INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Confronting the Comfort Women Issue



It’s an emotionally charged and ugly issue — but let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, all the allegations, charges and accusations against Imperial-era Japan and its military with regard to those collectively known as “comfort women” are true. (If you’ve not been following it, here are a couple of news links: and from last year,

As relayed by those who are still living (and by those who lived long enough to tell the tale) and well as some historians, Japan’s military in the years before and during the United States’ entry into World War II systematically put young women, mostly of Korean and Chinese backgrounds but also including Japanese women and women from differing Asian countries occupied by Japan’s military, as well as some European women, into sexual slavery for the, uh, physical benefit of Japanese soldiers.

Like I said, it’s an ugly issue.

The estimates vary as to how many women were used in such a manner, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. While there is a general pattern to be discerned, not all stories that involve comfort women are the same. Some of the women may have been tricked or coerced into sexual slavery, some may have been sold into prostitution or sex slavery by their parents, some may have already been prostitutes — a profession that at the time was legal under Japanese law — eager for a steady paycheck. But let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, the worst of the circumstances — coerced sexual slavery — was how it was for most comfort women.


A comfort women monument was erected in Glendale’s Central Park in 2013. J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

A comfort women monument was erected in Glendale’s Central Park in 2013. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

In recent years, the comfort women issue has become a sticking point in relations between Japan and South Korea, and Japan and China. Surviving comfort women have staged demonstrations in Japan and elsewhere. And, here in the United States, there has been a movement to build comfort women memorials, in Glendale, Calif., New Jersey, Virginia and now, as of last week, San Francisco.

In the latest instance, San Francisco’s 11-member Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to adopt a resolution calling for the city to build a comfort women memorial. As for yet, no funds have been earmarked, no site selected and no plan approved, but according to published news accounts, $140,000 has been raised from private donations.


In Japan, the comfort women issue doesn’t seem to be on the front-burner of any government branch. I’d guess that many in Japan’s government would simply like to see the matter go away. By doing nothing (or doing anything slowly), those still-living women who were comfort women will eventually die off.

As for the governments of the Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China, the continued hammering of Japan on this decades-old issue, while justified at some level, is a convenient way to deflect anger and attention away from domestic issues, be it public safety, poisonous food and air, corruption and so on.

Meantime, modern-day Japan has been accused of not confronting its transgressions — and let’s face it, there were transgressions — the way Germany did after WWII, especially with regard to the Holocaust. In Japan’s case, part of it may have been postwar, U.S. Occupation-era expediency.

Once the war crimes trials were completed, the bigger, more pressing tasks at hand were rooting out communists and getting a bombed-into-submission Japan back on its feet so it could feed its people and rebuild a new, better and peaceful society. Justice for comfort women was way down on that list.


Now, here is the part where I’ll probably get into trouble, especially with Korean Americans and Chinese Americans (and some Japanese Americans) who may misunderstand what I’m about to write, so I want anyone reading this to read it not with emotion but with objectivity.

Unlike slavery, Native American genocide or Executive Order 9066, none of the aforementioned happened in the United States, on U.S. soil. No known U.S. citizens were used by Japan as comfort women. This country had nothing to do with it.

Therefore, U.S. taxpayers, at the city, county, state or federal level, shouldn’t foot the bill in any way, shape or form, for comfort women memorials. It’s a misguided course of action for our elected municipal officials to spend time, money and energy to even discuss the issue. It’s not their place or purpose.

The comfort women issue needs debate, for sure — but at international and governmental levels. Comfort women memorials paid for by tax dollars, in part or whole, in public parks on U.S. soil is wrong.


There are activists here and elsewhere in favor of addressing this comfort women issue. Then there are also those who deny Imperial Japan ever forced women into sexual slavery.

Perhaps all the concerned parties could learn something from the Japanese American experience. There once was a burning issue in this community — Japanese American redress. What transformed redress from a community discussion, with both naysayers and true believers, into a national issue was the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in the early 1980s.

Without those CWRIC hearings serving as a foundation, there would have been no Civil Liberties Act of 1988 for President Ronald Reagan to sign and give Japanese Americans some level of justice.

The governments of South Korea, China and Japan should assemble, perhaps with United Nations and U.S. involvement, an official, investigative panel filled with experts, scholars, historians and victims to explore the facts of the comfort women issue in a fair and objective way and reach a conclusion. In other words, find the facts first, for all to know and see.

