Japan must confront its sordid history
A task force has found that a deal struck by South Korea and Japan over women forced by the imperial Japanese army into sexual slavery had been rushed and did not adequately reflect the views of the victims. There will be no reconciliation between Japan and its neighbours until this issue is adequately addressed
A problem with politics is that what one government thinks its successor may not. That is when agreements get torn up or ignored, as US President Donald Trump has done with the Paris climate change accord. There is now also the possibility of that with a deal struck between South Korea and Japan two years ago over women forced by the imperial Japanese army into sexual slavery. As much as pacts should be honoured, there is reason to reassess their worth if doubts exist that they were flawed or are not being fulfilled.
The deal was seen as a breakthrough in strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo that could get them cooperating on threats from North Korea. Struck by the governments of disgraced former president Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it offered regret and an aid fund of US$8.3 million to the 46 surviving South Korean women. But Park was removed from office for corruption and is now in jail and her successor and rival, Moon Jae-in, took a leaf from Trump’s book and with an eye on obliterating his predecessor’s achievements, ordered a report into the deal.
Moon said the pact was “seriously flawed” and “cannot solve” the dispute. A task force’s findings on Wednesday concluded the agreement had been rushed and did not adequately reflect the views of the “comfort women”, the Japanese euphemism for the victims. The panel said the women’s demands for legal compensation had not been met and doubts were raised about Japan’s sincerity. Abe, for one, did not personally sign the deal or apologise and the Japanese government has been waging a campaign to have bronze statues symbolising those who suffered removed as agreed under the pact, the main one being in front of the nation’s embassy in Seoul.
Adopting the report is bound to, as Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono said, make relations between the nations “become unmanageable”. But events of history involving the subjugation of one nation by another can never be properly dealt with by rushed diplomacy or political compromise. Japan has also considered the signing of the deal the end of the matter, even though there were also women in China, the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia forced by its military into sexual servitude who have never received acknowledgement or compensation.
Successive Japanese governments have evaded state responsibility by blaming the imperial military for atrocities. References to the crimes have been downplayed or removed from educational material. Perpetrators have never been held accountable or punished. There will be no reconciliation between Japan and its neighbours while it continues to ignore history.