Comfort women

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 1998, 12:00am

Finally, a Japanese judge has admitted what the rest of the world has been trying to impress upon the country's leaders for half a century - that Japan owes compensation to the South Korean 'comfort women' forced into sexual slavery during World War II.

Though the sum is derisory, the significance of the legal ruling will give fresh impetus to the legions of other victims of Japanese war crimes, who have been battling for direct compensation for the loss and suffering they endured during the occupation of their country, or in prisoner-of-war camps.

The ruling is expected to be challenged in the appeal court by the Tokyo Government, but the decision by Yamaguchi District Court has set a precedent. It is a triumph for the three women concerned, coming less than a week after the Seoul Government decided to drop claims for compensation in an effort to improve relations with Japan, and compensate 152 former sex-slaves out of their own funds.

To these victims, and others battling to get Japan to apologise and give financial reparation for war crimes, the issue is not primarily about money. There are private funds offering financial compensation. It is about inducing the country to officially face up to its past, and atone for it. Once that is done, they may feel able to forgive and put the past behind them. Until it is done, their sense of pain and injustice remains.

Japan has come very close to apologising for its war crimes, but it has stopped short of official action. The Yamaguchi court continues to support the view that an apology is not required. In the eyes of the thousands of victims who survive, that is the only way to close the darkest chapter in Japan's history. The issue will haunt Tokyo until the last survivor has died and probably even after that.

Following the court decision, scores of international groups can be expected to press claims for compensation with renewed vigour. Most governments, Seoul, Beijing and London among them, are more concerned with the present and the need to establish good international relations with Tokyo. It is obviously important in the new world order to live in harmony, and consign past crimes to history.

But the episode can only be ended, when the contrition is absolute.