Justice for Comfort Women

Justice for Comfort Women

In the well-publicized controversial — and “plagiarized” — ruling of the Supreme Court in the Vinuya vs. Romulo case, the justices en banc dismissed the petition of more than 70 “comfort women” belonging to the “Malaya Lolas Organization.”

In deciding against their petition, it’s the opinion of the court that it could not force the respondent officials to address the plea of the comfort women, to wit: (a) declare that respondents [government officials] committed grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of discretion in refusing to espouse their claims for the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against them; and (b) compel the respondents to espouse their claims for official apology and other forms of reparations against Japan before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and other international tribunals. One of the respondents was then Executive Secretary and current Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo.

Once again, the comfort women lost another battle in their quest for justice.

Uncomfortable truth

In my article, “The Uncomfortable Truth” (April 6, 2007), I wrote: “An issue that has been simmering in the cauldron of international debate for the past 15 years was the ‘comfort women.’ The comfort women were mostly young women — some were as young as 13 years old — who were forced to work as sex slaves in ‘comfort stations’ established by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

“Although the existence of comfort women was known to the public, it was never discussed publicly, particularly in the Philippines where the stigma of shame — hiya — could hurt not only the former comfort women but their family members as well. For almost 50 years after the end of World War II, the surviving sex slaves had to endure living in Hell with their dark secrets in order to protect the reputation of their families. In most cases, their family members were not even aware of what had happened to them during the war.

“But in 1991, three former Korean comfort women broke their silence and filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government. That incident was like a crack in a dam that eventually broke wide open letting out a torrential flood of protests from around the world.

“In December of that year, an international conference on human trafficking was held in Seoul. The conference was attended by several Filipina feminists. It was at this forum that the issue of ‘comfort women’ was brought to the forefront of public debate. Within three months, several women’s groups met in Manila and formed the Task Force on Filipina Comfort Women. Their mission was to look for surviving comfort women. They used radio programs to appeal to the survivors to come out. Maria Rosa Henson heard their broadcasted appeal. Several weeks later, she told one of her daughters that she was forced to work as a comfort woman during the war. For her it was a moment of deliverance.

“Henson contacted the Task Force and a press conference was held to tell the whole world her story as a teenaged woman raped and forced into slavery as a comfort woman. Her coming out led other comfort women to come out as well. Finally, the stigma of shame was no longer important. By coming out, they freed themselves from the demons that had been gnawing at their souls. This was a closure… an act of cleansing.

“But Henson wanted more than closure. She demanded that justice be served. In 1993, Henson and the other comfort women who came out filed a compensation suit against the Japanese government. In addition, they wanted an apology from the Japanese government. That same year, the Japanese government apologized for the Japanese Imperial Army for its role in establishing the ‘comfort stations.’ However, the apology was carefully worded so as to deny legal responsibility for the comfort stations; claiming that these ‘did not constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity.’ Known as the ‘Kono Statement’ — named after former Japanese cabinet minister Yohei Kono in whose name the apology was made — the Japanese government admitted the role of the Japanese Imperial Army in establishing comfort stations; however, it denied that the comfort women were forced to provide sex. It was an ambiguous ‘yes and no’ statement which, in my opinion, means nothing.

“In 1995, the non-government and privately financed Asian Women’s Fund was formed to provide financial assistance to the surviving comfort women. Two million yens were offered to each surviving comfort woman. At first, Henson refused to receive money from the fund. Instead she decided to write her life story. In 1996, however, she changed her mind and decided to be a beneficiary of the fund. She completed her autobiography — ‘Slave of Destiny’ — before she passed away in 1997. In life and in death, Maria Rosa Henson became the beacon of hope for the surviving comfort women.

“Last January 31, 2007, US Congressman Mike Honda of California introduced House Resolution 121: ‘Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the Government of Japan should 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.’ Upon introducing the bill, Rep. Honda noted that ‘the purpose of the resolution is not to bash or humiliate Japan.’ He said that the legislation ‘seeks to achieve justice for the few remaining women who survived these atrocities, and to shed light on a grave human rights violation, that has remained unknown for so many years.’ Last February 15, 2007, the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Global Environment held an open hearing and heard the testimonies Rep. Honda and several other individuals including three surviving comfort women — two Koreans and one Australian.

“On March 1, 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in reaction to Rep. Honda’s Resolution 121, issued a statement denying that Japan forced women into slavery as ‘comfort women’ during World War II. He said that there was ‘no evidence or testimony’ to support claims that the Japanese military forced the women into slavery. Abe’s denial sparked an international furor. In an act of defiance, Abe declared that ‘Japan will not apologize even if the resolution passes the US Congress.’ But on March 26, 2007, Abe buckled under pressure and offered a carefully worded apology, saying: ‘I express my sympathy toward the comfort women and apologize for the situation they found themselves in.’ Again, as ambiguous as the ‘Kono Statement’ in 1993, Abe’s apology fell short of acknowledging responsibility in a ‘clear and unequivocal manner.’

“Japan needs to put a closure to this horrendous chapter in human history and should — nay, must! — take full responsibility for the atrocious acts of the Japanese military during World War II. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but as someone once said, ‘Sometimes truth is bitter but better.’ What Maria Rosa Henson and thousands of other comfort women had gone through should never happen again.”

Today, there are still hundreds — perhaps thousands — of comfort women waiting for justice. Now in their eighties, they re-live their traumatic experience every day of their life. If they have only one wish before they pass away, it is for Japan to issue a sincere apology, take full responsibility for the atrocities against them, and give them restitution as an act of good faith.

Only then would this dark chapter of World War II be put to a close. And only then can Maria Rosa Henson and the other victims of sexual slavery can rest in peace.