70 years later, a Korean ‘comfort woman’ demands apology from Japan


Seated on a sofa in an embroidered silk costume, Yong Soo Lee is a study in grim dignity. She is 86 now, and the story of her long-ago wartime ordeal emerges slowly and hesitantly at first. She speaks in an embarrassed murmur, constantly rubbing a rosary.

But as she continues, Lee’s gestures grow animated and angry, bearing mute witness to the violence and humiliation she endured for two years as a teenage captive at a Japanese military base. Her face grimaces and crumples. Her hands chop the air, grab her neck, clutch her stomach.

“At first the other girls tried to protect me because I was so young,” she says through an interpreter, beginning to weep. “I saw the soldiers on them, but the girls put a blanket over me and told me to pretend I was dead so nothing would happen to me. I didn’t know what they meant. I was only 14. I didn’t know anything then.”

Lee is one of 53 surviving “comfort women,” the euphemistic term used to describe tens of thousands of girls and women from Korea, China and other Asian countries who were forced into farm labor and sexual servitude for Japanese combat or occupation troops before and during World War II.

She traveled to Washington this week from South Korea to tell her story on the eve of a high-profile visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whom some Korean American groups accuse of backtracking on promises to apologize for the wartime abuses and of trying to whitewash the past to placate conservative nationalist groups at home.

Lee’s trip was arranged by the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, a group of activists who plan to stage protests when Abe arrives and have demanded that he make formal amends when he addresses Congress this coming Wednesday. Some scholars and politicians close to the Japanese premier have suggested that many comfort women were prostitutes rather than victims of an official military policy.

The issue has particular resonance in Washington because of the region’s large and successful Korean American community. Fairfax County is home to at least 42,000 Korean Americans, who have built churches and businesses and wield growing political influence there. Last May, a memorial to Korea’s comfort women was built next to the Fairfax County Government Center.

The creation of the memorial, following that of two others in California and New Jersey, provoked objections from some Japanese American residents and officials. But coalition leaders said their cause has attracted support from human rights groups in Japan, as well as from a Japanese American member of Congress, Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.), who has promoted a bill calling for an “unequivocal” apology.

“We don’t want to offend Japan or be aggressive. We just want this issue to be resolved peacefully and done with,” said Jungsil Lee, an art historian in Rockville who is the coalition’s president. “We do want Abe to acknowledge what happened and issue an official apology. Then we will be glad to dissolve our organization and move on.”

Masato Otaka, a spokesman for the Japanese Embassy, said his country’s government had bent over backward to make amends to the comfort women over the years, making statements of apology and remorse, paying “atonement money” to some victims through a special fund and sending individual letters to victims from a former prime minister.

“Japan has apologized over and over, on various occasions,” Otaka said Wednesday. “We have done our best, and I can’t think of anything better than sending personal letters to the victims, but South Koreans are still telling us we didn’t go far enough.”

For 47 years after the war ended and Yong Soo Lee was taken home, she told no one what had happened to her. She said she felt ashamed, afraid and isolated. She had no idea that her ordeal had been shared by thousands of other young women at dozens of military “comfort stations” throughout the Pacific. Unable to confide in her family, she remained single and childless for life.

But in 1991, when another comfort woman broke a half-century of silence, Lee realized that she had not been alone. She registered with the government and traveled to the base where she had been held, accompanied by Japanese historians. She was able to learn the fate of crucial individuals, including a Japanese military officer who took pity on her and was later killed in combat. And finally, she began to talk.

As Lee recounted Tuesday during an interview at the home of friends in Fairfax, her nightmare began one night in October 1943. Lee said she was asleep in her family’s farmhouse when she heard a neighbor calling and went outside. Soon she found herself with four other girls being marched off by Japanese soldiers, then forced on a series of journeys by train, truck and ship.

Her final destination was a coastal base for kamikaze pilots, where she learned by heart a pep song the pilots sang before heading off on suicide missions. Although reluctant to state explicitly that she was forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers, she recounted numerous other details of her time in captivity that made the circumstances painfully clear.

Soon after reaching the base, she said, she was told to go into a curtained cubicle and wait for a soldier, but at first refused. As punishment, she said, she was brutally beaten and tortured with electric shocks to her wrists. After that, she said, she obeyed.

“It never entered my mind to run away,” Lee said in Korean, as members of her host family interpreted. “I had no idea where I was or what was outside. I didn’t have a chance to talk with the other girls. My food was brought to me. I thought I was alone.”

Outside, the war in the Pacific was raging. Lee recalled hearing loud sounds of combat, sounds she said she still hears at night. At one point, the building where she lived was hit by U.S. bombs. Injured in the collapse, she bled heavily and thought she might die. Much later, she learned she had miscarried.

