“Comfort women” is a euphemistic term for the hundreds of thousands of girls and women who were kidnapped and sexually enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. From 1931-1945, Japanese military forced young women from more than 13 countries into sexual slavery for the “comfort” of its soldiers.
For the first time, in 1991, a former Korean “comfort woman,” Kim Hak-sun overcame a lifetime of shame to speak up publicly about her personal experience of sexual enslavement by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces. Her testimony shocked the world.
This was the first time in modern history that a government had been accused of systematic implementation sexual violence and sex trafficking. Many more victims followed Kim’s courageous example and revealed their stories and experiences to the world.
Their testimonies helped move the world community to declare that using sexual violence as a weapon of war constitutes a crime against humanity for which governments must be held accountable.
In 2007 the US Congress passed House Resolution 121, which urged the Japanese government to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces’ coercion of young women into sexual slavery.”
The Japanese government heavily lobbied against the resolution, arguing it was Japan-bashing propaganda, rather than an important human-rights issue of institutional sexual violence against women during wartime.
So that the atrocities these women suffered would not be forgotten, a multi-ethnic non-profit organization consisting of more than 38 groups called the Comfort Women Justice Coalition (CWJC) was established in San Francisco in 2015 with the purpose of installing a memorial in US and to demand justice for the “comfort women” victims.
Lee Yong-soo, a former “comfort woman” from South Korea, came forward to give these movements in the US a tremendous boost. Grandma Lee, as Americans fondly called her, personally testified before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2015 in support of a resolution to allow a public memorial to be built in that California city, as she did in 2007 before the US Congress.
Her testimonies were crucial in getting both the necessary resolutions successfully passed. She put a real face to the issue, became the soul of the movement, and was the living testimony of what happened to the “comfort women.”
Her message was that the history of the “comfort women” should not be forgotten, and the government of Japan must issue a sincere, unequivocal and legal apology and pay reparations to the victims. Her goal was to educate the world on the history of the “comfort women.”
On May 9 this year, Grandma Lee made news again. She accused the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (JDH) and its former head, Yoon Mi-hyang, of financial impropriety over funds that were donated for the benefit of surviving “comfort women.”
She also accused the organization of straying from the goals and purposes of the movement by focusing too much on demonstrations and not on education, especially for Korean and Japanese youth.
It is never easy to speak up when one sees wrongs and injustices. Grandma Lee is very courageous to do so. She has nothing to gain from doing this. We understand South Korean prosecutors are already conducting an investigation into the allegations. We urge the investigation be full and thorough without any political considerations.
However, we are also concerned that Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is attempting to use this financial irregularity to dishonor our righteous fight for justice for all “comfort women” victims and survivors.
The media in Japan are reporting on the financial scandal in Korea as if to discredit the movement and argue that the peace monuments around the world should be dismantled.
Japan continues to deny its role in the “comfort women” atrocity, refuses to teach its young people the history of this issue and claims it has been resolved.
The victims and the peace-memorial communities continue to insist on a sincere and official apology from Japan, one that needs to be ratified by the Japanese Diet.
Instead, Japan’s official efforts to block memorials from being built and objections to inclusion of “comfort women” documents in the UNESCO registry of records is an admission that Japan is not ready to face its history and atone for its war crimes against the “comfort women.”
The grandmas who started this movement have urged us to pursue justice and fight sexual exploitation everywhere. Grandma Lee reminded us the job is still unfinished. Let’s pay attention to her message and work in solidarity to restore justice and honor for the “comfort women” victims and survivors.
Mike Honda is a former congressman from California and author of HR 121, 2007. Lillian Sing and Julie Tang are both former judges from San Francisco who retired to build the San Francisco Comfort Women Memorial and have co-chaired the Comfort Women Justice Coalition since 2015.