Victims of Japan's wartime sex-slave system refuse to disappear.
More than half a century since the end of World War II, Japan has recovered better than other Asian countries from wartime destruction. During the 1990s, the country experienced significant changes, Emperor Hirohito's death and the Cold War's end, and the crumbling of the Liberal Democratic Party's monopoly on political power.
Japan is ready to forget and to move on from the past.
Illustration: Mountain People
But it will not be easy for Japan to put everything to rest as long as survivors of its sexual enslavement during the war keep up their demands for justice from the Japanese government.
Established between 1932 and 1945, the military's sexual slavery system was given the innocuous sounding name -- "comfort women system."
The true brutality of the system first came to light when survivors began in 1991 to speak out about their experiences as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers. Since then, hundreds of women in Asia have come out to expose their suffering at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Forces during the war.
Occasionally, outcries from victims remind Japan of their destructive imperial drive in Asia to disrupt what some comfort women describe as the country's seeming amnesia about the matter.
Over the past two weeks at Kudan Kaidan, a conference hall in Tokyo, over 70 former comfort women from eight Asian countries painfully testified before a mock tribunal about how they were forced to become sex slaves and how much they suffered from their enslavement by the Japanese military.
Their graphic testimonies, frequently punctuated by sobs and curses, drew a vivid picture of a shockingly painful past and provoked emotional reactions from the audience.
The proceedings carried on while outside the conference hall right-wing Japanese protesters shouted: "The women did it voluntarily. They're nothing but prostitutes."
Between 1932 and 1945, according to the little surviving historical documentation and testimonies of the former comfort women and soldiers, thousands of "comfort women" were systematically rounded up and confined in "comfort stations," or brothels, where they were repeatedly raped and abused by Japanese military personnel.
Though an open secret in the Japan's former colonies, debate about comfort women was largely suppressed until the last decade.
Japanese writer Tamura Taijiro first exposed the use of Korean comfort women in his 1947 novel A Prostitute's Story. And in 1973, Senda Kako, a Japanese journalist, published a groundbreaking story on military comfort women, investigating the actual conditions comfort women endured under the sexual slavery system.
The two reports, however, did not gain much attention and the issue was not widely known until 1991, when three former Korean comfort women filed a suit in Tokyo District Court demanding an apology and compensation from the Japanese government.
Since then, a movement has grown to include women from former Japanese colonies, including North and South Korea, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and East Timor. To this day, the international movement has persisted in pressing the Japanese government to take not only moral but legal responsibility -- with prosecution of the perpetrators and repatriations -- for the enforced prostitution.
In facing the issue over the last 10 years, the Japanese government has shifted from rigid denial to admitting it operated the comfort women system. And in 1995 the Japanese government established the Asian Women's Fund, comprised of scholars, to raise private donations from Japanese citizens as compensation for survivors of the comfort women system.
Despite these moves, Tokyo has so far refused to those responsible on trial or address the claims by individual survivors for compensation, pointing out that the crimes were committed over 50 years ago and have become unpunishable under Japan's statute of limitations.
It also contends all compensation issues associated with the war have already been resolved under bilateral treaties following the war.
Comfort women's testimonies that began to emerge in the early 1990s piqued a sensitive nerve in Japan and drew attacks on both the veracity and motives of women from right-wing groups but also from government ministers and universities.
Outside the Kudan Kaidan at the recent trial a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old, a 36-year-old and a 70-year-old used a bullhorn to berate the organizers of the event.
The oldest protester said he wanted to direct his remarks in particular to the foreign press, and said: "These people inside are a minority because most Japanese believe we don't owe anything to these comfort women."
The youngest protester added to the remarks, asking: "Why is Japan alone being condemned? How about the US, which killed so many Japanese people with the two atomic bombs?"
Similar anti-US rhetoric was made by another Japanese man, who was a member of the audience of the tribunal.
"We want to sue the US as much as the comfort women want to sue our government," the man said.
"I personally sympathize with these women and think our government is responsible for their sufferings. But since [people from] every country here condemn Japan as the only unforgivable devil, I think it's just unfair," he said.
Such sentiments are common in Japan, where accounts of the war emphasize the perceived injustice of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and downplay the people's role in supporting Japanese militarism.
One of the main problems in seeking apologies and compensation from the Japanese government has been the dwindling numbers of surviving former comfort women.
Yayori Matsui, chairwoman of the JAWW-NET Japan (Violence against Women in War Network Japan), who is an organizer of the women's tribunal in Tokyo, said: "[I have] no optimism at all. I don't think the [Japanese] government is going to do anything in response to the issue any time soon."
"As a Japanese myself, I feel ashamed that my government has dodged its responsibility for crimes against the women," said the former journalist who became involved in the movement after an interview with a former Korean comfort woman in Thailand in 1984.
"I know my stance on this issue represents only the minority of Japanese. The majority, especially the young people, actually believe the comfort women were prostitutes because they took money. This kind of sentiment prevails here and is often enhanced by nationalism."
She pointed to the sparse coverage of the tribunal in Japan as proof of the people's indifference to the issue.
Though their views have been largely marginalized, a few like Matsui in Japan, especially scholars, and lawyers, are pressing for greater recognition of former comfort women by various means, including lobbying the Diet, or Japanese parliament. To their dismay, a recent bill which would have provided compensation for victims of Japan's sexual violence during the war failed to pass in the Diet, in which conservatives form the majority.
Even though support from parliamentary members of all parties other than the ruling party is steadily growing, Matsui feels it is hopeless to expect the conservative government to change.
"I know it is not going to change. But we people can change the government," Matsui said.
"In practice, a movement like the people's tribunal doesn't carry any weight with the people in power. But if it ever means a small step for any of the Japanese people, I feel changes will come sooner or later," she said.
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