When Lee was finally rescued and sent home after the war, she was 17. But in many ways, her life did not begin again until the plight of the comfort women became known. In her late 60s, she threw herself into the campaign to expose the abuses and demand Japanese atonement. She testified before commissions and legislatures. She was taken to the Vatican to meet the pope. In the process, she said she found purpose in the life she thought had been thrown away.

“I lost myself for a long time,” Lee said. “I thought I was worthless. I didn’t talk about it, and nobody asked me. Until the women came out, I did not exist.”

Nearly two hours into her story, Lee’s diffident demeanor changed. She stopped rubbing her rosary beads. When she spoke again, it was with deep rage against her abusers, against her lost youth, even against the term that is commonly used to describe her.

“I never wanted to give comfort to those men,” she said with a glare of disgust. “That name was made up by Japan. I was taken from my home as a child. My right to be happy, to marry, to have a family, it was all taken from me.” She wiped her eyes once more, then straightened up on the sofa.

“I am a proper lady and a daughter of Korea,” Lee declared. “I don’t want to hate or hold a grudge, but I can never forgive what happened to me. I must stand up for myself and the others. Mr. Abe should act like a man and face the truth of the crimes that were done to us. I was robbed of my youth, and I want him to apologize before I die.”

By Pamela Constable, Washington Post


NY Times: Shinzo Abe and Japan’s History

The visit by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to the United States next week is important on several levels. He will be the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of Congress. He and President Obama are expected to announce progress on a key issue, increased defense cooperation, and possibly on a second, trade. They will also discuss a third challenge, China’s growing influence in Asia.

The context is also important: This year is the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, and to some extent the visit is intended as a celebration of the country’s remarkable postwar resurrection and its robust alliance with an old enemy, which has become a foundation of regional stability.

But the success of the visit also depends on whether and how honestly Mr. Abe confronts Japan’s wartime history, including its decision to wage war, its brutal occupation of China and Korea, its atrocities and its enslavement of thousands of women forced to work as sex slaves or “comfort women” in wartime brothels.

By now, that history should have been settled. That it is not settled is largely the fault of Mr. Abe and his right-wing political allies who keep questioning history and even trying to rewrite it, stoking regional tensions. Mr. Abe may have more to say on all this on Aug. 15, the actual date of the surrender. But his remarks to Congress will send an important signal.

Mr. Abe’s nationalist views and pressure from competing political forces have affected his judgment on these delicate issues. He has publicly expressed remorse for the war and said he will honor Japan’s past apologies for its aggression, including the sex slavery. Yet he has added vague qualifiers to his comments, creating suspicions that he doesn’t take the apologies seriously and will try to water them down.

His government has compounded the problem by trying to whitewash that history. This month, South Korea and China criticized efforts by Japan’s Education Ministry to force publishers of middle-school textbooks to recast descriptions of historical events — including the ownership of disputed islands and war crimes — to conform to the government’s official, less forthright analysis. And last year, the Abe government tried unsuccessfully to get the United Nations to revise a 1996 human rights report on the women Japan forced into sex slavery.

Many Japanese right-wingers believe their country was wrongly maligned by America and its allies after the war. Mr. Abe has given the impression that he believes Japan has already done enough to make amends for its militarism and atrocities. He says he prefers to get on with more firmly establishing his country as a 21st-century leader that can help the United States counter China in Asia and take on other global responsibilities.

But Japan cannot credibly fill that broader role if it seeks to repudiate criticism of its past. Emperor Akihito of Japan and his family have set a much better example; in an apparent rebuke of Mr. Abe, Crown Prince Naruhito has been outspoken about the need to “correctly pass down history” to future generations.

Much good can come from the Washington meeting if Mr. Abe and Mr. Obama give final approval to the first new guidelines in 17 years for expanded American-Japanese defense cooperation and make substantial progress on a new trans-Pacific trade agreement. A lot will depend on whether Mr. Abe is willing to push aside his right-wing supporters and set a tone that can strengthen stability in Asia, rather than weakening it.

House lawmakers urge Japanese PM to ‘face history’ during US visit


A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is calling on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to “squarely face history” during his scheduled visit to the United States next week.

Abe on Tuesday sent a token plant to a Japanese war shrine in a ritual cheered by the country’s nationalists but condemned by neighboring nation’s like South Korea and China, which view the move as an aggressive denial of atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II.

In a letter sent Thursday to Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, the House lawmakers note that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, and are urging Abe to “lay the foundation for healing and humble reconciliation by addressing the historical issues.”

“[W]e fervently hope Prime Minister Abe will take advantage of this auspicious milestone during his visit to Washington to enhance Japan’s relationships with its neighbors through a vision of long overdue healing and reconciliation which will contribute to future-oriented cooperation,” the lawmakers wrote.

