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International Committee for Joint Nomination of Documents on the Japanese Military 

‘Comfort Women’ to UNESCO Memory of the World Register

Voices of the
'Comfort Women': 

“Throughout the history forever,
we have to preserve the facts of slavery we were forced into.”

In 1991, a victim of the Japanese military sexual slavery, KIM Hak Soon, gave her testimony in a fearful voice about her atrocities to the public for the first time. She has long gone now, but since then other victims in Korea and other countries have been speaking out, about their own sufferings and about women’s human rights. People around the world responded with support and resonance to make their voices remain in the history forever. 

The civil society organizations in Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Netherlands, Indonesia, Philippines and Timor-Leste have worked together to compile documents on the Japanese Military ‘Comfort Women’ and submitted a joint nomination proposal to UNESCO Memory of the World Register. This proposal with 2,744 documents also included the historic documents in the custody of the national archives in the victimized countries but also in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia.

 Keeping in mind the last wish by Ms. Hak-Soon Kim, a 'Comfort Women' victim, to leave in history forever what the 'Comfort Women' were forced to do, we hope to have your signature on the campaign for registering the 'Comfort Women' documents with the UNESCO Memory of the World as records of the women's rights restoration.


Activities of the ICJN

History of the Japanese military 'comfort women'

From the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to the end of the Pacific War in 1945, the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ were forced to give “sexual comfort” to the Japanese Army. Innocent girls and women were confined in “comfort stations” where they were forced into sexual slavery. 

Instead of ‘comfort women,’ the term ‘sexual slavery’ is considered and used as a more appropriate term to describe the nature and reality of the women’s victimization by the international organizations such as the United Nations (UN). However, the term ‘Comfort Women’ is more commonly used because it shows that the system of comfort stations was institutionalized by the Japanese Army. In addition, the surviving ‘comfort women’ victims do not want to be called as “sex slaves”. 

Women and girls from Korea, China, the Netherlands, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries including Japan were placed in or around military bases and forced to provide sexual “comfort”. It is a grave violation of human rights that women and girls were forced to provide such services. 

There were three types of comfort stations according to types of management: ones managed directly by the Japanese military; others managed by civilians but were used exclusively by the military; and the local brothels existed and designated as comfort stations for Japanese soldiers for a certain period of time. Whoever was in charge of management, the ‘comfort women’ system was established, operated, maintained and supervised by the Japanese military. The civilians were used, but their roles were limited. There was a case that a local businessman was convicted in 1937 for crime of slavery, trafficking in persons and of forced prostitution, but this was rather an exceptional case. Countless women were deceived or drafted into becoming ‘comfort women’ without their free will. The Japanese government and its military were behind these crimes and therefore are responsible for the consequences of these acts of violation.

On 14 August 1991, a ‘comfort woman’ victim Ms. Kim Hak-soon publicly announced that she is one of the victims of the Japanese military ‘comfort women’. She was the first women to do so. A year ago in June, the Japanese government stated that “the Japanese military was not involved in controlling the military ‘comfort women’.” Ms. Kim could not stand the denial and decided to reveal the truth about her experience as a ‘comfort woman’. She gave a testimony in public at the office of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

 Ms. Kim’s bravery has triggered other ‘comfort women’ victims into testifying their experiences one after another. It must have been painful to expose the fact that they were indeed ‘comfort women’ but they could not stand the Japanese government’s denial. Since then, women in many other countries also began telling their stories of mass rapes and killings under the occupation of the Japanese military.

The life of these Japanese military ‘comfort women’ was a continuation of indescribable atrocities confined in slavery. Considered as a universal women’s human rights issue, the international community has been pressuring on the Japanese government to take legal responsibility for the grave violations of the human rights of women. The experts of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights reported that the Japanese government had legal responsibility for the violations and recommended to provide reparation for the victims of military sexual slavery. 

The ‘comfort women’ victims must recover their dignity and honor. As of March 2015, out of total 238 registered victims in the Republic of Korea only 53 survivors are left, and almost all of them are now in their 80s and 90s, with difficulty participating in activities and giving testimonies. Not a moment should be lost in resolving the issue, as there is little time left for the aging survivors. The Japanese governmentmust admit the Japanese military’s act of crime, make legal apologies and take follow-up measures for the education of future generations to recover the dignity and honor of ‘comfort women’ victims. 

Starting with Ms. Kim Hak-soon, many of these victims have filed lawsuits against the Japanese government, which drew public attention on their victimization.

