The Japanese still call them “comfort women,” a term that sounds not unpleasant. But it hides the reality of what these women really were: sex slaves.
From 1932 to 1945, the Japanese military forced thousands of girls and women of countries it occupied into brothels to provide sex for seemingly endless lines of soldiers. Now Japan is officially owning up to this sordid chapter in its history, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday expressing “sincere apologies and remorse” to all the women, many of whom were Korean, and promising $8.3 million to a foundation to help the women who are still alive.
Sadly, that is not many. Only 46 of the Korean “comfort women” who came forward with their stories survive; nine died in the past year alone.
Many of them say this agreement falls short because it does not take full governmental responsibility for the enslavement system nor does it include official reparations. To them, it looks like South Korea is more interested in improving relations with Japan than with having the country take full responsibility for its crimes against women.
They may have a point. Both countries have much to gain from better ties. Seventy years after the end of World War II, the dispute over the women has continued to be a highly charged, emotional thorn in relations between Japan and South Korea, standing in the way of the United States’ attempts to strengthen the alliance against North Korea and China in the region.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, for example, had refused to hold a summit meeting with Abe until recently. She’s long said that Japan needs to address the issue before the two countries could improve relations.
Besides getting better ties with the burgeoning economy of South Korea, Japan gets something else: a promise from the South Korean government to stop criticizing Japan on the issue. The periodic interviews with elderly women has been a public relations black eye for Japan since they started airing their grievances in the early 1990s.
While not entirely satisfying to the injured women, the agreement is important for the message it sends: that both countries want to put this issue from a previous era behind them so that they can move into a new era of closer cooperation. That will better serve them, as well as U.S. interests in Asia.