Court Gives Ex-Comfort Women Symbolic Victory

Though Japan has never apologized for using sex slaves for the Imperial Army, an international court has found the late emperor and generals guilty of crimes against humanity. President Bush has refused to support the comfort women's call for justice.

Gabriel le Kirk McDonald

LONDON (WOMENSENEWS)-Former “comfort women” won a symbolic victory over Hirohito and theJapanese Imperial Army this week when a war crimes tribunal upheld all but one charge of crimes against humanity for acts of rape, torture and slavery.

The Women's International War Crimes Tribunal ruled on Tuesday in The Hague that Emperor Showa, his wartime prime minister, General Hideki Tojo, and eight other generals-all 10 of them now dead-were guilty of crimes against humanity during and before World War II.

Led by American judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, an ex-president of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, the panel of jurists held the current Japanese government responsible for reparations to the victims of the Imperial Army's “comfort station” system.

Some historians have said that as many as 200,000 women and girls were forced into the Imperial Army's “red houses” between 1937 and 1945 where they were systematically raped-some by as many as 60 soldiers a day. Comfort women were often kidnapped from China, Malaysia, Korea, the Philippines and other countries.

The people's tribunal was organized by Asian women and human rights organizations and supported by international non-governmental organizations to hear cases of sexual slavery and other crimes committed against women by Japan. The United States, Japan and other countries do not recognize its authority.

The Japanese government had no immediate comment on the judgment and its embassy in The Hague refused to open the door to the elderly ex-comfort women who wanted to present a copy of the judgment.

One of the witnesses, Kim Young Suk, a North Korean, told the tribunal at its three-day hearing in Tokyo last year that she was 12 years old when she was enslaved. “I hate Japanese soldiers,” she said. “I am over 70 now, and I can never forgive. I didn't come here for money. I didn't come for pity. I want you to see that I lost my youth, my life.”

Tribunal Says Japan Should Offer Full Apology, Compensation

The only accusation that was not upheld by the tribunal was a charge that Hirohito was individually responsible for a mass rape and massacre at the Philippine village of Mapanique in 1942. Because it happened so quickly, over a period of just two days, the emperor might not have known about it, the court said.

Promulgating their ruling in The Hague, the Netherlands, the judges said Japan should offer to compensate the victims, repatriate survivors who wish to go home and locate and return the remains of the deceased.

Tokyo should also investigate the comfort station system thoroughly, preserve and disclose all relevant documents, identify and punish the principle perpetrators, and create memorials, museums and libraries to honour the women, they said.

The government should include meaningful sections on the atrocities in textbooks at all levels, which Japan's right-wing politicians would strongly oppose, and should consider setting up a truth and reconciliation commission like the one South Africa established after the end of apartheid.

But above all, Japan should make a “full and frank apology,” they said.

Japan only admitted in 1993 that the comfort stations had existed. It set up the Asian Women's Fund, supported by private contributions, to compensate comfort women in 1995, but that money, and the statement by Tomiichi Murayama, the prime minister then, that the comfort stations were “entirely inexcusable,” have been rejected by most survivors.

Tribunal: US Failed to Investigate, Prosecute Crimes Against Comfort Women

The judges also called on America to admit its failure to investigate and prosecute the crimes after Japan's unconditional surrender in 1945.

The tribunal has no legal standing and can not enforce its ruling. Japan has ignored the proceedings and U.S. President George W. Bush said last month that he would not support the comfort women's campaign.

Of 10 civil cases-some claiming multi-million-dollar compensation-filed in Japanese courts, only one has succeeded, for a paltry sum, and that decision was overturned on appeal last year.

“The Japanese army raped us, and I was treated like a pig,” said Ortencia Martinez, 73, after she and 45 other Filipinas lost their case. “I will not forget the pain.”

But Judge McDonald and her co-jurists-the president of the International Association of Women Judges Carmen Maria Argibay of Argentina, Christine Chinkin from Britain and Willy Mutunga from Kenya-dismissed the technical defenses usually mounted by the Japanese government: the expiration of the statute of limitations, the immunity of the head of state and the settlement of wartime claims in peace agreements with neighboring countries.

“States can not, through their political agreements and settlements, ignore or forgive crimes against humanity committed against individuals,” said Judge McDonald.

One prosecutor went further, blaming Tokyo for its lack of co-operation with investigators. “I accuse the Japanese government of continual obstruction of the research into the situation of comfort women in Malaysia,” said Juliette Chenaud, the prosecutor from that country

“They did this out of their great economic strength.” Of the 3 million Japanese troops on active service during the war, only two testified before the tribunal.

