A former “comfort woman” in South Korea
Mindy Kotler is director of Asia Policy Point a Washington nonprofit research center that studies the U.S. policy relationship with Japan and Northeast Asia.
Thank you Steve for this opportunity to guest blog about Asia on TWN. Like Steve, I lament the many missteps and poor decisions made by the Bush Administration. U.S. policy toward Asia is no exception. Although relations with Japan are believed to be going well, they are built upon a fragile base that masks a multitude of contradictions.
Today, July 30th, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution introduced by Rep Mike Honda (D-CA) on January 31 asking the Government of Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces’ coercion of young women into sexual slavery, known to the world as ‘comfort women’, during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands from the 1930s through the duration of World War II.” The necessity of this resolution illustrates well the inadequacies of the Administration’s Asia policy.
What the House of Representatives saw as an important step toward encouraging historical reconciliation in Asia, the Japanese government believed was affront to their national honor. The Bush Administration, although fearful the resolution would provoke right-wing anti-Americanism in Japan derailing alliance building, found itself unable to speak out against it. The Abe Administration’s denial of the internationally accepted comfort women history was simply too embarrassing to a White House intent on promoting the U.S.-Japan Alliance as based on shared values. The resolution too easily exposed the current effort to shape a new U.S.-Japan relationship is at cross-purposes with other American foreign policy goals.
The resolution, H, Res. 121, was the fifth time Congress has considered legislation suggesting that Japan apologize for perpetrating the comfort women tragedy during its Pacific War. It is the second time the resolution was reported out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee positively (once under the Republicans and now under the Democrats). The success of this bipartisan resolution can be attributed to a number of factors, none that outweighed the other.
Unique to this Comfort Woman resolution was that a select, international group of scholars advised congressional staff on Japanese history and political process. These scholars advised on how the resolution would be perceived in Japan and prepared briefing papers that carefully explained and documented how and why the government of Japan had never given an official apology to the Comfort Women. They were also available to respond to Embassy of Japan’s lobbying statements, to answer staffers’ specific questions, and to explain the nuances of the Japanese language of apology. (My organization spearheaded this effort and many of these briefing papers can be found on our website.)
Members of Congress and their staff learned that Japanese governmental statements of policy, such as an important diplomatic apology to the Comfort Women, must either be approved by a Cabinet Decision (kakugi kettei) or a Diet resolution to be considered official. Thus far, no Japanese apology to the Comfort Women meets either of these criteria. Moreover, it is the Cabinet not the prime minister that is constitutionally the chief executive of Japan. Without a Cabinet Decision backing up a prime minister’s policy statement, he is only expressing his personal views. It was a lesson with implications far beyond that of Japan’s historical responsibility.
The effort also demonstrated the growing political maturity of the Asian American community, especially Korean American. Asian American volunteers and the human rights groups, coordinated by two young Korean American Washington lobbyists, were able to bring the message to individual congressman and sign up a record 168 co-sponsors. The professionalism, energy, and experience of these lobbyists were critical for the Asian Americans to understand the legislative process and how to get its voice heard.
Groups as diverse as the College Shiks to Korean American dentists to Filipinos of Florida joined together on this issue. The work of international organizations such as Amnesty International and Polaris was also built upon and incorporated in the campaign. The issue was internationalized and recognized as more than an historical injustice between Korea and Japan.
Most important, the issue had become appealing. The victimization of women during conflict and the transnational crime of human trafficking are bipartisan causes on Capitol Hill. They are the “new” human rights issues. A February 15th hearing at the Asia, Pacific and Global Environment Subcommittee featuring three former Comfort Women — two Korean and one Dutch — provided an all too vivid picture of what it was like to be a sex slave for Imperial Japan. Their accounts of their rape echoed ones of those in contemporary Rwanda, Bosnia, and Burma. Their ordeal in Imperial Japan’s state-sponsored system of rape camps resembled the degradations suffering by current victims of human trafficking.
In addition, the Congress believes in the importance of the U.S. Japan alliance to help maintain stability in East Asia. With a wary eye on a rising China and a newly nuclear North Korea, both sides of the aisle doubted Bush Administration abilities to keep the regional peace. During Bush’s watch, China’s influence expanded in Asia and its military budget expanded; North Korea acquired the bomb, South Korea leaned toward China, and Pacific maritime threats grew. In this fast changing environment remained old historic injustices that continued to keep our allies distant and wary of cooperating with Japan.
To address security in Asia, to counter a rising China and a nuclear North Korea, the only option the White House offered was a closer alliance with Japan, a country that had a constitutional restriction against active military cooperation and a poor history with its neighbors, especially China and Korea. To remilitarize Japan, the Administration allied itself with political forces in Japan that not only believed in a closer U.S.-Japan alliance, a strong Japanese military, and constitutional change, but also in a host of retrogressive notions of what it means to be Japanese, not the least being that the Pacific War was one of liberation against white colonialism.
Last September, Shinzo Abe became prime minister pledging to boost Japan’s global security profile and rewrite its pacifist constitution. Those changes were welcome and encouraged by the Bush White House, who hoped to shape Japan into America’s closest ally. This emphasis, however, ignored both the opinions of the Japanese people who did not put a priority on foreign affairs and the realities of unresolved historical injustices that perpetuated tensions between other US allies in the region and Japan. Abe’s conservative nationalist agenda, while presenting a picture of a tough, prideful, even prickly Japan, also excite regional suspicions and hindered regional security cooperation.
Essentially, Japan as the linchpin of Asian regional security was a quick fix that clashed with the growing importance of issues of human dignity and social justice in global foreign relations. The lessons of Iraq, Darfur, Bosnia and countless other contemporary conflicts demonstrated that “hard” and “soft” power could not be separated. And in Asia, it seems that the history issues need to be resolved before security could be advanced. Thus the Comfort Woman resolution resonates with many members of Congress in several different ways.
On June 26, members of the House Foreign Relations Committee voted 39-2 to approve the resolution. No one disputed the facts that Japan had never officially apologized to the women (and men) that Imperial Japan enslaved them to work in its frontline brothels. The few congressional objections centered on whether it was a job of the U.S. Congress to question of policies of another country. Japan’s massive, multi-million dollar lobbying to defeat the resolution’s passage focused on an interpretation of the “facts.”
These facts depended upon the source: the Embassy focused on the number of unofficial apologies, and the conservative Japanese groups, who on June 14 took an ad in the Washington Post, calling the Comfort Women paid prostitutes and chastising Congress for not having the “facts.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA) said at the Committee vote, “The true strength of a nation is tested when it is forced to confront the darkest chapters in its history. Will it have the courage to face up to the truth of its past, or will it hide from those truths in the desperate and foolish hope they will fade with time?” And House Speaker Pelosi responded to the vote by issuing an unprecedented Press Release supporting the resolution and saying, “They [the Comfort Women] have waited far too long [for an apology], but it is not too late to recognize their courage.”
Reconciliation and regional peace in Asia are at the heart of Mr. Honda’s resolution. Long overdue justice and respect for the Comfort Women are one of the elements needed to achieve this peace. There was wide, bipartisan support for H.Res.121 in Congress.
The resolution projects U.S. leadership and attention to the important–but currently unresolved–issues dividing America’s Asian allies and exacerbating differences between countries in Asia. It is also good for our very close ally Japan, as its government seeks long-overdue recognition of Japan’s 60-year history of constructive, responsible and resolutely peaceful membership in the modern world community.
— Mindy Kotler
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