The first few images that might come to people’s minds when they hear the word “Japan” are probably Japan’s beautiful culture, friendly people, mouth-watering food, and, perhaps, their involvement in World War II.
With its rich culture and strong work ethic, a tiny island nation with limited natural resources has managed to work, strategize, educate, and modernize itself to be the world’s third-largest economy by GDP according to The World Bank.
While Japan’s economic success is undeniably significant, it often casts a shadow over more important topics. American media often overlooks Japan’s past involvement in war crimes in favor of news that features Japan in a more flattering light, and as a result, less than half of Americans have heard of the Imperial Japanese army’s connection to war crimes, according to Pew Research Center.
We, as a community, must make an effort to learn about the atrocities committed by Japan, not just to acknowledge the events but also to fight until justice is served for those who suffered from Japan’s horrific acts. While the issue sounds out of reach for high school students, there are countless approaches through which South students could make a substantial difference.
During World War II, Japan, through means of false promises and abduction, enslaved tens of thousands of South Korean women between the ages of 14 and 19, according to a report issued in 1993 by the Asian Women’s Fund. These women were taken away from their homes and put in military-controlled facilities in Japanese occupied areas to serve the Imperial Japanese army.
The report also estimates the number of sex slaves who worked under the Imperial Japanese army to be between 50,000 and 200,000, but the exact number is still unknown.
These sex slaves, more commonly referred to by its euphemistic term “Comfort Women,” served around 5 to 60 men every day, leading to high levels of sexually transmitted diseases, organ damage, and sterility according to the report by the Asian Women’s Fund. United Nations’ Global Tribunal on Violation of Women’s Human Rights revealed in 1993 that by the end of World War II, over 90 percent of Comfort Women had died due to lack of medical care, murder, and suicide.
Almost 80 years after the end of WWII, the issues revolving around Comfort Women remain unresolved and continue to be major diplomatic challenges Japan and South Korea have yet to overcome. Even to this day, the Japanese government has not fully admitted to and apologized for its involvement in coercing young women into military prostitution.
In 1993, Japan partially admitted to its involvement in running military brothels and issued an official apology known as the Kono Statement, but in 2014, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party discussed the possibility of revising and even retracting the statement.
To make matters worse, the movement towards historical revisionism by far-right activists within the Japanese public school system continues to gain traction. Even in the current textbook approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Comfort Women are mentioned only once. Still, textbook-reform activists urge for complete elimination of any mention of Comfort Women in textbooks.
Let’s call the event for what it is: a well-organized, state-sanctioned human trafficking and mass rape. The history of Comfort Women is not just a history; it is a reflection of the highly politicized nature of women’s rights and the uphill battle for justice. Contestation over teaching history that accurately reflects our past is, simply said, a lack of scholarship and complete disregard of human dignity.
Japan’s active effort to remove statues built to commemorate the victims must also come under public scrutiny.
The Japanese government repeatedly demands other governments to take down these statues. When the city of San Francisco revealed a memorial dedicated to Comfort Women in 2018, its sister-city of Osaka ended their relationship with San Francisco.
Japan’s attempt to wipe out a piece of history is not only disturbing because of its possible effect on Japan-Korea diplomacy, but also because of its potential to further fuel the rising nationalism and glorification of imperialism and militarism in Japan.
As of July 2, 2021, only 14 known surviving Comfort Women remain, according to a Reuters article “S. Korea’s few surviving ‘comfort women’ face life’s end as political fight rages on.”
With the stance and the path Japan is currently taking, the last chance for Japan to own up to its past mistake and finally bring justice and reparation to Comfort Women, while they are still alive, will finally be gone. Time is running out and Japan is refusing to take further action.
While the situation seems irreparable, there are many ways in which South students can contribute to change. With the passage of The Teaching Equitable Asian American History (TEAACH) Act, Illinois schools are heading in the right direction to teach their students about Asian American history; yet, this bill does not require schools to teach students about Asian histories, such as those of Comfort Women and the Rape of Nanking. However, South leads the way to teach students about Comfort Women by giving students the option to take Pacific Rim, a social studies course that exclusively focuses on Asian history.
Through nonprofit organizations such as the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, students can join the movement to educate other students about Comfort Women, petition the government to add Asian history to the social science curriculum, and pressure the Japanese government for apologies and reparations.
Although there have been many attempts at serving justice and providing reparations for Comfort Women in the past, the issue remains controversial. True justice requires a complete, irrevocable apology from the government and the people of Japan, and reparations must take into account the voices of Comfort Women.
There is no justice without reparation.
There is no justice without accountability.
We must continue educating ourselves and others to hold the Japanese government accountable. No government should be able to erase the history of their atrocities from the face of the earth.