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 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.