Dr. Bobby K. Kalotee Chairman of Nassau County Human Rights Commission joined with other commissioners on the invitation of Commissioner Minsun Kim to visit at Kagny in Manhattan to give respect and learn about the tragedy which happened on the polite of thousands of women in the world war. joined with Japan’s most recent and controversial apology to the government of South Korea for sexual slavery committed by its military against “comfort women” during WWII has raised important questions about apologies for crimes and serious human rights violations during armed conflict. What is the proper role of an apology for such massive crimes against humanity? What can apologies do and what should they not be meant to do for survivors and victims?
The latest Japanese apology, which some have seen as part of a strategic geopolitical deal struck between Japan and South Korea, has led to protests among the 46 surviving South Korean victims as well as the victims in other countries occupied by Japan during the war.
After working for 15 years on reparations for victims in over 50 countries, ICTJ has found that many victims feel that an apology unaccompanied by other forms of reparation does not constitute justice, even as material reparations, such as compensation, without a meaningful acknowledgement of responsibility also falls short.
An estimated 200,000 women in Asia were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army just prior to and during World War II. Japan systematically established an extensive network of “comfort stations” throughout its occupied territories, to which “comfort women” were trafficked and used as sexual slaves. Many of these “comfort women” were barely teenagers when they were enslaved and the surviving few are now of very advanced age and dwindling in numbers.
Various expressions of regret and statements acknowledging the role of the Japanese military in operating the “comfort women” system have been made by different Japanese government officials, but none, including the latest apology, has expressed an unconditional acknowledgment that the Japan as a state was responsible for these violations.
As part of the latest “apology,” Japan pledged 1 billion yen ($8.3M) for the creation of a South Korean foundation to support the surviving South Korean victims with medical, nursing, and other support services. South Korea, in turn, pledged to “irreversibly” drop its demand for reparation, end all criticism of Japan on the issue, and remove a memorial constructed by Korean “comfort women” survivors in 2011 in front of Japan’s embassy in Seoul.
Rather than fully acknowledge the state’s responsibility for initiating the system of “comfort stations” (or brothels) the agreement offers a “heartfelt apology and remorse” but only for the “involvement of Japanese military authorities” in forcing South Korean women into sexual slavery. According to survivors and their advocates, this falls well short of a complete and meaningful apology. It does not recognize Japan’s role in establishing and maintaining the system of sexual slavery. It does not accept legal responsibility for the violations. It fails to meet criteria set out in international human rights norms that a public apology must be an “acknowledgement of the facts and acceptance of responsibility.”
In a recent report by the International Center for Transitional Justice, “More Than Words: Apologies as a Form of Reparation,” we explain that the most meaningful public apologies clearly acknowledge responsibility for the violations and recognize the continuing pain of survivors and victims’ families.
As the report points out, apologies for massive and systematic war crimes and human rights violations should come as a result of consultations with survivors and victims’ families about the form, content and timing of an apology that would be most meaningful for them.
This was not the case for Japan and South Korea’s “comfort women” survivors. This is certainly not the case for all other survivors across Asia that are not covered by the agreement between the Japanese Prime Minister and South Korean President. Instead, this attempt at an apology appears to have come about through the encouragement of the United States. It was motivated less, if at all, by a desire to render justice to comfort women but by a need to ease tensions between Japan and South Korea (including over territorial disputes and unresolved historical grievances).
The ICTJ report emphasizes that apologies should not end truth seeking nor stifle truth telling by victims. Instead, an apology should encourage a collective reckoning by society of conflict-related crimes or human rights violations carried out in the name of the state. An apology should open up space for accountability rather than close it.
Certainly, apologies should not be used to remove or devalue measures, such as memorials and monuments—especially those established by victims themselves — to ensure that violations are not forgotten. Memorials built by victims that are strongly supported by society are not for the government of the day, let alone a foreign government responsible for war crimes, to remove. That only adds grave insult to irreparable injury.
Apologies, too, should not discriminate among victims of the same violations. Indeed, Japan’s failure to mention the women victims of its “comfort stations” in China, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, and other Asian countries supports the view that the apology was motivated primarily by political expediency rather than a genuine admission of past wrongdoing. By effectively discriminating against some victims, the gesture fulfills neither the spirit nor purpose of an official apology.