Why is the ‘Comfort Women’ dispute a never-ending story?

Memo #394

By: Ji Young Kim – jiyoungkim333 [at] gmail.com and Jeyong Sohn – sohn [at] rikkyo.ac.jp


On December 28, 2015, the “comfort women” problem, one of the major stumbling blocks in Japan-South Korea relations, seemed to have been resolved through a governmental agreement between the two countries. Despite its characterization as a “final and irreversible resolution,” however, the agreement set the stage for yet another dispute between Japan and South Korea.

Just a year later, in December 2016, a new comfort women statue was erected in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, Korea. The Japanese government and mass media strongly protested, arguing that it was in violation of the spirit of the agreement. The ensuing conflict caused the South Korean civil society to suspect the genuineness of the Japanese apology, and pushed the 2015 agreement to the brink of collapse.

What are the implications? For one, the reemergence of the discord over the issue demonstrates that intergovernmental agreements without domestic consensus are no more than a house of cards. Indeed, Japanese domestic discourse over the comfort women problem has been trending toward conservatism since the early 1990s, rather than towards the consolidation of an apologetic discourse that would ideally have served as the basis for any meaningful “resolution.”

What explains this trajectory? During the last quarter century, “comfort women” victims and NGO activists have sought a more permanent solution that went beyond the 1993 Kono Statement and Asian Women’s Fund (1994-2007), by utilizing international pressure at diverse levels. Ironically, their all-out effort sparked a revisionist backlash in Japan. The backlash began to consolidate in 2010, when civic groups launched an international campaign to erect statues commemorating the “comfort women” victims around the world. The conservative elites in Japan depicted such activity to be an attack on the honor and credibility of Japan.

In other words, the two countries reached the 2015 resolution while Japan was still locked in the phase of “tactical concession,” where governments accused of violating human rights norms try to adjust to international and domestic pressures by implementing some conciliatory policies. In this phase, normative claims are still highly contested and not yet institutionalized in domestic laws. The failure of the 2015 resolution highlights the need for long-term institutionalization of an apologetic domestic discourse as a critical ingredient for stable and lasting diplomatic agreements on this fraught issue.

About the Authors: 

Ji Young Kim is an associate professor in the Department of Area Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo.

Jeyong Sohn is an associate professor in the College of Law and Politics, Rikkyo University.

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Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, left, shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-Se after a joint press briefing at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on December 28, 2015. (Credit: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images via Bloomberg)
South Korean activists staging a sit-in protest around a statue in Busan of a teenage girl symbolizing former ‘comfort women’. (Credit: AFP-JIJI via The Japan Times)


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See our other memos on South Korea and Japan.

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