by Garrett Dee
Photo Credit: AFP
THE LEGACY OF forcing women and girls into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War, a practice known as taking “comfort women”, has long plagued perceptions of Japan and pollutes the relationships that the modern day Japanese government has with its neighbors even today. Despite this complications this troubled history has caused, however, the Dec. 28 agreement reached between the governments of Japan and South Korea, the nation most heavily impacted by this issue, sees the Japanese government willing to offer the victims a compensation of 1 billion yen in a fund stated to be set up to help restore their dignity and repair their psychological wounds. The intentions behind the sudden close of this historically contentious issue, as well as the implications such a deal has for the international politics of the Asia-Pacific region, however, have fallen under criticism by several parties, among them Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.
In reaction to the deal reached between Seoul and Tokyo on the issue of reparations for sexual slavery crimes committed during this period, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou once again called on Japan to issue a formal apology to Taiwanese comfort women and offer them compensation for their suffering. Though the practice of providing sexual slaves to Japanese soldiers primarily occurred in South Korea, according to data from the Taiwanese Womens’ Rescue Foundation (the lead Taiwanese organization on advocating for this issue), more than 2,000 Taiwanese women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War. In 2005, a group of these women attempted to sue the Japanese government for reparations but were unsuccessful. Of the 58 women who have come forward demanding Japanese reparations, only four are alive today.
Despite this stated push for a resolution similar to the one brokered with Korea in regards to the issue of Taiwanese comfort women, the Japanese government seems willing to rebuff Taiwanese demands for the time being. Only a few days after interested Taiwanese parties publicly indicated a desire for the issue of Japanese sexual slavery in Taiwan to be formally addressed and compensated for by the Japanese government, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated that Japan would not be opening up a further round of negotiations with other countries similar to the one reached with Korea. The Japanese government, according to Secretary Suga, has dealt with each country affected by this issue “in a sincere manner considering each circumstance”. It seems that Suga is referring to the offer by the Japanese government in 1995 to provide 5 million yen to victims of sexual violence at the hands of Japanese soldiers, an offer which was accepted by a mere 13 Taiwanese women.
First round of the summit held between Abe and Park in November. Photo credit: Kyodo News
In its own reaction to the terms of the agreement, Chinese state media apparatus Xinhua published a scathing critique of the behavior of Japanese government in arranging reparations to victims. Chinese people also suffered atrocities at the hands of the Japanese during the period of Japanese occupation (including war crimes of sexual violence), and has repeatedly stated its view that Japan has inadequately addressed this issue in the subsequent decades. In its critique, Xinhua stated there was a distinct “lack of sincerity” in reaching the deal, which it argued did not go far enough in its pursuit of restoration of the victims’ dignity. In the estimation of the Chinese media, the deal was brokered more for political expediency than for anything else, and to allow for the issue to be closed in a manner that allows Japan to lose as little face as possible.
Beyond the issue of historical indignity, the government of the PRC has more than enough reason to continue to point fingers of blame at the Japanese over aggression in the Asia Pacific region during the Second World War. Though no close friend of the South Koreans, in part to their traditional alliance with the North, China’s criticism of the terms of the comfort women reparations agreement—in particular highlighting the negative reaction of the women themselves to the deal—may come with hopes of preventing the two sides from colluding with each other (and the United States) in a unified East Asian bloc against it. The existence of a such a bloc, all but impossible throughout the course of the twentieth century as a result of the deep grievances amongst the countries of the Asia Pacific, might serve as a counterbalance to Chinese power in the region, particularly as its neighbors become more and more wary of its maritime territorial expansion.
Xinhua may not have been altogether incorrect in its take on the implications of the deal. Just days after the finalization of the deal was announced, cracks had already begun to show in the reactions of the various concerned parties. Despite his reputation as a fiercely conservative prime minister intent on returning Japan to the forefront of the international system, Prime Minister Abe came under fire by more conservative elements of the nation’s society, who claim his willingness to recognize South Korea’s claims shames their national legacy. Japanese leaders have a history of giving into nationalistic impulses when addressing the atrocities of the Second World War, including a proclivity for visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese Imperial Army leaders claimed to have committed war crimes.
