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 an “affront 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.