The issue of “comfort women,” who were forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese military during World War II, has been pushed onto the political agenda in the run-up to the nine-in-one elections. The use of this emotive issue as a political tool is unfortunate.
On Monday, New Party Taipei city councilor candidates placed a statue of a comfort woman outside the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association’s offices in Taipei, as part of a series of events demanding an official apology from the Japanese government. The candidates involved say the event was not about promoting the party. The timing would suggest it was.
On Aug. 14, the non-profit Tainan Association for Comfort Women’s Rights, with assistance from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), erected a comfort woman statue next to the KMT’s Tainan chapter office. At the unveiling, former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) criticized the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government for not pursuing an apology from the Japanese government.
According to many estimates, 80 percent of the 200,000 women forced to work as sex slaves were Korean. The South Korean government has been pressuring the Japanese government on this issue for decades. In 2015, then-South Korean president Park Geun-hye accepted a Japanese apology and compensation of ￥1 billion (US$9 million at the current exchange rate).
However, Japan’s refusal to admit legal responsibility for the abuses infuriated some of the surviving victims. South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to honor the agreement, but has undertaken to pay compensation from other sources out of respect for the victims who were refusing Japanese money.
Taiwan’s government has also pursued an apology from the Japanese. Aug 14. was not the first time Ma had brought the subject up, having mentioned it in December last year and on March 8, 2016 — International Women’s Day — when he attended the unveiling of the plaque for the Ama Museum in Taipei, which is dedicated to the comfort women issue.
However, he is not right in suggesting that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not doing anything about seeking an apology. Nor can he claim the KMT is alone in pursuing the matter.
In Novermber 2008, a resolution was passed by legislators across party lines demanding a formal apology and compensation from the Japanese government to former comfort women in Taiwan. Among those who proposed the resolution were then-DPP legislators Huang Sue-ying (黃淑英), William Lai (賴清德) — who is now the premier — and Pan Meng-an (潘孟安).
Ma is demanding that the DPP do something. He was in office for eight years, but what did he do?
He also fails to mention the atrocities of his own party in suppressing the local population after the KMT fled China and during the Martial Law era. Nor does he bring up the inconvenient truth that during that era, the then-KMT administration sponsored army-run brothels known as “831 special teahouses” (八三一特約茶室) or “army paradises” (軍中樂園), established when former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) was in charge of the Ministry of National Defense’s Political Warfare Bureau.
These cannot be compared directly to the horrific experiences recounted by the comfort women, but the word “paradise” surely does not relay the experience of the prostitutes enlisted.
The KMT itself has much to apologize for. Ma’s disingenuously selective memory and demands for DPP action are politically motivated and a distraction from other dark secrets that transitional justice seeks to shine a light on. They are also an attempt to sully relations between the DPP and the Japanese government by a member of an exiled Chinese government seeking to regain favor with China.
The use of the comfort women issue to further Ma’s and the KMT’s ends is distasteful, although not surprising.
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