Elements of South Korean society had an even stronger reaction to the deal, which was seen by many as a wholesale betrayal of the nation by the hands of their government. The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery in Japan contended that the deal was nothing but “diplomatic collusion”, made in an attempt to push the issue behind them as quickly as possible but without adequately addressing the damage. Even more telling, the victims themselves have outright rejected their government’s deal with Tokyo, stating that they were at no point consulted during the negotiation process, and that the government rashly reached a deal without their knowledge. The South Korean government’s promise to the Japanese to explore the possibility of removing a statue of a young girl meant to honor the South Korean victims of Japanese sexual slavery located in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul has also met with a strongly negative reaction by South Korean civil society, who claims it is not appropriate for the government to meddle in such matters.
Monument memoralizing comfort women in Seoul. Photo credit: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je
In addition to concerns about a strong relationship developing between two of their regional rivals, it is almost certain that the PRC suspects that this warming of relationships between Seoul and Tokyo, as an attempt to strengthen the partnership between them, was orchestrated by the United States. Certainly, the Obama administration has been pressing the issue of reparations on the issue of sexual slavery by Japan for many years, and has been instrumental in arranging opportunities for the two sides to speak on the issue. In a recent phone conversation with President Park and Prime Minister Abe to address the issue of a possible nuclear weapons test conducted by North Korea, President Obama made sure to congratulate the two on finalizing the agreement.
The United States has traditionally opted for a “spoke and wheel” policy when dealing with its allies in East Asia, in which it operates through bilateral relationships between itself and individual nations rather than through supranational organizations. This is in contrast to its preferred strategy in Europe, in which it actively deals with organizations such as NATO and the EU to resolve regional issues. The strengthening of Obama administration’s Rebalance Towards Asia may be changing this strategy, however, to one in which it encourages the development of a regional bloc amongst its existing allies. Along with a host of other issues dating back to earlier periods of wartime, a solid resolution to issue of comfort women between Japan and South Korea has received a very public push from the Obama administration in pursuit of creating this bloc. Taiwan has not received similar support to its own claims about reparations for Comfort Women from the administration.
Though linked by historical and cultural ties, Taiwan and Japan have their own areas of contention in addition to the issue of comfort women. Though often framed as a dispute between the PRC and the Japanese by international media, Taiwan also lays claim to the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands that lay not far off its own coastline, putting it at odds with Tokyo. In addition, Japan’s seeming unwillingness to aid Taiwan in gaining recognition internationally troubles their relationship. Rumors that Prime Minister Abe and Democratic Progressive Party presidential nominee Tsai Ing-wen arranged a secret meeting in a Tokyo hotel last October were strongly denied by both sides, presumably out of a desire on the part of Japan to avoid angering the PRC by openly meeting with a Taiwanese politician. Apparent acquiescence to Beijing’s demand that no country meet with leaders of the Taiwanese government without its permission does not bode well for the future of Japanese-Taiwanese relations, nor for any hope to be included in this budding regional alliance on the part of Taiwan.
The recent willingness of Japan and its neighbors in the Asia Pacific region to begin to put such historically divisive issues to rest seems to stem in part from a preoccupation with the increasing military might of the People’s Republic of China. That these various nations would want to band together in an effort to counterbalance this force seems plausible given that all of them individually have grievances with the PRC and none of them seem likely to be able to challenge Beijing on their own. However, as is the case whenever Taipei attempts to join international organizations—even those composed of mostly East Asian nations—its attempts to join in this potential bloc seem to have been ignored, if not outright rebuffed. If Japan’s refusal to open the issue of reparations for Taiwanese comfort women to further negotiation is any signal of its policy disposition towards Taiwan moving forward, it seems that the Taiwanese government may have to look elsewhere for international support during the upcoming administration.