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.
The Japanese government emphasized that the "atonement money" did not come from the government, in keeping with its position that postwar treaties cleared it of such claims. It also feared, experts said, that making any exceptions would leave it vulnerable to lawsuits from other victims of Japanese militarism.
The government provided US$6.3 million in "welfare services" to the 285 women, as well as the 79 in the Netherlands. This money was also part of the Asian Women's Fund. In reality, though, the women were free to use this government money however they wished. There was little practical difference, but a big symbolic one, between atonement and welfare.
"The Japanese government has presented this fund to deceive our survivors and the international community," said Nelia Sancho, a leading supporter of the women in the Philippines.
As a result of the hairsplitting, the governments of Taiwan and South Korea, two former Japanese colonies, rejected both payment programs of the Asian Women's Fund and created their own. Former sex slaves there were pressed to reject the Japanese money, though supporters acknowledge that some secretly accepted both.
Haruki Wada, the executive director of the Asian Women's Fund and a historian at the University of Tokyo, defended the program, noting that it was Japan's first attempt since the end of World War II to compensate its war victims individually.
He acknowledged that the nature of the payments was sometimes confusing.
"The Dutch took it as compensation, but for the Japanese government, it wasn't compensation," Wada said. "In theory, the payments were for the costs of the welfare services. It was a quintessentially Japanese way of doing things."
"It doesn't matter if there's criticism that the fund was inadequate or that Japan should have done more. But to tell the victims that they can't take this money only made them suffer," he added.
Wada said fund officials were unable to operate and reach survivors in other countries, including China, North Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar and East Timor.
Because of the official opposition in South Korea and Taiwan, officials associated with the Japanese fund often had to contact former sex slaves outside official channels.
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"The grandmas were surprised," Wu said. "At first, they thought the strangers were con men, but they were only men from the Asian Women's Fund offering them money."
Because of the delicateness of the issue, officials at the Japanese fund have refused to break down the 285 recipients by nationality.
"This fund is closing without our being able to even announce how many accepted the fund in South Korea and Taiwan," Wada said.
Indeed, the opposition was fiercest in South Korea.
In a shelter for former sex slaves outside Seoul, Yi Ok-seon, 80, said the fund was an attempt by the Japanese government "to shut the mouths of the comfort women."
Between 1942 and 1945, starting at age 16, another Korean woman, Lee Yong-nyeo, 81, was forced to work in a military brothel in Burma. She was one of the few in South Korea to admit taking money from the fund.
"I lived in someone else's house since I was 8, and I wanted to buy land," said Lee, in an interview inside the new house she bought with money from the fund.
"I resisted for many years," she added. "But I didn't know whether I would ever get anything, so when the Japanese called a few years ago and said this might be the last chance, I decided to accept it."
In the Philippines, the government offered no domestic assistance to the women and avoided criticizing Japan, by far its largest donor.
"The Filipino government is so dependent on Japanese aid that it cannot rock the boat," said Ricardo Trota Jose, a historian of Philippine-Japanese relations at the University of the Philippines.
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