Japan's Discomfort Women

How Abe Can Improve Relations with South Korea

South Korean Lee Soon-deok, a so-called comfort woman for Japanese troops during World War II, weeps at a protest, August 8, 2007. Lee Jae-Won / Courtesy Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent electoral victory gave him some degree of a mandate for his economic policies, known as Abenomics. Much less certain is the degree of support for his plans to restart Japan’s nuclear power plants, negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and push through legislation to enable Japan’s military to exercise the right to collective self-defense. Although progress in these areas could strengthen Japan and help rebuild its standing on the world stage, Abe should not neglect the issue of “comfort women,” which plagues Japan’s relations with South Korea.

The two countries have a complicated history. Japan officially colonized Korea in 1910, but the process that led to it began in the late nineteenth century. In Korea, this period is remembered for its brutality, including Japan’s forced cultural assimilation, conscription of laborers, land seizures, removal of historical artifacts, and recruitment and conscription of women to serve as comfort women for the Japanese military. Japanese politicians and scholars have since done everything from acknowledging the wrongs that Imperial Japan committed—complete with official apologies and atonement—to questioning or countering the Korean narrative. Popular among those who are critical are arguments highlighting economic development during colonization and the large number of pro-Japanese Korean elites who assisted Japan. There are also people who question the true number of comfort women, how they were obtained, the extent to which the military was involved, and whether many of them were willing prostitutes.

Japanese critics may firmly believe their own arguments, but Abe needs to realize that this is a lose-lose issue for Japan. Arguments that counter the Korean version of the story only support the Korean narrative that the Japanese are denying history. For that reason, international public opinion will never support the Japanese side. Still, although Japan may no longer control the narrative, Abe’s electoral victory did give him a strengthened base from which to restart bilateral relations and resolve the comfort women issue. The path

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