to fight for their rights,” Kang said.

Taiwan Women’s Link chairwoman Huang Sue-ying (黃淑英) echoed Kang’s appeal.

“The sorrow and the pain in the minds of the former comfort women have become part of our emotions. We will never stop our action to demand justice from Japan,” Huang said.

A Japanese official surnamed Murata took a petition from the demonstrators, promising to forward it to the Japanese government, and provide a response within one month.

“Comfort women” refers to women from Taiwan, Korea, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere who were forced into military brothels to serve Japanese soldiers. The exact number of comfort women remains unknown, but most researchers agree that there were hundreds of thousands.

The foundation estimates that about 1,200 came from Taiwan.

Japan denies that the government or the Imperial Army forced women to work in brothels — with the latest investigation report, released in June, concluding that “it could not be confirmed that those women were forced into the service.”

However, in 1993, after hearing testimony from 16 South Korean women, Japan offered “sincere apologies and remorse” to the women, and vowed to face the historical facts squarely, in a statement released by then chief Cabinet secretary Yohei Kono.

The following year, Tokyo set up the privately funded Asian Women’s Fund to pay compensation to women in Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Netherlands, but many surviving comfort women refused to take the money because it did not come directly from the Japanese government.

“The comfort women issue is a global issue Japan should offer national-level apologies and compensations for the dignity of the former comfort women and their families,” Amnesty International Taiwan director Bo Tedards said.

Surviving comfort women and human rights groups in South Korea, the Philippines and several other nations also held rallies outside Japanese diplomatic posts yesterday.

There is an international campaign calling on the UN to make Aug. 14 a day to remember comfort women.