Ethics Quiz: Japan’s Official Apology To The Korean “Comfort Women”


Before and during World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army forced an estimated 400,000 women and girls from occupied territories, primarily Korea, China, and the Philippines, into sexual slavery for the convenience and “comfort” of Japanese soldiers. That the women were kidnapped, raped, and in many cases murdered is not in dispute, but for cultural and political reasons the Japanese government has never accepted full responsibility for the nation’s mass crime, or acknowledged its true nature. To the contrary, Japan has protested memorials to the Comfort women in various locales, including the United States. Japan officially maintains that the women were ordinary prostitutes, and that no crimes were committed toward them. This is a long, bitter controversy between South Korea and Japan particularly.

Pressure from the United States on both Japan and South Korea to resolve the issue had been building, and on December 29, 2015, the two nations reached an agreement by which the Comfort Women issue was considered “finally and irreversibly” resolved. Under the agreement, the Japanese government issued this negotiated statement:

The issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women, and the Government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective. 

As Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.

As part of the resolution, the Japanese government pledged to contribute one billion yen (about $8.3 million), out of the Japanese government’s budget to a foundation established by the Korean government dedicated to assisting the surviving Korean Comfort Women. Forty six survive. They had no part in the agreement discussions.

The deal is unpopular in South Korea. Critics immediately complained that the agreement is inadequate. Of course it is. $8.3 million would be moderate damages in the U.S. for a single woman who was kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. Japan is not going to accept full responsibility for the war crimes, and that should be obvious after so many decades and such stubborn denial.

The ethics question that is a bit more challenging is whether the apology is worth the paper it is printed on, or even a true apology. After the agreement, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe  stated: “there will be no future reference at all to this issue [the Comfort Women issue]. We will not raise it in the next Japan-Korea summit meeting. This is the end. There will be no more apology.” Many Koreans feel that an official apology followed immediately by a statement that says, in essence, “There, that should shut them up!” is cynical and worthless. As a Korean issues website put it, “If an apology is not followed by contrition and self-reflection, but instead by gloating—-does that apology mean anything?”

Good question! Let me rephrase that as the Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is the official Japanese apology for the crimes against the Korean Comfort Women ethical?

My view: No, it’s not ethical. An apology that isn’t freely given and that requires more than 60 years to squeeze out of a purveyor of criminal acts, and that is immediately followed by statements indicating no contrition or remorse but merely relief to have the matter “resolved” is a pragmatic accommodation, not an apology.

On the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale, Japan’s weasel words rate a bottom-of-the-barrel 10:

10. An insincere and dishonest apology designed to allow the wrongdoer to escape accountability cheaply, and to deceive his or her victims into forgiveness and trust, so they are vulnerable to future wrongdoing.

It’s really worse than a 10, because the words and actions that followed the statement undermined everything in it. For example, the Japanese government still isnsits that the contribution to the foundation are not  compensation for the damages that the Comfort Women suffered. Japan has not altered its position that it soldiers did not commit crimes—note that the term crime is nowhere in the apology—and thus the money is more like a peace offering. A parting gift, perhaps.


The “apology” is dishonest, for all indications are that there is nothing “sincere” about it. Calling kidnapping, rape and murder anaffront to ..honor and dignity” is an insult. It trivializes atrocities by comparing them to mere rudeness.

No, that apology isn’t ethical.

It is, however, better than nothing.


Pointer: Fred

Sources: The Interpreter,  Ask a Korean

13 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Japan’s Official Apology To The Korean “Comfort Women”

  1. This brought back to memory the movie “Men Behind the Sun”, about Japanese prisoner camps in China during WWII. I’m not recommending you watch it (go read the wikipedia entry first, it is extremely disturbing), but the DVD extras contain an interview with the director talking about it with Japanese college students. I don’t remember the details but it had some fairly interesting points about real history and the official narrative.

  2. 80+ years after the fact the apology is too little too late, and an insult to the 46 survivors. It’s completely false and useless tokenism that the vast majority of the sufferers never lived to see, same as the Republic of Ireland’s poor treatment of its soldiers who joined the cause against the Nazis, only pardoning them when about a dozen remained to benefit from it. Yes, it’s better than the Turks’ century of denial of the Armenian genocide, but not by much.

  3. Yeah, that apology would feel worse than nothing.
    I think a sincere apology without that cutoff should be the base.

    On a possibly related issue, how much reparations are due from a populace that wasn’t even alive when the offense happened? I occasionally hear about demands for for reparations for african-americans’ treatment under slavery, Native americans for the westward land theft, japanese-americans about internment camps, as well as groups that have gotten a raw deal in other countries. Since the crimes were so terrible, what compensation could be enough? Something should show the cultural regret and atonement. But should it be so big that is is a burden to people born decades later? I don’t think any culture can afford to buy their way out of the bad things they did generations ago. (why people should try harder to avoid doing bad things)

    Now eight million is a pittance, a tiny fraction, especially as stalling meant there’s fewer to get an apology. It’s about a ten year pension for each, assuming there’s no overhead, so in reality it’s not even that. It allows them some comfort for their final years, but that number 10 apology is the tell. They just want to bury the issue and hope the ladies’ advocates will go away.

  4. Well, good for Japan. A phony apology for a heinous, government supported enslavement of hundreds of thousands of women.

    Japan has another, major, multi-faceted set of acts to apologize for, but I don’t expect them because I don’t respect them:

    1. Emporer Akito, titular head of this supposed Constitutional monarchy is believed by all to be the direct descendant of the sun-goddess Amaterasu. Perhaps that accounts for general Japanese narcissism and racism, and Japan’s lack of respect for anyone non-Japanese, even other neighboring Asians, and, an entire class of Japanese who are routinely persecuted because they are not considered “pure.”

    2. Until about 20 years ago, Japan still taught its students that World War II was a war of American aggression; that Japan was a victim simply defending itself. 15 years ago a friend of mine visited Pearl Harbor, and saw the guards there asking the Japanese tourists to stop smiling and treat the site with the respect it deserved. This last just one incident, but perhaps belies the “American aggression” approach to the War, and clearly one set of Japanese found the horrors of Pearl Harbor something to be either proud of or amused by.

    3. In the 1960s, a syndicate of Japanese electronic and automobile manufacturers entered into a pact (illegal in the United States) to purposefully undersell American electronic and automotive products for a minimum of ten years. Their rationale: sure, we’ll lose money for 10-15 years, but we’ll have successfully taken over those US markets, and will make up the losses in the end. A checkable fact. (Don’t come back to me with the decline of US automakers; the Japanese did what they did as an act of economic war. Haven’t changed much, have they?) And with this, they tax American imports so highly that they are virtually unaffordable by the Japanese (cars, rice (!), etc. We don’t tax their imports; we allow them to tax ours.

    Why have we put up with all this? Because since the days of Truman and the Korean War Japan was to be our “bulwark” against Red China.

    What Japan should apologize for and never will is: Its very own Holocaust in trying to conquer Southeast Asia, where they killed an estimated 10 million people, often in the most horrendous and sadistic ways. (Read “The Rape of Nanking” if you’d like to experience the sun-god civilization at work.) Why haven’t we forced them to beat their breasts and say 15 mea culpas each day as we did with Germany? The ol’ bulwark thing again.

    The Japanese are smart. We are stupid. And at least the Koreans see them for what they are.

    • In the context of the era, point 3 was not particularly unusual; both my parent’s homeland of Taiwan (also ex-Japanese real estate) and South Korea pulled off similar protectionist tactics (and were tolerated and even supported by America for pretty much the same reason as Japan), and even the much wealthier states of post-war Western Europe had an initially protectionist stance towards non-European nations. In fact, Japan both pre- and post-war took its economic playbook from straight from Friedrich List and Alexander Hamilton, with even its export promotion tactics drawn largely from the old German Empire. Indeed, East Asian neo-mercantilism (and the various “historical” schools of economics it draws from) is increasingly seen in a lot of quarters as the quickest way a relatively poor country can catch up to first-rank economies.

      That said, those quarters are also generally of the opinion that once the catch-up is about done, those countries really should begin transitioning to something akin to free trade. In fact, the USA is very much in the right nowadays when it tells Japan to stop fucking sponging; its predatory protectionism might have been somewhat justifiable back in the days when Japan was technologically behind the goddamn Soviet Union, but certainly not nowadays (for his myriad of faults, Abe is at least trying to make some moves to weaken Japan’s outdated protectionist policies).

      On the somewhat plus side, there is, alongside the increasingly public ultra-nationalism, some grassroots recognition that the Empire of the Rising Sun was in the wrong, and Japanese schoolteachers, to their credit, have generally opposed attempts to further whitewash Japan’s atrocities (having successfully quarantined revisionist textbooks to a tiny percentage of schools). That said, we pretty much all agree that Japan’s people haven’t really acknowledged the extent of its depravities to the degree the Germans have, though there are some welcome exceptions (if not nearly enough).

