Compensating "comfort women"

A nonbinding House resolution would prod the Japanese government on past human rights violations.

Published September 14, 2006 3:30PM (EDT)

Pretty cool: On Wednesday, the House Committee on International Relations adopted a bipartisan resolution to take Japan to task over the so-called comfort women who worked in imperial army brothels in Japanese-occupied territories from the 1930s through the end of World War II. Many of these women were sold, abducted or tricked into the brothels, where they were subjected to repeated rape and, in some cases, torture. Of the women who served in the brothels -- an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 -- only around 30 percent are estimated to have survived the Second World War. The International Relations Committee resolution refers to the practice as "one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century."

The women in question are believed to have been predominantly Korean, though women from Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma and the Pacific Islands also served as comfort women. And international issues are a significant part of the current debate. Since the war, numerous former "comfort women" and their families have spoken publicly about their experiences, and some have sued the Japanese government for reparations. Japan, however, maintains that all postwar compensation claims have been settled by previous treaties. In 1995 the country responded to international pressure by establishing the Asian Women's Fund -- technically a nongovernmental entity -- with "the aim of expressing a sense of national atonement from the Japanese people to the former 'comfort women,' and to work to address contemporary issues regarding the honor and dignity of women." But reparations advocates and women's rights activists saw the AWF as a public relations move that allowed Japan to dodge its legal responsibility. Legal scholars have suggested that continuing international pressure, particularly from the U.S., is critical to survivors seeing any state compensation.

Which brings us to H.R. 759, which asks that the Japanese government formally apologize for sexually enslaving so-called comfort women, publicly refute claims that abuses against these women never occurred and educate future generations about the practice, including updating textbooks that downplay Japan's role in establishing and overseeing the wartime brothels. It's a nonbinding resolution that doesn't mention reparations, so it's unclear what, if any, effect it'll have. Still, previous resolutions of this kind have been scuttled; the passage of this version certainly contributes to international pressure on the subject. It's good to see our current leadership showing support for women's rights, given their less than stellar track record on women's issues generally.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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