'Comfort women' debate continues in conflicted O.C.

For years, Orange County has debated whether to honor "comfort women" — the euphemistic term for the thousands of Korean women forced to be the sexual slaves of Japanese soldiers during World War II.

And now that an agreement has been reached between the governments of Japan and South Korea over the decades-long dispute, little seems put to rest. Local Korean and Japanese communities are now debating the merits of the historic deal.


The recent agreement includes an apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a promise of $8.3 million in government funds for the surviving victims, which represents a departure from Japan's previous attempts to compensate the women through private donors.

The Japanese government also called on South Korea to remove a memorial to comfort women outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, which has been the site of weekly protests since 1992, when Korean victims first came forward to demand reparations and a sincere apology from the Japanese government.


The resolution is also considered "final and irrevocable," so that neither country can revisit the issue in the future.

For many experts in Asian politics, the move came as a surprise — especially given Abe's previous reluctance to apologize for Japan's wartime activities.

"If you read the headlines, a lot of commentators are likening this to Nixon's visit to China in 1972," said David Fedman, assistant professor of Japanese and Korean history at UC Irvine. "It's that sudden and that potentially impactful."

At the same time, Fedman believes that the specifics of the deal have yet to be set in stone.


"We don't yet have the formalized language in place to know what is binding, what is not and how, exactly, it will be implemented," he said.

While the deal won praise in the United States from Secretary of State John Kerry, many in the Korean American community are dissatisfied with the terms.

Phyllis Kim, executive director of the Korean American Forum of California, said one major problem is that the comfort women were not involved.

"The victims themselves were completely left out in the process of negotiations," she said, "and they feel it was a backdoor dealing and that they were betrayed by their own government."

According to the group, comfort women have agreed on seven demands, which, it maintains, were not met by this agreement: full acknowledgement of Japan's military sexual slavery, a comprehensive investigation into the crimes, a formal apology from Japan's National Assembly, full legal reparations to all victims, prosecution of the criminals if possible, ongoing education in Japan's history and textbooks and the building of memorials and museums to commemorate the victims and preserve the history of the Japanese military's sexual slavery.

Kim also explained that Abe's apology — which she said didn't go far enough — comes across as insincere, given the simultaneous demand to remove the comfort woman memorial in Seoul.

"With this kind of attempt to whitewash and cover up what happened in the past, how can victims trust the real intention of the government of Japan?" she said.

Japanese Americans, on the other hand, are having a different reaction to the agreement.


"It's both historic and ends a long-running rift between the two countries," said Douglas Erber, president of the Japanese American Society of Southern California. "I'm pleased it's come to fruition."

But Erber explained that the Japanese community in Southern California is less unified on the issue than Korean Americans are. After their internment during World War II, Japanese Americans wanted to prove their devotion to the U.S., so the third- and fourth-generations often grew up culturally, politically and linguistically cut off from Japan. Because of this, said Erber, most in the Japanese American community haven't paid close attention to the issue of comfort women.

"Most Japanese Americans would follow this as much as any other American in the United States," he said.

At the same time, recent immigrants who still have close ties to Japan, including expatriates and first-generation Japanese Americans, are more vocal about the issue. Some oppose the recent deal on the grounds that Japan conceded too much, while a far-right minority denies any coercion in Japan's system of comfort women.

"One of the linchpin issues to date regards whether or not these women willingly and knowingly signed up for these arrangements or whether they were coerced or deceived," said Fedman.

"We have a scarcity of documentation and hard evidence to work with as historians," he went on. "That's part of why this problem persists into the present as it does. So much of it boils down to the stories of women themselves, because we have few other accounts with which to corroborate their testimony."

However, historians agree that from 1932 until 1945, up to 200,000 women from Asian countries, including Korea, China, the Philippines and Indonesia, were brought in to sexually serve the Japanese Imperial Army.

Only 46 known comfort women are alive today, most of them in their 80s and 90s. None lives in the United States.

The debate over comfort women has been playing out in Southern California — which is home to the largest South Korean population in the U.S. — for years.

In 2013, Glendale installed a bronze statue of a Korean girl sitting next to an empty chair, despite pushback from Japanese officials. The Korean American Forum of California worked with the city to install the memorial, which was the first on the West Coast.

Japanese residents filed a lawsuit to remove the memorial, saying it interferes with the federal government's Foreign Affairs Power — which is largely vested in the president but also gives Congress implied powers over foreign affairs. In 2014, a federal judge dismissed the suit, and last February, another judge ruled in favor of the monument.

Buena Park considered installing a memorial to comfort women in 2013, but pushback from local Japanese officials stopped the initiative.

The Fullerton City Council voted in 2014 to support a U.S. House of Representatives resolution asking Japan to acknowledge and apologize for its system of providing comfort women, and also approved the installation of a memorial. But as in Buena Park, pressure from Japanese officials — and concern that the statue might jeopardize Fullerton's relationship with its Japanese sister city, Fukui — ended the project.

While Erber said it was primarily first-generation Japanese residents who spearheaded efforts to block local comfort women memorials, Fedman explained that Japanese Americans also worry.

"Some in the Japanese American community are concerned about what they see as a reemergence of anti-Japanese sentiment that is reminiscent of the period leading up to Japanese internment during the Second World War," he said. "As much as these memorials are framed as a transplantation to California of this geopolitical dispute, you can't remove them from the United States' own deep-seated and often painful history of race relations."

As the Japanese and Korean communities debate the merits of the deal, experts agree that it's sure to transform the relationship of the U.S., Japan and South Korea going forward.


"The real winner of this deal, as others have pointed out, is geopolitics," said Fedman. "If you boil down this agreement, what perhaps motivates both sides more than anything else is an eye opening to the shifting geopolitical landscape of East Asia and an underlying pragmatism — a realism — to the necessity to build a more robust bilateral relationship."

But for Kim, of the Korean American Forum of California, this is part of the problem.

"It is wrong for the Japanese and South Korean governments to take this issue as a diplomatic tool," she said. "It is a universal human right issue, and a women's issue. We're talking about a crime against humanity, not a thorny political interest between these two countries."