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Comfort Women "Settlement" Forgets and De-Legitimizes the Victims

01/20/2016 12:11 EST | Updated 01/20/2017 05:12 EST
RINGO CHIU via Getty Images
Supporters hold portraits of former 'Comfort Women' during a candlelight vigil in remembrance and support of 'Comfort Women', Japanese military sexual slavery victims during World War II, at Glendale Peace Monument on January 5, 2016 in Glendale, California. AFP PHOTO / Ringo Chiu / AFP / RINGO CHIU (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)

In the New York Times article reporting the latest Comfort Women settlement reached by the South Korean and the Japanese governments, we see a picture of two smiling male government officials shaking hands, representing a done deal. Significantly, there is no smiling Comfort Woman in sight.

The terms of settlement include a formal apology from the Japanese government, and a $8.3 million US payment (1 billion yen). The funds are to be used as compensation for the remaining 46 Comfort Women who have come forward and are still alive, as well as "projects for recovering the honor and dignity and healing the psychological wounds of all former comfort women."

"Comfort Women" refer to women from Asian countries where Japan exercised colonial rule -- predominantly Korea -- who were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese soldiers. Scholars estimate there were about 200,000 Comfort Women. Many women did not report the crimes committed against them, but lived in silence due to shame. In the 1990s, some of the women broke their silence and began demanding an apology and reparations from the Japanese government.

Following a groundswell of former Comfort Women coming forward, and an uncovering of historical documents proving that the Japanese government had a role in the Comfort Women, the Japanese government made an official statement in 1993 admitting the government's involvement with the Comfort Women: "Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities," where women and girls "were recruited against their own will" and "lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere." This was the last action taken by the Japanese government regarding the Comfort Women until the 2015 settlement.

This settlement is problematic in many ways. First, neither the Women nor civil society groups representing them were consulted by either of the governments before the settlement was reached. Second, media coverage surrounding the settlement identified the goal of the settlement as one of fostering better relations between the two countries -- which also offered a strategic advantage to the United States -- rather than seeking closure or a healing process for the victims of Japan's colonial rule. Third, such an agreement limits further legal recourse for the women against the government. This becomes extremely troubling given variousefforts by the women to hold the Japanese government accountable through judicial proceedings, and the complete lack of participation and agency for the women in the settlement negotiation process.

There are also indications from the Japanese government that it does not want artifacts reminding people of its horrifying crimes against the women, as the South Korean government has agreed to "look into" the removal of a statue of a girl outside of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, symbolizing the struggles of the Comfort Women.

In a video clip demonstrating the meeting between a former comfort woman and the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, she tells the Minister: "Are you going to live my life for me? Why are you killing us twice?" The absence of the women's voices in this settlement reinforces the shame that surrounds sexual violence, instead of vindicating the wrongs committed against them.

Like other stories of sexual assault that have emerged in the past few years, the story of the Comfort Women follows the all-too-familiar narrative arc of the violation of women's bodies by those in power, and the subsequent failure of society to acknowledge such violations.

On a smaller scale, we have seen women come forward with their stories about Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby. In both instances, the women speaking out against Ghomeshi and Cosby were first met with criticism and denial, some even opining that they were creating fiction for their own benefit, to bring down a powerful and benevolent man.

On a larger scale, we have historical accounts of sexual assault and sexual slavery in times of war, by groups such as Boko Haram, ISIS, and even the Allied powers in Germany towards the end of World War II.

Time and again, we question the victims' stories and their motivations, then forget them entirely when their stories are verified.

Many of the Comfort Women have passed away or are growing old. But some are still alive and are telling their stories for as long as they can. The settlement of December 28, 2015 should serve as a reminder that these women deserve to share their own stories, and more action is needed to bring them justice.