Japan’s government, in its own self-interest, should be involved. If unwilling to be involved, then the other concerned nations should move forth anyway, without Japan. To give, however, Japan incentive to be a part of this, South Korea might offer upon completion of the official inquiry to give its full support for Japan to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, of which Japan (along with Germany) should be included. Maybe get the U.S. to offer this as well, and offer to press Russia on the so-called Sakhalin Islands they opportunistically grabbed at the end of WWII.

Meantime, videotaped depositions, transcribed and translated into several languages, from those victims still living must be recorded before those women are gone.

As for Japan, while I’m doubtful it would happen under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that nation should be involved, regardless of the conclusion, so it could once and for all time clear the air of this and other decades-old issues hanging over it. It would be painful, but it would remove this particular arrow from the quiver of Japan’s enemies and frenemies.

Another tack comfort women activists might want to consider: Make a dramatic movie about the issue. Both South Korea and China have well-developed film industries. Make a movie that puts a face and a voice on one comfort woman who would represent them all. Make it compelling enough to win an Oscar — and be sure to have it shown in Japan. To win minds, sometimes you have to win hearts first.

But to elected officials in this country who think it appropriate to spend tax dollars to build memorials and put them in public spaces to commemorate something that didn’t happen here, I can only say: Stop. Please.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.


George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.




  1. melonbarmonster on

    There are also accounts from Dutch women, Australian women, Filipino women, Indonesian women… basically any area that was occupied Japan has accounts of women who have come forward with accounts of being forced into sex slavery. Even considering that common prostitutes somehow mitigate the travesty and responsibility of the Japanese government to admit and attempt at restitution reeks of blame shifting and makes any attempts at mutual understanding of truth and reconciliation impossible. It’s 2015. Japan is not a fascist state anymore and trying to bury is not going to work. It’s time to come clean.

  2. Hyung-Sung Kim on

    My great-grandfather was born a slave in 1893 (over 90% of Koreans were slaves at the time) and was delighted when Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and liberated the slaves because he would have never been able to attend schools if not for the Japanese. My grandparents were born in 1920’s and experienced the Japanese rule firsthand. They had nothing but great things to say about the Japanese. They told me how nice their Japanese teachers and classmates were to them at schools. Even 50 years after the end of the war, they only sang Japanese songs at Karaoke because they reminisced those days so much.

    As a history student, I interviewed over one hundred Koreans who were born and raised in the Korean Peninsula in 1920’s and 1930’s, and the overwhelming majority of them shared the same views with my grandparents.

    I asked them about comfort women as well, and what they witnessed was Korean fathers and brothers selling their daughters and sisters, Korean brokers deceiving Korean women. They never witnessed Japanese military coercing any Korean women.

    This fact is well documented in San Francisco State University Professor Chunghee Sarah Soh’s book “The Comfort Women.”

    Sejong University Professor Park Yuha agrees with Professor Chunghee Sarah Soh.

    The follwoing is a diary written by a Korean comfort station worker discovered in 2013 by Professor Ahn Byong Jik of Seoul National University. It details how Korean brokers recruited Korean women in the Peninsula (sometimes on false pretenses) and how they owned & operated comfort stations employing those women. According to the diary Korean owners beat and sometimes raped Korean women when they didn’t obey orders.

    The follwoing are the articles published in Korean newspapers in the 1930’s & 1940’s. The articles say that the Japanese police arrested Korean traffickers who were engaging in illegal recruiting.

    The following is a help wanted ad in a Korean newspaper Maeil Shinbo on October 27, 1944. A Korean broker (Mr. Ho) was recruiting comfort women. There are other ads like this one.…/1/maeil+sinbo%5B1%5D.jpg

    The following is the order the Japanese military sent to the police in Korea. The order says, “crack down on the Korean prostitution brokers who are engaging in illegal recruiting.”

    By the way, I don’t exonerate the Japanese military because its invasion into China and Southeast Asia did create the demand for comfort women. But the Korean narrative of “The Japanese military showed up at the doors and abducted young Korean women” just didn’t happen. The Korean businessmen (prostitution brokers) capitalized on the demand, recruited Korean women and operated comfort stations.

    Asahi Shimbun published a series of fabricated articles on comfort women in the 1980’s. Based on these articles, the anti-Japan lobby Chong Dae Hyup (with close ties to North Korea and China) was formed in South Korea in 1990. Then out of nowhere a woman named Kim Hak-sun came forward in 1991 and claimed she was abducted by Japanese military. There is clear evidence (recorded tapes) that suggests she was coached by Chong Dae Hyup to give false testimony. If Korean women were indeed abducted by the Japanese military, it is rather odd that not a single woman claimed anything for over 45 years after the end of World War II. Former South Korean President Roh Tae-woo said in 1993 interview with Bungeishunju, “Asahi Shimbun created the comfort women issue out of nothing, provoked Korean nationalism and infuriated Korean people.”

