April 28, 2015
By Valerie Richardson
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes his historic address Wednesday before a joint session of Congress, most in the audience will be watching him. But some will focused on Yong Soo Lee.
Ms. Lee, 86, is among the last of the surviving “comfort women,” tens of thousands of Koreans and Chinese who as girls were kidnapped and forced into farm labor and sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
As such, Ms. Lee is a living testament to a disgraceful and contentious episode in Japanese history, one that Mr. Abe has been accused of trying to downplay.
Ms. Lee plans to attend a rally outside the Capitol and then watch Mr. Abe’s speech from the gallery as the guest of Rep. Michael M. Honda, California Democrat, a Japanese-American and advocate for the comfort women.
“I’m a victim, survivor and witness of what the Japanese army did,” Ms. Lee said in a translated statement via email.
Advocates want Mr. Abe to acknowledge fully and atone for Japan’s treatment of the women, but he gave little ground at a White House press briefing Tuesday. His speech Wednesday is the first by a Japanese prime minister before a joint session of Congress since World War II.
Asked whether he would apologize, Mr. Abe said he was “deeply pained” by the women’s treatment but has no plans to revisit the stance known as the Kono Statement.
“I am deeply pained to think about the comfort women who experience immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking,” Mr. Abe said through a translator. “This is a feeling that I share equally with my predecessors.”
Under the 1993 Kono Statement, Japan agreed that the military was “directly or indirectly” involved in creating the comfort stations, and that “in many cases” the women were recruited against their will, but Mr. Abe has been accused of trying to placate Japanese nationalists by likening the stations to brothels.
“The Abe [administration] upholds the Kono Statement and has no intention to revise it,” Mr. Abe said. “Based on this position, Japan has made various efforts to provide realistic relief for the comfort women.”
He said Japan has committed to spending $22 million this year on international relief efforts aimed at preventing sexual violence against women during conflicts after spending $12 million last year.
“Throughout the history of the 20th century, women’s dignity and basic human rights have often been infringed upon during wars,” Mr. Abe said. “We intend to make the 21st century a world with no human rights violations against women.”
Jungsil Lee, president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, said Mr. Abe’s comments Tuesday were no different from what he has said in the past. But she hopes he will use the joint session as an opportunity break new ground on the issue.
“I really hope that he will use this opportunity to say more during his speech,” said Ms. Lee, an art history professor. “Because we want to move on. I’m kind of sick and tired of [making] the same request. I really want to move on.”
Yong Soo Lee said Mr. Abe’s comments Tuesday sound “as though he is a third person not related to the issues at all. I don’t believe that he is sincere.”
“Why can’t he [be] man enough to face the truth for the sake of this long and sad history and his country?” Ms. Lee said.
Mr. Honda sent a letter last week to Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Kenichiro Sasae asking him to urge Mr. Abe to use the visit to “lay the foundation for healing and humble reconciliation by addressing the historical issues.”
Editorials in The Boston Globe and The New York Times have called on the prime minister to acknowledge the atrocities without disclaimers or hedging.
“Abe hails from a political faction in Japan that downplays past atrocities,” said the April 24 Boston Globe editorial. “It denies that Japan’s military created ‘comfort stations’ for its soldiers, suggesting instead that they were merely brothels run by Korean syndicates.”
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio warned that China is exploiting a rift between Japan and South Korea over World War II “comfort women,” and he urged Mr. Abe to address his country’s wartime past more fully in his remarks to Congress.
Although Japan has expressed regret for atrocities during the war, “obviously something is missing” because it hasn’t gone far enough for survivors, Mr. Rubio said in an appearance in downtown Los Angeles.
Japanese officials argue that they have made numerous statements of apology and remorse over the years. The Japanese government helped set up a private fund in 1995 to pay for medical care and compensate the victims, but South Koreans have argued that the funding should come directly from the government.
“Abe’s stance reflects the fact that many in Japan have either grown tired of showing remorse for the past, or never felt that remorse in the first place,” said the editorial.
Jungsil Lee said that 70 years after the end of the war, there is still little or no mention of the comfort women in Japanese schools.
“They don’t even say anything about these issues in their textbooks,” Ms. Lee said. “Only some portions of the people know about it.”
Her organization has spent the past week trying to build awareness of the issue in anticipation of the prime minister’s visit. The group flew in Yong Soo Lee from South Korea for Mr. Abe’s visit and arranged for an interview with the Washington Post.
On Tuesday, the organization took out a full-page ad in the newspaper and held a small rally in front of the Capitol. The larger rally comes Wednesday, when Jungsil Lee says she expected a crowd of about 700, including supporters from as far as Chicago and Los Angeles.
The protests are spreading beyond Washington. Mr. Abe plans to travel Thursday to San Francisco, where hundreds of demonstrators gathered Tuesday to demand an apology outside the Japanese Consulate.
The Japanese “don’t want to talk about it because it’s still shameful for them, but to get over it and become a real leader, a global leader, you have to face this,” said Jungsil Lee. “You have to face it and give a relevant response to it.”
Yong Soo Lee was 14 when she was kidnapped from her family’s farm and brought to a Japanese military outpost.
She was there for two years until the war ended, during which time she was raped 40 to 50 times a day by soldiers, said Sami Lauri, who chairs the board of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, the group that flew Ms. Lee to the U.S. from South Korea for the prime minister’s visit.
Yong Soo Lee never married, which was not uncommon for the comfort women. First, there was the trauma associated with years of sexual abuse, and then there was the social stigma back home in Korea.
“The majority were never married. In Korea, the mentality is that virginity is one of the most important factors in a marriage,” said Ms. Lauri. “So they were victimized twice.”
There are 53 comfort women living in South Korea, and others in China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Netherlands. Only two comfort women are known to be living in the United States, but neither wants to come forward publicly, Jungsil Lee said.
“This is a very difficult issue for them, especially when they have a family,” she said. “They don’t really want to reveal this in front of their families and husbands.”