An international peoples' war crimes tribunal has ruled that a former emperor of Japan and other high-ranking Japanese officials were guilty of crimes against humanity for allowing women to be used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II. The judgment, which is not legally binding, recommends that Japan apologize to the women and pay reparations to the survivors.
It was a long time coming: some 60 years after the crimes, a handful of women who survived sometimes years of abuse as sexual slaves to Japanese soldiers finally got their first taste of justice, even though not one of the accused, including Japan's wartime emperor, Hirohito, was alive to hear the verdict.
But as Judge Gabrielle Kirk MacDonald, a former president of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, made clear, Tuesday was a day to honor the survivors. "The crimes committed against these survivors remain one of the great unremedied injustices of the Second World War," she said. "There are no museums, no graves for the unknown comfort women, no education of future generations, and no judgment days for the victims of Japan's military sexual slavery. Many of the women who have come forward to fight for justice have died unsung heroes."
But 35 of them testified for four days in Tokyo last year, when the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal, a peoples' court with no judicial authority, held a mock trial against Japan and its former leaders for the widespread practice of forcing women to have sex with Japanese soldiers.
It's estimated that some 200,000 women from nine countries - including North and South Korea, the Philippines, East Timor, and Indonesia - were used as the soldiers' sexual slaves, held in prison-like brothels, and sometimes gang-raped daily by ten or more soldiers. The crimes were never prosecuted by the Tokyo Tribunal following the Second World War or by the Japanese government since then.
Japan, while acknowledging the use of so-called comfort women by its soldiers, has refused to apologize to the survivors or to pay compensation. To survivors like Jan Ruff-O'Herne, a Dutch women who was put in an Indonesian prison camp when she was 19 and raped daily by Japanese military officers, Tuesday's judgment is the crown of ten years of hard work. "Never again must these crimes be committed and after this tribunal, Japan can no longer deny all the atrocities it committed against women so it's a wonderful triumph for us and the future protection of women in war," she said.
Although she's now 78, she is still waiting for an official apology from Japan. Judges also asked for one, along with compensation for the survivors, the inclusion of this chapter of Japanese history in the country's textbooks, and a possible Truth and Reconciliation Committee to establish the historical record.
While the tribunal's recommendations are not binding, Judge MacDonald, who calls herself an optimist, says she believes Japan will now do what it's supposed to.