Spearheaded by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), former head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the letter is endorsed by 24 other lawmakers, including Reps. Edward Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), head of the Democrats’ messaging arm; Blake Farenthold (R-Texas); and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Abe has long-been criticized for not going far enough in apologizing for Japan’s activities during the Second World War, particularly the use of “comfort women” from neighboring countries who were forced to service the Japanese troops.

This week’s gift, an evergreen plant, from Abe to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine has only furthered those criticisms. The shrine is a memorial to the Japanese troops who died in the war, but also includes military officers and political officials later found guilty of war crimes.

Attempting to make amends, Abe has signaled that he’ll visit the World War II memorial on the National Mall during next week’s visit to Washington. The House lawmakers, though, suggested they also want him to address the thorny historical issues during his speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday – a speech that comes amid a high-stakes congressional debate over trade deals with Japan and other Asian nations.

“We are at a critical juncture in America’s rebalance to Asia,” the lawmakers wrote, “and we firmly believe that enhanced cooperation between the United States, Japan, and Korea will serve as a linchpin of peace and prosperity throughout the Asia-Pacific region and the broader global community.”

The U.S. House of Representatives members urge Japan to apologize(C-SPAN Video Footage)


Rep. Steve Israel : Speech from 30:35

Rep. Bill Pascrell:  Speech from 41:47

Rep. Charles Rangel : Speech from 44:57

Rep. Mike Honda : Speech from 47:25

Pelosi urges Abe to apologize over wartime sex slavery

Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. House minority leader, called on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Thursday to apologize for the sexual slavery of Korean and other Asian women during World War II.

“We have been clear about what we’d like to hear about comfort women,” Pelosi told reporters when asked about her view on Abe’s planned congressional speech in Washington later this month. “I hope that a statement will be made to free (Japanese) people from this burden of the issue of comfort women.”

She made the remarks soon after she met with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they have exchanged ideas concerning North Korea as well as the relationship between South Korea and Japan.

It added Yun asked Pelosi for the U.S. Congress’ cooperation in encouraging Abe to deliver an apology over the history including sex slaves, as well as positive messages to South Korea and its surrounding countries.

South Korea has repeatedly pressed Japan to face up to history, especially over the elderly Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Still, there is no sign of progress in resolving the issue that hinders close relations between South Korea and Japan, two key U.S. allies in Asia.

Abe described the sex slave issue as “human trafficking” without specifying the perpetrator in a recent interview with the Washington Post.

“I hope that he apologizes in some format, it does not have to be before Congress,” Pelosi said. “I would imagine if the prime minister is going to make a statement, he probably do that in his own country rather than somebody else’s country.”

Also Thursday, Pelosi met with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and shared the need of resolving the issue of sex slaves, according to Park’s office.

Park told Pelosi that the issue has gained urgency as the victims are in their late 80s, according to Park’s office.

In 2007, more than 120 South Korean victims were alive, but the number has since dropped to 55, with their average age standing at 88.

Pelosi, who led a 10-member bipartisan delegation to South Korea, was the House Speaker when the House of Representatives adopted a landmark 2007 resolution on Japan’s wartime sexual slavery that called on Tokyo to formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility for its past atrocities.

South Korea hopes to help the U.S. lawmaker better understand the issue of Japan’s wartime sex slaves ahead of Abe’s address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.


Haruki Murakami: Japan must apologize for WWII until it is forgiven

murakami haruki

Haruki Murakami, a world-renowned Japanese novelist, said Japan needs to offer an “open-ended” apology for its wartime atrocities, according to a news report Friday.

“Apology is not a shameful thing,” he said in an interview with Japan’s Kyodo News Service, adding that his country’s past invasion of other nations itself is a “fact,” regardless of disputes over details.

He said Japan should admit what it did and apologize for that until other countries affected say “it’s enough.”

Murakami stressed the importance of history perception and sincere apology.

His comments came amid growing concerns in South Korea, China and other nations over the Shinzo Abe administration’s attitude toward shared history and territorial standoffs.

Many view the conservative leader as depending on nationalist sentiments for political purposes.

In particular, Japan’s relations with South Korea and China have worsened since he returned to power in 2012.

The international community is paying attention to his wordings on the history issue in a landmark speech he is set to make before the U.S. Congress late this month.

Abe also plans to issue a major statement this summer to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Murakami, arguably one of the world’s most popular cult novelists, pointed out that Northeast Asia is in a “big power shift” with the rise of China and South Korea.

At the same time, he added, there are huge possibilities in the East Asian community such as the potential to emerge as a big quality market.

That’s why related countries should resolve their history and territorial rows as early as possible, he was quoted as saying.