By Roxana Tiron - 09/27/06 12:00 AM EDT
The Korean-American community is mounting an intense grassroots lobbying campaign in support of a House resolution calling for Japan to formally acknowledge and accept responsibility for sexually enslaving women during World War II.
The controversial resolution, even though it does not have the force of law, is putting the Japanese government on the defensive. Japan argues that it has already apologized and atoned for the treatment of the so-called “comfort women.”
Critics of the resolution argue that it is misguided and would send mixed signals to Japan.
During its occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands from the 1930s through the duration of WWII, Japan used as many as 200,000 young women from Korea, China, the Philippines, and in some cases Western Europe, for sexual servitude, a program designed to increase the efficiency and morale of the Japanese soldiers.
The women were subject to beatings, extreme sexual violence and torture. Often women serviced up to 36 men a day. Many women were killed if they became ill or too tired. Some survivors committed suicide from shame and physical pain.
Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) has sponsored a bill calling on Japan to accept responsibility for operating such a program and has been trying to bring the measure to the House floor for about four years. The legislation is the Korean-American community’s top issue this election year.
And now Evans and the Korean community are the closest they have ever been to seeing congressional action on it.
The International Relations Committee marked up the resolution in mid-September. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the panel’s chairman of the Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations subcommittee, co-authored the resolution with Evans.
Evans has a close relationship with Ok Cha Soh, the president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women who has championed the survivors’ cause.
Several congressional sources have said that the panel’s chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), made a commitment to move the bill to Evans, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and is retiring at the end of this Congress. Fellow-Illinoisan Hyde also is retiring this year.
But despite the bond between the two departing lawmakers, another Illinoisan could be standing in the way.
It is up to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) to decide whether to put the resolution on the suspensions calendar this week.
Hyde already has formally asked the Speaker to place the resolution on the suspension calendar and already about half of the resolution’s co-sponsors have signed a letter to the Speaker to ask for the same thing, according to a House source.
“I do not think Hastert was too pleased with the resolution, wondering about the relationship with Japan,” said a GOP aide familiar with the issue. Hastert spent time in Japan in his first year of graduate school and travels to the nation often. Some GOP sources have said he is interested in following in former Speaker Tom Foley’s (D-Wash.) footsteps and becoming the country’s ambassador one day.
But at the same time, the Speaker’s office is hearing a lot from the Korean-Americans, said the GOP aide. Among the co-sponsors of the resolution are Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), a Japanese-American and Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Ed Case (D-Hawaii), whose states have a large population of Japanese-Americans.
The American Korean Coalition held his annual convention in Chicago and one of its top issues was Resolution 759, according to the GOP aide.
Meanwhile, the Korean American Association in Washington, which represents about 200,000 Korean-American in the area, is leading a national campaign for the bill and has started a letter-writing campaign to Congress.
The Korean-American community, acting on behalf of the South-Asian nations that had some of its female citizens suffer under the sexual enslavement program, is pressing for the adoption of the resolution becasue very few comfort women are still alive.
The resolution is meant to encourage Japan to be honest about past mistakes and to educate its next generations about crimes against humanity, according to supporters of the resolution.
Supporters of the resolution also argue that none of the actions that Japan has taken on this issue are official and that the government refuses to provide direct compensation to victims.
In response, Japan has quietly lobbied against the resolution, arguing that it already has done its part in settling the issue. The Japanese Embassy has been working with Hogan & Hartson as well as Hecht, Spencer and Associates to raise awareness about what it has already done to address the issue.
Former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) and Bill Hecht, both lobbyists, have pressed Japan’s case on the Hill earlier this year.
According to material sent by the Japanese Embassy, the Japanese government has extended official apologies on several important occasions. One came in 1994 from then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama during the 50-year commemoration of the war’s end.
Outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sent personal letters to former comfort women to extend Japan’s apology and remorse, according to the embassy.
“As Prime Minister of Japan, I thus extend anew my most sincere apologies and remorse to all women who endured immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women,” Koizumi wrote. “We must not evade the weight of the past, no should we evade our responsibilities of the future.”
A so-called Asian Women Fund was established in 1995, but supporters of the House resolution said that the fund is private and not a government fund. But Tokyo argues that the fund was established with cooperation from the government and the Japanese people, and that the government contributed funds for the organization’s operating costs as well as its medical welfare support projects.
Some of the former comfort women accepted compensation from the Fund, but many have rejected it and have held protests in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
“The government put in place the fund. It is not that the government does not want to taint itself, but what it wants to avoid is cascading compensation claims arising from WWII even though it concluded peace treaties,” said a government official familiar with Japan. “Japan wants to avoid reopening the books. That Asian Women Fund would not exist if they had let the Japanese companies know that they wanted that to happen.”
The U.S. government perceives it as a bad idea, said the official.
“It is hard to see what good would come out of the resolution,” said the official, because the resolution is not going to be perceived as a transparent, targeted message.
“A lot of people look at the actions of the United States and wonder what is the real meaning. Do they not like our new prime minister? Are they trying to squeeze us on a trade issue?”
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new prime minister, in the past was successful in censoring a public television documentary on comfort women.
Back in 2000, several prominent officials of various Asian nations brought a class-action suit against Japan seeking compensation for war crimes committed during WWII. Several U.S. courts dismissed the suit and both the Departments of Justice and State supported Japan’s position.