comfort women

Right in the feels…

In case you don’t recognise this, the official title of the piece is ‘Statue of Girl’. It was paid for by private subscriptions and sits opposite the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Nothing remarkable about that, you might say.

In fact, it was put up by groups protesting Japan’s perceived lack of contrition over the comfort women issue back in 2011:

South Korean women kept as sex slaves by the Japanese army during World War II have held their 1,000th rally outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

A group of the women and their supporters unveiled a statue of a girl in traditional costume there.

Demonstrators have rallied since 1992 outside the embassy to demand an apology and compensation from Japan.

Japan has repeatedly apologised and has offered lump-sum compensation, but many Koreans say this is not enough.

Japan also says the matter was settled in bilateral agreements with South Korea in the 1960s.

comfort women

Oh God, please stop…

Up to 200,000 women are thought to have worked as sex slaves for the Japanese army in military camps before and during the war.

The vast majority of the women were Korean.
Wrongs of the past

Japan has reportedly protested about the statue, but South Korean officials have said they cannot do anything about it.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Osamu Fujimura, called the statue “extremely regrettable”, the Associated Press reports.

The blinds at the Japanese embassy were drawn shut – as they usually are for this weekly protest, reports the BBC’s Lucy Williamson in Seoul.

Every time the Japanese government asks for it to be taken down, the Korean government replies that a) It can’t remove a privately-funded monument and b) Even if it could, Japan needs to be more appropriately contrite before this will happen.

Anyhow, since the statue was put up, people have begun leaving offerings there, and dressing it up in winter woollies when the weather starts to get a bit cold.

comfort women 2

Not gonna cry…

But this is where it gets complicated. For decades after World War II, comfort women were treated as universal pariahs within Korean society, until finally the state realised that they could be used as a political dogwhistle, and from that point on they were shoehorned relentlessly into pretty much every Japan-related statement made by the MoFA:

Korea has utilised surviving Ianfu as a symbolic tool to bolster Korean nationalism and to remind Japan of its obligation to the Korean nation. For example, Korea raised the Ianfu issue to oppose Japan obtaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Of course, for the remaining comfort women themselves, any non-negative recognition at all is a boon (also, a lot of them pretty much didn’t question the idea that ostracising the sexually impure was perfectly reasonable, and that the fault remained with Japan for causing the shunning, rather than with Korea for carrying it out), so they’re not going to criticise the South Korean government’s use of their history as prop in its international theatre.
It’s all very cynical and depressing and neither government comes out of it looking very good, and – what’s more – there are signs that the strategy is no longer working particularly well either.

Japan certainly behaved very badly during WWII, but it’s worth noting that China and South Korea have both carefully refrained from setting out a specific point at which Japan’s money and apologies will finally be considered to have purchased absolution. It’s been a successful strategy for many years, but lately there have been signs that the worm is beginning to turn. Japanese governments have gradually come to realise that nothing is ever going to be good enough, so they might as well just visit Yasukuni whenever they feel like and build a bunch of aircraft helicopter carriers, since the end result will be exactly the same, but at least they’ll have some boats to show for it. After all, would you rather have everyone pissed off with you, or have everyone pissed off with you and your kick-ass army?

In Japan the meek international stance adopted following WWII is refered to by cynics as ‘土下座外交‘, or ‘dogeza diplomacy‘, with dogeza being the most extreme form of apology short of seppuku.

I know it well

The Western reaction to this tends to be something along the lines of ‘So what?’ but in Japan dogeza still has real meaning:

You should rarely use Dogeza.
Because Dogeza decrease your human value instead of [in return for] pardon for you.
A standard frequency of Dogeza is about once per year for a individual person.
(Though, admittedly, the concept has been devalued somewhat of late, as a result of a series of corporate suits delivering unconvincing or cynical examples of the art.)
The person on the receiving end is supposed to accept the apology gracefully, in light of the effort it has cost to make it. It’s hard to say what happens when someone does refuse a dogeza, since it happens so rarely, but the general consensus seems to be that they’re being a dick. Which has some interesting implications for dogeza diplomacy and the repeated refusals of Korean governments to accept it.
In any case, the Abe government seems to be growing increasingly tired of the whole thing, and has been moving away from South Korea and towards closer relations with the North, and hinting that it may withdraw previous apologies.
And if that’s insufficiently bleak for you, here’s one last picture.
Comfort Women 3

5 thoughts on “Apologies

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