      On a side note, I think one reason Japan has had trouble truly acknowledging its responsibility for its atrocities was because its militarism was something that was openly pushed by multiple sides of the political spectrum; several of the most notorious militarist figures in the pre-war era were far more overtly socialist than the Nazis ever were. It also doesn’t help that the neighbors it brutalized generally remained weaker than and even somewhat dependent on it post-war (with Japanese investment playing a major role in their economies), were ruled by Japanese collaborators (many of whom saw the war as a catalyst for their country’s eventual independence, even if they grew to detest actual Japanese rule), and/or would have been enemies anyways (in the case of, say, China). Taiwan’s general population (though not its Nationalist-affiliated elites) also have surprisingly soft memories of the Japanese, partly because they were the the best treated inmates in the prison, and also because the Nationalists really botched their introduction when Taiwan was handed to them post-war (also, it helps that at least Japan’s not China). Whatever else you want to say about South Korean nationalism, they’ve been the most consistent of our allies in reminding us of Japanese atrocities (there’s also China and North Korea, but
      “trustworthy” applies to them even less than the usual standard of international relations).

  5. This is just another symptom of Japan’s unwillingness to address its role as an aggressor in WWII overall. If they don’t see their partnership in the Axis as wrong, it’s easier to diminish anything that happened as an off-shoot of that participation.

    Germany finally had to address it in the ’60s and ’70s when they realized a generation of German kids had grown up in the post-war era hearing nothing about the Nazi period in school but getting plenty from their parents and grandparents…who used to be Nazis.

  6. An faux apology and a fist full of dollars does not negate the criminal actions taken by the Japanese soldiers, it’s trying to justify the actions. A sincere apology acknowledging the criminal activities (even if no prosecutions took place) would have been much better for all, the dollars would not have been necessary it the apology had been genuine. The dollars are nothing but hush money and a direct insult to the “comfort women”, the dollars are literally treating the “comfort women” like the prostitutes that the Japanese have been claiming not treating them like victims of criminal acts.

    Although many probably didn’t survive the war and many have probably died since the war, the soldiers that took part and the commanders that authorized or ordered these criminal actions should be prosecuted in the world court and punished for their war crimes, yes their actions are war crimes.

    I thought the modern Japanese society in today’s world had grown beyond this and had more “honor” than they did before; I was wrong. I’m terribly disappointed in the Japanese nation and grieve for the tarnished honor of my Japanese friends.

    • A little less surprising when you look at the controversy over something like, for example, what happened with Miyasaki’s last film “The Wind Rises”; it was criticized in a number of quarters for not really touching on Japanese war crimes, but the nationalists hated it because it still has a pretty negative depiction of Imperial Japan (including a scene where a German exile makes comparisons between it and the Nazis). If something that mild raises controversy, than Abe, who’s been using ultra-nationalists to his advantage, certainly isn’t going to make an all-out apology.

  7. whether or not an apology is ethical is not the question for me. The question is what is its effect? i would say there is none. we have had institutions apologise for wrongs done centuries and even millennia ago. They are meaningless. Delaware’s governor just issued a decree apologising for slavery, I would surmise that no citizen living in Delaware to day had anything to do with slavery, nor has any present citizen of Delaware been the victim of slavery. These ahistorical are ineffectual political blatherings

    • I agree with you in principle, most of the time. Sometimes an apology is simply an acknowledgment of wrongdoing to cement the principle that it WAS wrongdoing, in cases where there is some legitimate doubt that the culture has made a clear call. In teh case of slavery, I agree: these apologies are just pandering and submitting to power plays. In the Comfort Women case, though, Japan refuses to admit wrongdoing. That is an ongoing wrong that only a sincere apology can repair. The Armenian genocide by the Turks is another example.

      • The Turks go a step farther and deny anything ever happened. Like Japan, though, they were co-opted as a “bulwark,” in this case playing the role of “outpost” in the eastern Mediterranean against the Soviets. It was pretty easy to do, considering they’d already forced the west into the Treaty of Lausanne, which included language making the Armenian question a closed issue. Now a century’s passed and it’s that much harder to hold those who didn’t wrong accountable to those who were not wronged. The UK still hasn’t really nodded to eight centuries in Ireland, though things really only got bad with Cromwell, and the Muslim world just shrugs at their earlier attempts to take and hold Spain and Italy, some even saying those lands properly belong to them because once Muslim = always Muslim. So what to do? A giant historical Truth and Reconciliation gathering? Who are we kidding?

  8. As an Armenian, there’s ONE thing that would make me secretly excited about a President Trump. His first speech in front of United Nations delegates could go something like this:

    “What’s this you Japs are all defensive about? Of COURSE you raped and tortured all of those women. Duh. I think I’m going to build a big beautiful memorial to them back home. And you Turks over there, you guys genocided all of those Armenians. Come on, just admit it!”

  9. Sad, but not surprising, especially if you see it as a symptom of the ultra-nationalism that’s been cropping up all over (which, even with people like Trump, has made me gladder to be living in America where, at least in the immediate present, I don’t have to worry about the government claiming that Japanese internment didn’t happen, or something like the French National Front gaining over a quarter of all votes).

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