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Japan Grapples With Apology to Wartime 'Comfort Women' - 2002-07-25

After decades of ignoring the issue, Japanese politicians are considering an apology to women forced into sexual slavery in World War II. But the issue is unlikely to come to a vote anytime soon.

The so-called comfort women were forced into brothels to serve the Japanese military during World War II. Now, the survivors are in their 70s and 80s, and they still are waiting for Japan to apologize.

Some opposition politicians think the women have waited long enough. They have presented legislation requiring the government to apologize. Lawmaker Tomiko Okazaki from Japan's Democratic Party explains.

"This bill deserves quick passage. Japan has never officially compensated or apologized to these women. We urge an official apology, because these women were brutally raped and the Japanese Army has made them suffer," explained lawmaker Tomiko Okazaki from Japan's Democratic Party. "The women are elderly, so we want to pass the bill as quickly as possible."

Historians estimate that during World War II, up to 200,000 women from Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and elsewhere were forced to work in Japanese military brothels.

Many were brutalized and imprisoned. Some were killed or died of disease and hunger. Survivors speak of damaged lives. Many were so emotionally scarred they never married and others were so physically battered they could never have children.

Japan has never offered the women official reparations. The military's practice of sexual enslavement has not been publicized here. It was officially recognized for the first time just a decade ago and references to the women did not appear in Japanese school textbooks until 1994.

Upper House legislators in Parliament are discussing the current bill, which follows two similar unsuccessful bills introduced in 2000. But its backers acknowledge there may never be a debate on the bill and said it may well die before it reaches a vote.

The biggest obstacle appears to be the Japanese legislative process. Both ruling and opposition parties must support further deliberations on a bill and each party has the right to reject legislation before a full vote takes place. Ms. Okazaki says she thinks the dominant Liberal Democratic Party will veto the bill long before it gets to the floor of Parliament.

The LDP maintains that the matter of compensation and apologies to the comfort women has already been resolved. Ryuji Matsumura is a lawmaker from the ruling party. He explained that the post-war treaty Tokyo signed protects it from war claims.

"The government believes the comfort women issue has already been resolved under the San Francisco Treaty of 1951, which established Japan's post-war relationship with the world. Therefore, our position, which has been emphasized repeatedly, is that the government will not apologize officially. However, we do feel the practice was brutal and we are sorry it happened," he said.

But Tokyo is aware that public concerns about this issue linger. In early July, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and 17 Cabinet ministers said they would donate a total of $27,000 to a private group called the Asian Women's Fund, set up to compensate the wartime sex slaves.

But Ms. Okazaki is deeply critical of the move. "Private donations from the prime minister and other Cabinet members run counter to the goal of passing the bill. I think that, instead of offering voluntary gifts, they should officially apologize to the victims," he said.

So far, fewer than 250 women have taken payments from the fund. Activist groups in Taiwan and South Korea discourage former comfort women from doing so and instead encourage them to hold out for official compensation and apologies.

But the former comfort women are said to be frustrated with the lack of urgency in Japan to make amends. One woman from Taiwan recently told Japan's Kyodo news agency that she and the other women have a history of trauma and are now elderly. She asks that Japan take the matter seriously, and do something immediately.