Case Has Far-Reaching Implications For Women Raped in Conflicts

Patricia Viseur-Sellers, the principle prosecutor, said the Japanese instituted the comfort station system in response to widespread atrocities after the fall of Shanghai in 1932 and the “Rape of Nanking,” the Chinese capital, in 1937. The army was worried that if soldiers consorted with civilians they might contract venereal diseases or reveal military secrets to enemy spies.

“My favorite piece of documentary evidence,” she said, “is a very banal report from the ministry of war of Japan, where the vice-minister has put on his private seal, talking about how we have to ship some women to some of the armies because our soldiers need more sexual recreation.”

Because it followed strict international norms for such tribunals and had on its bench four highly respected jurists, the tribunal is expected to be influential in other courts, said Ninotchka Rosca, a novelist from the Philippines and media liaison for the tribunal.

“This was a seminal case,” Rosca said. “It has far-reaching implications for women all over the world. When official tribunals and courts consider similar cases they can refer to the ruling from this one.”

Since Kim Hak Soon, a South Korean, became the first comfort woman to speak out publicly a decade ago, other tribunals, for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, have taken a closer look at rape during conflict, she said.

Rape Is Now Recognized as a Weapon, a Crime of War

That, in turn, has led to other milestones. The U.N. Tribunal for Rwanda set a precedent in the case of Jean-Paul Akayesu, a local official who encouraged and supervised mass rapes. It ruled that such acts of sexual violence were a crime against humanity rather than a breach of the codes of war, a less serious offense.

The Women's International War Crimes Tribunal heard the testimony of 35 survivors from China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Malaysia, The Philippines, Taiwan and Timor at the Tokyo hearings, which were held near to the Yasukuni shrine, a monument to Japan's war dead.

“We want to give these comfort women a sense of justice,” said one of the organizers of the tribunal,Yayori Matsui from Violence Against Women in War-Japan. “Germany has prosecuted more than 6,000 war criminals, but the Japanese government has not done anything. Japan has not punished one single war criminal. Instead, they are enshrined at Yasukuni.”

Among the testimony was a statement by Madam X, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian, who described being abducted by Japanese soldiers, after watching her father shot dead and her mother raped and killed. “I was raped by three Japanese soldiers and then taken away in a truck” to a comfort station, she said. Every night she was raped by 10 to 20 soldiers. When she could no longer have sex, she was kicked or beaten.

When she went home after the Japanese retreat, other villagers spat at her. She married in 1950 and adopted two girls because she could not bear children. “I hated making love and refused to do it so much so that my husband left me,” she said.

Most Sex Slaves Were Asian, But Europeans Also Raped

While most of the military sex slaves were drawn from the local populations, in Java, now part of Indonesia, European women were raped by Japanese officers.

Jan Ruff-O'Hearne was 21 and a virgin who hoped to become a nun when she was taken from a concentration camp in 1944. “The war really never ended for us. The atrocities done to us by the Japan would haunt us for the rest of our lives. Our beautiful young bodies became soiled and damaged goods.

“Later, I wanted marriage, a husband, a home and children, but not sex. I have never been able to enjoy sexual intercourse.”

Like other comfort women, she was raped by doctors sent by the army each week to examine her and has been afraid of medical treatment ever since.

Evidence of similar crimes in Papua New Guinea was presented this week, but was not included in the Tribunal's official report.

One of the Papua New Guinean victims recounted in a statement how Japanese soldiers took her from her remote village down river to a town where she was placed in a cubicle, her hands tied behind her back and her legs spread and tied to posts.

“They lined themselves outside our cubicles and as soon as one of them had satisfied his sexual desires another would come and have his turn.”

The organizing committee of the tribunal has not yet decided what steps it will take next but it is expected to launch a new legal battle in the Netherlands.

The tribunal recommended that an advisory judgment be sought from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. However, even that would not be binding.

Paul Rodgers is a Canadian freelance writer based in London. He has written for The Economist, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, New Scientist, The Daily Mirror, Macleans and The Toronto Sun and has appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live, Radio Canada's As it Happens and CBC.

For more information:

Women's Caucus for Gender Justice:

Feminist International Radio Endeavour - Fire:

International Court of Justice:

Just the Beginning Foundation: Gabrielle Kirk McDonald bio:

International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism:

Taipei Times- “Japan must face up to history, say women's NGO”: