Despite accord, ‘comfort women’ row not over

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2016-1-3 20:58:01

An agreement about "comfort women" was reached between Japan and South Korea in late December. Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se announced the accord after negotiations in Seoul.

The Japanese side admitted responsibility for the "comfort women" system that "deeply hurt the honor and dignity of many women under the involvement of the Japanese military at the time." The South Korean side will set up a fund for "comfort women," and the Japanese government will offer 1 billion yen ($8.28 million) to support the victims. Both foreign ministers said the "comfort women" issue has been resolved "finally and irreversibly."

Be it due to the "irreversibly" rhetoric or not, major Western media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have made positive comments on the agreement. However, this expression has camouflaged Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's political slyness.

In Japanese, "irreversibly" means no matter what happens, an event might still get back to the original situation. Such an expression gives a misleading message to the Japanese that the deeply troubled "comfort women" issue has been conclusively solved by Abe.

The 1 billion yen is provided in the name of "financial aid" instead of compensation. The bronze statue that features a comfort woman in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul will continue bothering the Japanese government. Abe has promised to offer an apology as the Japanese prime minister, but via a phone call with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, instead of before media and the real victims. Then German chancellor Willy Brandt regained respect for Germany by kneeling down in front of a monument in remembrance of the WWII victims in Warsaw. Not only his honest attitude, but his form of apology mattered a lot.

In fact, many substantive problems about the "comfort women" issue remain unresolved.

Abe's urgency to address the "comfort women" issue, besides the influence of the US, is triggered by three reasons. First, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the rapprochement of Japan-South Korea relations, and Abe was trying to relax the strained bilateral ties on this occasion. Second, the trilateral summit participated in by Chinese, South Korean and Japanese leaders in November led to a formal meeting between Abe and Park, which served as a chance for both sides to consider ending the row over the "comfort women" issue. Third, the settlement of the "comfort women" issue could win Abe an edge before this summer's senate election.

It is true that the agreement contributes to the easing of tensions between Japan and South Korea, but the amicable settlement is not as carefree as expected.

Public opinion will continue questioning the ruling parties of both countries. Although the agreement can improve inter-governmental relations, it doesn't mean the people are willing to bury the hatchet completely on this issue. According to a poll conducted by Nikkei Shimbun, 75 percent of the interviewed Japanese have positive view about the improvement of Japanese-South Korea relationship, while 14 hold a negative attitude. On the "comfort women" issue, 57 percent of the interviewed believes Japan doesn't have to compromise, while 24 percent think it should. The results show that while some in Japanese society have a consensual view about improving the Japanese-South Korea relationship, many still have bigoted bias in historical issues.

Meanwhile, according to a recent survey by Realmeter, 66.3 percent of the interviewed South Koreans are against the idea of removing the comfort woman statue, compared with 19.3 percent of those who favor it. The result can also demonstrate that South Koreans' understanding about "comfort women" has not been dramatically changed due to the warming of the Japanese-South Korean relationship.

Both Japan and South Korea face upcoming senate elections, and it is unlikely the "comfort women" issue will be put to an end. On the contrary, it will be raised over and over by media, grassroots organizations and opposition parties.

Besides the "comfort women" issue, South Korea and Japan are still tested by other divergences in terms of history textbooks, territory and the Yasukuni Shrine. Either of these problems might be able to derail the bilateral ties in the future. What's more, Abe's frivolous view of Japan's wartime history will remain a trouble for the vulnerable Japanese-South Korean relationship.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Sociology at Toyo University.

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