When we were younger, forced apologies were a regular occurrence. It always seemed like some adult was constantly asking us to say sorry. So we did – to the kid we were mean to, the sibling we shoved, the parent we mouthed off to – but what for? If I shove my sister to the pavement because she won’t share the sidewalk chalk, a verbal apology is not going to heal her bleeding kneecap.
An apology is what World War II “comfort women” are seeking from the Japanese government. Even this year’s production of “The Vagina Monologues” included a new piece titled “Say It,” which author Eve Ensler wrote to comfort women in their fight for official recognition from the Japanese government. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Shinko Abe has forgotten his kindergarten values.
Ensler’s request, along with that of thousands of former comfort women, was flat out denied last week. The Japanese government just won’t say it.
“Comfort women” is a rosey euphemism for the young Japanese women forced into sexual slavery during WWII. Their story is one of the saddest, most shameful chapters in modern history. “Comfort stations” originally began as institutionalized brothels run by the Japanese government as a kind of bonus for their soldiers. But as the war wore on, the regular supply of prostitutes ran dry and the government had to find other, less traditional means of obtaining women.
It is estimated that more than 200,000 women from Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other surrounding countries were bribed, coerced, tricked or kidnapped into sexual slavery by Japanese government officials or soldiers. Some were pre-adolescent girls of only 13 or 14, while others were mothers. Most were forced to “service” up to 40 men per day, and those who refused were beaten or even killed for their disobedience. The freshest of the newly stolen crop – the virgins – were given to officers.
A Japanese lawyer recently explained the situation to a group of lawmakers: “Where there’s demand, businesses crop up . but to say women were forced by the Japanese military into service is off the mark.” But former comfort women, most now well into their 80s, are not settling for this callow supply-and-demand excuse.
What’s worse is that Prime Minister Abe apparently agrees with that logic. Last week, to the shock of many Asian leaders and to the grave disappointment of surviving comfort women, Abe retracted a prior, unofficial government apology made to the comfort women in 1993, saying, “The fact is, there is no evidence to prove coercion.” Apparently hundreds of personal testimonies from rape victims, confessions from Japanese soldiers themselves and undisputed documents discovered in 1992 directly linking the Japanese government to the comfort stations are not quite convincing enough.
So the Japanese government won’t say it. Even the 1993 apology was half-hearted, an unofficial “moral but not legal” admission of responsibility to effectively placate international outrage while avoiding monetary reparations. It was the kind of apology a kid makes when his mom drags him by the ear to the house of a classmate he teased at school.
Even the U.S. government won’t officially demand the Japanese government apologize for fear of tampering with its hard-earned friendship with Tokyo. After hearing testimony from comfort women last month, the U.S. House of Representatives resolved to pass a “non-binding resolution” politely asking Tokyo to recognize its wartime atrocities – but even this meager show of support has yet to pass through the House.
These women deserve better. In fact, they deserve more than an official apology. We all know that apologies mean nothing if they are not accompanied with action. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called for full monetary compensation for the surviving comfort women, in accordance with international standards requiring adequate reparations for severe humanitarian violations.
The Japanese response? Rape was not a war crime until 1949, after the Fourth Geneva Convention. In 2001, the Japanese High Court actually ruled against three South Korean comfort women, refusing to pay them each a pathetic $2,453.
All the women want is a simple playground-style apology. They want to be included in school textbooks and documented as part of Japanese history. But the kindergartener in me who knows just how painless it is to say sorry knows the Japanese government is getting off easy. It takes more than a confession to really apologize to these women, all of whom still stuffer mental and physical scars from their years of sexual enslavement.
Until Abe and other high ranking Japanese officials give these women what they really deserve, they will be no better than the wimpy kid who cowers behind his mother, giving a weak and insincere “I’m sorry” to his crying classmate. Apologizing is a simple. Action is hard. And action, in the form of monetary reparations, is what these women really deserve.
Whitney Dibo is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.