 In 1993, through the “Kono statement”, the Japanese government apologized and expressed remorse. This position was materialized as the Asian Women’s Fund. The main activities of the Asian Women’s Fund was to provide atonement money to the ‘comfort women’ victims and passing on the prime minister’s letter of apology. The fund was raised by private donations and not from the government, and has been criticized as a way to avoid admitting government responsibility. Because of the unofficial nature of the fund, many ‘comfort women’ have rejected these payments and continued to seek an official apology and reparation from the Japanese government. 

Moreover, the Japanese government stated that they will “face the past with sincere regret and pass on the responsibility of this matter to the future generation.” However, the description of military‘comfort women’ has disappeared from most of the middle school textbooks. The same thing is also happening to high school textbooks.

First of all, Japan must face its past squarely with sincerity and honesty and admit that it was the State of Japan that “deeply damaged the dignity and honor of countless women.” The Japanese government should acknowledge its acts of grave violations of forcing hundred thousand women into sexual slavery and accept its responsibility and apologize. 

Secondly, the Japanese government must admit not only moral but also legal responsibility. The Prime Minister’s letter mentioned a moral responsibility, but not the legal responsibility. At the same time, the ‘comfort women’ victims must be provided with full medical support to treat their deep psychological and physical wounds. 

Thirdly, for a full fact-finding, the relevant documents and materials kept by the government must be open to the public, and history education should be strengthened and supported. The textbooks used for educational purposes must include descriptions of the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ system so that the future generations learn the history the right way. To realize the above, legislative measures must be taken.

In 1992, the Korean government has demanded that the Japanese government should provide a full fact-finding and resolution. At the same time, having conducted researches and investigations such as collecting testimonies from the victims, the Korean government released a 「Mid-report on the situations of the Japanese military ‘comfort women’」. In 1993, the “Act on Livelihood Stability for Former Sexual Slavery Victims” was enacted, which prescribed financial assistance provided to the registered victims. In 2001, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family started to provide professional psychological therapy sessions for the victims. In 2004, established under the prime minister’s office, the Commission on Verification and Support for the Victims of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Colonialism in Korea investigated fully the issue of the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ on governmental terms. In addition, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has opened a cyber history museum in 2005, strengthening the government’s efforts to educate the public about the truth of the military sexual slavery issue. In 2011, the Constitutional Court of Korea rendered a decision that it was “unconstitutional that the Korean government has not made sufficient efforts regarding the victims’ right to reparation,” which prompted the government to take more proactive initiatives towards the Japanese government in resolving the issue.

In 1988, Professor Yoon Jung Ok of Ewha Womans University started research into the ‘comfort women’ issue. She travelled across Japan and reported the result at a women’s symposium. In 1990, her report was published in a series of articles on the Hankyoreh newspaper, entitled “Tracing the Life of ‘Comfort Women’”, which raised the public interest.

 In 1991, 37 women’s and human rights organizations established the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, and in 1992, the ‘House of Sharing’, a welfare organization for the victims, was established by the Buddhist Human Rights Committee. Since then many more organizations and committees were created concerning the issue of comfort women, with their members actively participating in campaigns and protests. 

In particular, the ‘Wednesday demonstration’ in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, since its first event in January 1992 at the time of then Prime Minister Miyazawa’s visit to Korea, has been continuing for 23 years, with a record of more than 1,170 demonstrations so far. 

The Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery was held in December 2000 in Tokyo, as a people’s tribunal to hold Japan accountable for its crimes of military sexual slavery. With a concerted efforts and preparation for three years, the Tribunal was organized with the participation of 10 countries, with around 70 survivors joined, including 21 ‘comfort women’ from Korea, together with about 2000 participants from women’s, human rights and peace movement organizations, including more than 100 reporters. The preliminary judgment of the Tribunal at Tokyo was delivered on 12 Dec. 2000, and the final judgment was issued one year later on 4 Dec. 2001 in The Hague. With more than 200 pages long, the judgment discussed the factual findings of the Tribunal and laws applicable to the case and concluded that the then Emperor Hirohito was guilty, together with 9 commanders in the military.

If the Japanese government admits its war crimes and takes legal responsibility for what happened during its occupation in Asian countries, the honor and dignity of the victims will be recovered. At the same time, this will become a big stepping stone in our fight against sexual violence and racial discrimination. This will contribute to overcoming the unresolved issues from the past history related to the Asia Pacific War and build the trust among Asian nations.

Records of the Japanese military comfort women

"International Committee for Joint Nomination of Documents On the Japanese Military ‘Comfort Women’ to UNESCO Memory of the World Register"

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