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Prime Minister Abe’s Missed Opportunity | Commentary

By Bonnie B.C. Oh Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan missed a golden opportunity to cleanse his nation’s past sins when he addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress yesterday. Though he made general references to Japan’s “actions” and the “suffering” of “people in Asian countries,” he made no reference to the comfort women, and therefore made no apology for it. It will likely take many more voices to convince Abe to finally end his campaign to rewrite the history of Japan’s role in WWII and of the comfort women.  

The term “comfort women” is a euphemism for the more than 200,000 women and girls coerced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military during World War II. They were recruited from Korea, China, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor, Australia and other parts of Asia. The Imperial Japanese military established and operated “comfort stations” all over the war zone. The brutality and the scale of the operation were unprecedented. When the war ended, the majority were abandoned, massacred en masse and even thrown from aboard the ships on their return home.  

The story of the comfort women first became known in 1991 when Kim Hak-Soon of Korea broke her 46-year long silence. I immediately became drawn to their stories, as they were women of my native land and close to my age. I felt a sense of responsibility to shed light on this dark area of history, to help the surviving comfort women regain honor and dignity as human beings and for me to overcome the stigma of the subject, which at the time, was considered beyond legitimate academic pursuit.  

In 1996, at Georgetown University, I co-convened the first-ever academic conference on comfort women. Since then, comfort women’s history has been discussed in numerous academic forums and symposia throughout the U.S., Canada, and Asia. Through the work of many scholars featured in conferences and in publications, the historical reality of the comfort women has now been indisputably established.  

The comfort women movement has also spawned national movements in their respective victim countries. In 1996, the United Nations joined in calling for Japan to meet the comfort women’s demands. In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed House Resolution 121 calling for the Japanese government 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.”  

However, Abe and his supporters have turned deaf ears to the voices of international movements and historically proven facts. In recent months, Abe has sought to minimize Japan’s responsibility for its war crimes during World War II. He has even threatened to renege on the “Kono Statement” of 1993 on comfort women, a half-hearted apology by then Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, Kono Yohei.  

When Abe addressed a joint meeting of Congress yesterday, my sincere hope was that he would listen deeply with his heart to the feeble, dying voices of the elderly survivors of the comfort women system. One of them flew in from South Korea for just this occasion: Yong Soo Lee, who is 86 years old, was sitting in the House gallery during his address.  

Unfortunately, Abe did not seize on this God — or heaven-sent — opportunity to do the right thing. He did not unequivocally apologize for his government’s role in the plight of the comfort women, nor did he commit his government to embracing the truth. Only when he does so will true healing begin, and only then will Abe be able to lead Japan to be a world leader both morally and economically.  

Bonnie B.C. Oh is a retired distinguished professor of Korean studies at Georgetown University and author/co-editor of The Legacies of Comfort Women of WWII. Her most recent publication is Phoenix in a Jade Bowl: Growing up in Korea. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Council of Korean Americans.

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