No Comfort for the Women

Jan 06, 2009
*Special to asia!

For 50 years, Jan Huff O'Herne clung on to a secret she could not tell her family because she was too ashamed.

But a week after the release of such finding, Abe changed his mind.

"I apologise here and now as prime minister," he said on the subject of "comfort women".

Six months into his premiership, Abe is a man with his eyes set firmly on July's elections and on the latest polls showing his popularity sliding to under 40%. His initial denial of the coercion involving the "comfort women" was intended to align him with the right-wingers in the dominant LDP, whose support he needs to continue in office.

Yet the pragmatic politician in him would have realised how his stance on the “comfort women” could easily lose Japan its moral high ground on the international front, particularly in the six-party talks over North Korea.

Indeed, just two days before Abe’s public apology, The Washington Post made this scathing criticism:

"That the Japanese government has never fully accepted responsibility for their suffering or paid compensation is bad enough; that Abe would retreat from previous statements is a disgrace for a leader of a major democracy."

And as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits Japan in April to improve bilateral ties, former LDP Vice President Taku Yamazaki makes this revelatory observation of Abe who—as Japan's first prime minister to be born after the second world war—is "simply unable to understand the horror of war and how valuable peace is".

All this Japanese flip-flopping will mean little to the estimated 200,000 women who served the Japanese as sex slaves during the war (according to Amnesty International, 2005).

A Japanese fund of donations from private individuals despatched about US$10 million in medical and welfare services for the "comfort women". Two hundred and eighty-five of them received close to US$20,000 each.

Yet critics like O'Herne have refused to accept anything from the fund, calling it an insult. They want compensation from the Japanese government, not private enterprise.

In any case, this fund was shut when its mandate expired this March, and the onus of reparations is once again back on the government.

All in all, the majority of the "comfort women" will receive nothing more than an apology, if any, for their sufferings.

Taiwan's Women's Rescue Foundation estimates that up to 2,000 Taiwanese women were forced to become "comfort women" but so far only 45 have stepped forward. The head of the organisation says shame has led those once enslaved to commit suicide or keep the truth from their family or relatives.

78-year-old Filipina Virginia Villarma's husband walked out on her and their five children, when he found out that she was raped by as many as 40 men a day while she served as a "comfort woman" at the age of 14.

In 2001, in a letter to the "comfort women", Abe’s predecessor, Koizumi, wrote: "I pray from the bottom of my heart that each of you will find peace for the rest of your lives."

It may be up to the successor he groomed to help bring about that peace. The "comfort women" want a clear and public acknowledgement by Japan that its military had forced women into prostitution, but they won’t be waiting around much longer for Abe to make that happen.

As O'Herne points out, "After 60 years many of us are already dead."


*Every Wednesday at noon for the last 15 years, former "comfort women" wait in front of Seoul's Japanese embassy, demanding for an apology. Their determination will only defeated by their mortality.


dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi