Fri, Apr 27, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Tokyo's attempts to save face prolong pain of `comfort women'

By Norimitsu Onishi  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOKYO

Facing calls to compensate the aging victims of its wartime sexual slavery, Japan set up the Asian Women's Fund in 1995. It was a significant concession from Japan, which has always asserted that postwar treaties absolved it of all individual claims from World War II.

But the fund only fueled anger in the very countries with which Japan had sought reconciliation.

By the time it closed as scheduled last month, only a fraction of the former sex slaves had accepted its money. Two Asian governments even offered money to discourage more women from taking Japan's.

Critics inside and outside Japan complained about the Japanese government's decision to set up the fund as a private one, making clear that the "atonement" payments came from citizens. They saw this as another tortured attempt by Tokyo to avoid taking full responsibility for one of the ugliest aspects of the war.

"It was not directly from the Japanese government; that is why I did not accept it," said Ellen van der Ploeg, 84, a Dutchwoman who was taken from a prisoner of war camp in Indonesia and forced to work in a Japanese military brothel for three months in 1944.

"If you have made mistakes in life, you must have the courage to say, `I'm sorry, please forgive me.' But the Japanese government to this day has never taken full responsibility," she said in a telephone interview from Houten, the Netherlands.

"If this were a pure government fund, I could have accepted it," she said. "Why should I accept money from private Japanese people? They were also victims during the war."

The Japanese government has held up the fund as one way it has tried to redress a past wrong, even as, in Washington, the House of Representatives is considering a resolution that would call on Japan's government to unequivocally acknowledge its role in the wartime sexual slavery, and apologize for it.

Of those former sex slaves -- known euphemistically in Japan as "comfort women" -- who accepted money from the fund, most did so secretly to avoid criticism. Supporters of the women in the four places where women were compensated individually -- South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and the Netherlands -- became deeply divided over whether to accept the money.

Even those who favored accepting the money said the fund reflected the absence of moral clarity in Japan, an opinion that was reinforced last month, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied the Japanese military's role in coercing women into sexual slavery.

"I believed the Japanese government should take direct legal responsibility, but I respected the wishes of the women who wanted to accept the money," said Marguerite Hamer, the head of a private Dutch organization, the Project Implementation Committee in the Netherlands, through which 79 women have received compensation from the Asian Women's Fund. "They are old, and they had such hard lives."

"I was furious and astounded by Abe's denial," Hamer added. "It was really awful for the women. Four of them called me and said, `How could this happen again? How could they do this to me again?'"

About US$4.8 million was raised for the fund from private contributions. From that sum, 285 women in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines received almost US$17,000 each, along with a letter of apology from the Japanese prime minister.

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