On July 6, the U.S. government delivered to Japanese authorities a U.S. Air Force sergeant accused of raping an Okinawan woman. The U.S. was not required to act with such speed, but a firestorm of protests had erupted across Japan, culminating in demands made at the highest levels of government. Following the handover, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker Jr. that U.S. forces should “tighten discipline and guidance” of troops stationed in Japan.
One would expect that a country outraged about an alleged rape of an Okinawan woman would be deeply concerned about its own legacy of mass rape during World War II. Yet to this day, the Japanese government has rejected calls from South Korea, China and others to revise history textbooks that gloss over Japanese atrocities, including the systematic program of rape and sexual slavery in the 1930s and 1940s: the “comfort women” system.
These Japanese refusals took a step backward from the government’s earlier position and violated a 1996 international commitment to disclose the historical facts of Japan’s wartime aggression in the nation’s textbooks. Nothing, however, can obscure the facts. Under the comfort women system, Japanese government agents abducted, forcibly or by deception, more than 200,000 women and girls, mostly Korean, Chinese and Filipino, and forced them into sexual slavery to satisfy the whims of Japanese troops posted across occupied Asia. One survivor described her life in Japanese captivity as a “living hell.” Confined to tiny, unsanitary rooms, these women were fed survival rations at best and forced to service up to 40 men a day. Those who tried to escape were often tortured. Many killed themselves. The rest were mentally and physically scarred for life.
For almost 50 years, from the end of the war until 1994, the Japanese government refused even to admit the existence of this brutal policy. The surviving comfort women themselves had been afraid or ashamed, given pervasive societal taboos, to step forward. The Japanese government made its grudging acknowledgment only after independent historians had uncovered documents that irrefutably showed that the comfort women program began in 1932, intensified with the 1937 Rape of Nanking (in which Japanese troops violated an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 women) and eventually led to the establishment of “comfort stations” throughout vast territories under Japanese occupation.
Japan has refused to offer any compensation to its former comfort women victims. However, in September 2000, a courageous group of these women filed a class-action lawsuit against Japan in federal court in Washington, D.C. These women expected the U.S. government to view their claims with sympathy and to help them negotiate a resolution with Japan.
The opposite happened. The U.S. government in April filed a formal request asking that the case be dismissed. Japan, the U.S. said, should be shielded from the lawsuit by “sovereign immunity.” The U.S. is saying, in effect, that the systematic rape, torture and murder of hundreds of thousands should be recognized as just another ordinary government action.
The Bush administration seems determined to help Japan avoid any consequences for its crimes, even in the face of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, which declares that “sexual slavery and trafficking in women and children are ... abhorrent to the principles on which the United States was founded.”
The U.S. government’s stance also reveals a double standard. In the recent series of cases against companies that profited from slave labor in areas controlled by the Third Reich, the U.S. championed the rights of the European victims and eventually helped them achieve multibillion-dollar settlements. But when it came to the Asian victims, the U.S. actively thwarted efforts to seek justice.
It is not too late for the comfort women to have their day in court. Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), the ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee, has introduced a resolution calling on Japan to issue an apology to the former comfort women. On Wednesday, Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. will hold a hearing on the joint Japanese-U.S. request to dismiss the comfort women case.
Japan must be held accountable for its crimes, and the U.S. must act to repair its fractured image as a global advocate for human rights.