    Lower ranked Japanese soldiers did coerce dozens of Dutch and Filipino women in the battlefields of Indonesia and the Philippines. Those soldiers were court-martialed, and some of them executed. But Korean women were not coerced by the Japanese military because the Korean Peninsula was not the battlefield and therefore the Japanese military was NOT in Korea. (Korean brokers recruited Korean women in Korea and operated comfort stations employing them) Japan apologized and compensated, and Netherlands, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan had all accepted Japan’s apology and reconciled with Japan. So there are no comfort women issues between those nations and Japan. The comfort women issue remains only with South Korea because Chong Dae Hyup refuses to reconcile with Japan and continues to spread the false claim of “200,000 Korean girls were coerced by the Japanese military” throughout the world. Chong Dae Hyup’s strategy has been to use the case of a small number of Dutch and Filipino women who were coerced by lower ranked Japanese soldiers and make it look like the same thing happened to many Korean women.

    It is ironic that 99% of Westerners fell for Chong Dae Hyup’s (North Korean) propaganda while the majority of South Korean scholars (Professor Park Yuha of Sejong University, Professor Lee Yong-hoon of Seoul University, Professor Ahn Byong-jik of Seoul University, Professor Jun Bong-gwan of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Professor Han Sung-jo of Korea University, Professor Lee Dae-gun of Sungkyunkwan University, Professor Choi Ki-ho of Kaya University, Professor Oh Seon-hwa of Takushoku University, Professor Chunghee Sarah Soh of San Francisco State University, etc.) and a good number of South Korean public agree that the Japanese military did not coerce Korean women. Only a small number of fanatics with loud voice (South Korean leftists with close ties to North Korea and radical left wing Japanese scholars such as Yoshiaki Yoshimi, Yuki Tanaka and Hirofumi Hayashi also with close ties to North Korea and China) falsely claim 200,000 Korean girls were coerced by the Japanese military. Westerners must realize that North Korean and Chinese operatives are using the comfort women issue to drive a wedge into U.S.-Japan-South Korea security partnership.


    After the end of WWII, the anti-Japanese brainwashing began in South Korea. Our first president (the military dictator) Syngman Rhee massacred hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of us.

    In order to cover up his atrocities and maintain legitimacy, he needed a common enemy, and Japan was an easy target. So he started the anti-Japanese brainwashing in schools and in the media. And every successive president after him had to outdo his predecessor on anti-Japanism in order to maintain legitimacy.

    The following book illustrates very well how our first president, Syngman Rhee, used the anti-Japanese brainwashing to cover up his massacres.

    In this book the author, Sung-Hwa Cheong, concludes that Syngman Rhee deliberately stimulated anti-Japanese sentiment as part of a calculated policy that originated in his own political insecurity.


    The South Koreans who were born in the 1980’s & 1990’s grew up with Japanese anime & Japanese literature (Haruki Murakami & so on) because in the late 1990’s South Korea started allowing Japanese culture to come in. (Japanese culture was banned in South Korea until then, believe it or not)

    These generations typically say, “We like Japanese culture & people. If the Japanese accept our history as the right history, we can get along with them.” This means that when these generations realize that their history is not the right history but the brainwashed history, they will get along with the Japanese unconditionally.

    Will they realize that their history is not the right history? I believe they will thanks to the internet & social media.

    For example on internet, the South Koreans now have access to the history textbook comparison study done by Stanford University.

    This study found that the Japanese history textbooks to be based on facts, the Korean history textbooks to be heavy on nationalism.

    So when the generations who were born in the 1980’s & 1990’s become the movers and shakers of South Korea, (i.e. key politicians, newspaper editors, etc.) the relationship between South Korea and Japan will improve dramatically.

    Right now, the South Korean society is dominated by the generations who were born in the 1950’s, 1960’s & 1970’s. These generations were raised with anti-Japanese brainwashing at schools, and they had no exposure to Japanese culture growing up. So they are hardcore anti-Japanese.

    The generations who were born before 1945 (like my grandparents) are generally very sympathetic to the Japanese because they experienced the annexation period. The reason why the Korea-Japan relation has deteriorated so badly in the last 20 years is because most of them have died, and the generations born after the war came into power.

    Our presidents up to Kim Dae-jung all spoke Japanese fluently because they experienced the annexation. Park Chung-hee was anti-Japanese publicly, but in private he shared drinks with Japanese politicians speaking in Japanese. When the Japanese emperor Hirohito died in 1989, Kim Dae-jung went to the funeral and took a deep bow toward Hirohito’s coffin. This would be unthinkable with our last three presidents.

    So it will take some time, but when we have a president who was born in the 1980’s or later, we will not be so anti-Japanese.


    The average life span of the Koreans doubled from 23 years in 1910 to 45 years in 1945, and the population doubled from just over 12 million in 1910 to over 25 million in 1945 due to the institution of modern healthcare under the Japanese. If living a longer, healthier life means better quality of life, then the Koreans’ quality of life definitely improved under the Japanese.

    The following is a good summary of a book written by Professor Alleyne Ireland of University of Chicago. He was the leading expert on colonial administration in Asia. He gained deep knowledge of Japan’s annexation of Korea from his visit there in 1922.

    Alleyne Ireland’s book makes it clear that the common perception in the West — the Japanese invaded Korea, exploited Korean people and committed atrocities — is a myth. Westerners visit Seodaemun Prison (anti-Japanese propaganda exhibit created by the South Korean government after the war) and believe the Japanese rule was brutal.

    The state of 19th century Korea (Joseon Dynasty) was very similar to that of present day North Korea. The majority of the population were starving and were enslaved by a small number of corrupt bureaucrats. If Japan is to annex North Korea right now, kick out Kim Jong-un and liberate the majority of the North Koreans, wouldn’t they welcome Japan’s annexation with open arms? That was exactly what happened in 1910.

  3. Would Mr. Johnston say the same about all the Holocaust memorials and museums in major metropolitan area and various mid-size and small cities — “the atrocities, such as the Final Solution, against the Jewish people needs debate, for sure — but at international and governmental levels. Holocaust memorials paid for by tax dollars, in part or whole, in public parks on U.S. soil is wrong”?
    If not, why the advocacy for human rights of the victims of Imperial Japanese Military should be any different?
    By the way, the “Comfort Women” memorials and statues in San Francisco and any other US cities are all paid for by private funds. None has used or will use taxpayer dollars!!
    Besides, Mr. Johnston should know that the victims of the horrendous Japanese war crimes came from 11 or more countries and include hundreds of Dutch women and American (yes) women (nuns and nurses) and women from other Allied countries who were in the concentration camp. And the list doesn’t stop here. There were boys who were sexually brutalized by Japanese military as well.
    Efforts to collect and archive oral history of the formal sexual slaves as well as victims of other Japanese war crimes have been going on in a number of countries, including Korea, The Philippines, The Netherlands and China, as Mr. Johnston has belatedly suggested. So were a number of documentaries, short news reports by NBC, CNN International, BBC and so on as well as feature films have been made. Some more are actually under way at the moment.
    As far as investigation of the war crimes committed, there were ample done by the High Commission on Human rights, International Labor Organization, various Commissions on tortures, status of women, human and sex trafficking. A simple Google search could help Mr. Johnston to find UN, ILO, CEDAW, CEACR reports and US Congressional Research Service reports relevant to the “Comfort Women” issue. A number of summaries and essays released by the US Inter-agency Working Group (IWG) also contain damning information of the “Comfort Women” system created, regulated and operated by the Imperial Japanese Military.

    Suggesting to reward Japan with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in order to “motivate” Japan to take part in investigating its own past misdeeds is quite a leap in faith to believe the Japanese extremists would ever probe and admit their demonic past. It is also rather naive to think that the permanent membership of the UNSC can be simply handed out like candies to entice an unrepentant state to behave.
    First of all, it would take a major revision of the UN Charters and approved/ratified by the national parliaments of all current permanent UNSC members and a two-third of the members of the UN General Assembly to make the revised UN Charter in effect.
    The bigger question is why Japan should be rewarded with such a plume position merely for visiting its criminal past. It is equivalent to granting a Medal of Honor to a war criminal for taking part in investigating his own mass murders, serial rapes and destruction of all evidence. Is there any reasonable logic behind this line of thinking at all?

  4. Hyung-Sung Kim on

    The gentleman who made the above comment, Ignatius Y. Ding, is the founder of “Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WW II in Asia.”

    “Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WW II in Asia” is the anti-Japan lobby group founded in 1994, and it has been spreading false propaganda for over 20 years in order to defame & discredit Japan.

    It is rather ironic to see the founder himself comment here. He is the very Chinese operative that I mentioned in my comment above who uses the comfort women issue to drive a wedge into U.S.-Japan-South Korea security partnership.

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