Military sexual slavery. Interview with Dr. Hei-Soo Shin

Nivedita Prasad

Nivedita Prasad: The first time I read about this issue I was disturbed by the term “comfort women”. It’s so clearly a term that shows only one side of the coin. How do you react to the term?

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: I prefer the term “military sexual slavery by Japan” instead of “comfort women” or “comfort women system”. When we use “comfort women” we put quotation marks around it because the term comes from Japanese military documents which actually used the term “comfort women” or “comfort station”. We talked to other victimized countries as well as to Japanese NGOs about what to do with this term because “comfort women” hides the real nature of the issue. In English we now use the term “military sexual slavery” as our first preference, but the victims themselves don’t want to be called sex slaves. When we talk about it in Korean we either use the English words “military sexual slavery by Japan”, or in Korean we talk about “Japanese military comfort women” – with quotation marks, because that was the term used in the official Japanese military documents. But, yes, “comfort women” is a euphemism.

In German it is translated as “Trostfrauen”. If you hear the word without knowing what it’s about, you would think it’s a person looking after or comforting a child – the word has such a positive connotation. If you ask children what connotations the word “Trostfrauen” has, they would say it’s someone who looks after us, someone who gives us comfort.

In the video clip you showed us it was really shocking to see how brutal military sexual slavery was. To see these really old ladies and to see how they talked after 50 years was unbelievable. What exactly are the main things these ladies want now?

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin
Dr. Hei-Soo Shin

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: What they are looking for after all these horrible atrocities as sex slaves, is to get their youth back – which is impossible, of course. So, they can only demand justice – they want the Japanese government to admit legal responsibility for violating international human rights law, and to acknowledge they have a duty to provide legal reparation. When the Japanese Government established the so-called Asia Women’s Fund and offered atonement or charity money, the majority of the women refused to take it because they considered it an insult, regardless of how much money was offered.

Many of these so-called “comfort women” went to Japan and testified in public in front of a Japanese audience. On one occasion a Japanese woman asked the “sex slaves” – “So, how much money do you want?” The victim nearly fainted because that was so insulting and she didn’t know what to say because money wasn’t the issue. These women want to see Japan’s war crimes recognized as a violation of human rights and they want Japan to pay reparation because they did something very wrong. Only then can their dignity and honour be restored. That’s what they’re demonstrating about in front of the Japanese Embassy every Wednesday. They’re shouting “official apology” and “legal reparation”.

I was very impressed by that – I read recently that many of the women aren’t married, they don’t have children, they were so hurt they didn’t go to school. Therefore many of them are really poor. So to resist the temptation of money is a very strong commitment to the issue.

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: There are differences between the victims in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines who were offered money from the Asian Women’s Fund. In Korea, because of our movement, legislation was enacted in 1993 which means that – although the amount is not sufficient – women victims receive monthly subsidies from the Korean Government and free medical insurance and a right to Government housing. They have to pay rent, but they are given access to public housing. However, the housing is usually given to women with families, and most of these women live alone. They also received a lump sum payment – a little less than that offered by the Asian Women’s Fund – but the Korean Government felt it was necessary to give the women some money, so they don’t need to receive money from the Fund. The same thing happened to the Taiwanese victims and the amount is comparable to what the Asian Women’s Fund is offering. However, the Philippino women – with one exception – have received money from Japan because there is no financial assistance given to victims in the Philippines.

I read a theory recently that in Christian countries like the Philippines, the individual is very important, but in Islamic countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea and China it’s more important to have a collective/group feeling. Do you agree with that?

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: I think that’s an absurd interpretation! Of course, according to Confucian tradition, saving face plays some role. But this is a demand for justice and recovery of dignity by women whose whole life was violated and destroyed. So, in that sense, I don’t think the interpretation is correct. I don’t think Christianity or religion plays any role in it. Some of the Korean victims are Christians, some of them don’t have any religion – in fact in the Philippines they’re Catholic rather than Protestant.

OK, thanks for that. In Germany there was a scandal last year – a very important politician, was caught using cocaine. But the real story was that he was caught because a street sex worker whose services he’d been using for years, told the police he was sniffing cocaine while he was with her! He publicly apologized for using cocaine and he apologized to his wife, but he never apologized to the sex worker. When she testified in court one journalist said she didn’t want an apology, she just wanted his money. She was hurt by that – for her, money wasn’t the issue. She wanted him to think about what he had done. He had the financial resources to engage call girls, but he chose to use the services of a street sex worker. What she wanted was justice, she wanted to regain her dignity, which, for her, meant an apology from him. But he refused to apologise.

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: Yes, he was using that same patriarchal view of so-called “dirty” women – it’s like “victimizing the victim”. In Japan, the women’s bodies were “dirty” after the enforced sexual slavery and the women then suffered shame for something that wasn’t their fault – that’s why they stayed silent for so long.

Of the demands the Korean Council has, what have you achieved and what have you not yet achieved? What are the main obstacles?

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: We have been demanding seven things:

  1. Fact finding – full disclosure of the truth – we are still publishing testimonies, we are still doing research because Japan destroyed most of the documents. And we believe that Japan is still hiding documents, so fact finding isn’t complete.
  2. Acknowledgement of the crime: Japan has admitted to the crime, they have said some force was exercised by the army, but they say they take no legal responsibility for what happened, so they haven’t acknowledged their wrong-doing legally. So that’s not complete either, although reports of special tribunals do refer to violations.
  3. Punish the criminals, which Japan has never done, so we are still demanding that. Criminals are now old and dying and that’s why in 2000 we had an International Women’s War Crimes Tribunal in Japan.

Other issues such as legal reparation are not finished, as well as writing history correctly in the history books – that’s a long way off! Erection of a monument by Japan – that’s still to be done.

All these demands have not yet been met, but still, I think we have achieved a very important thing. We have raised the international standard in terms of what is wrong. We have established that mass rape and sexual slavery during wartime are violations of women’s human rights, and should be punished and that there should be compensation for the victims. Because of our movement there is a higher level of understanding of human rights issues so that, hopefully, such a thing won’t ever happen again.

You’ve made history! The Korean Council has made history – that’s great.

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: And one more thing – I’m glad that now this crime of Japan, this “military sexual slavery” is on record in the UN and available online, so everyone can read about what happened, and see how what Japan did was wrong.

Nivedita Prasad
Nivedita Prasad

I’d like to talk now about Japan. Women who come as sex workers from Thailand to Germany have often been to Japan as well and what they tell us about the conditions of sex workers in Japan is appalling. Japan is the richest country in Asia and sex workers have no rights whatsoever. So when you tell us what they’re not doing for Korean women, it makes sense.

There’s obviously a need for international pressure, so what do you think should be done? What can we do here?

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: I myself feel exactly the same. I don’t understand why Japan cannot do something about this issue when they have so much economic power and such an advanced social structure. But Japan is a very hegemonic self-centred country as far as migrant workers or sex workers are concerned.

Within the next year we’re planning a world-wide signature campaign because 2005 is the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and Japan should be remembering what they did 60 years ago and trying to solve current issues as well. So I would like to ask you in Berlin and Germany to support our signature campaign. It will simply say that Japan should settle issues with the war crimes they committed, including military sexual slavery. We’ll launch this worldwide campaign and collect signatures which we hope to submit to the Office of the High Commissioner for next year’s Commission on Human Rights. Before August 15 we’ll also submit the signatures to Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, calling on the UN to urge Japan to abide by international norms and international human rights laws.

Before August 15 we’d like to have a demonstration on a specific day everywhere in cities around the world demanding that Japan settle the issues of World War II so we’d like to see you join in on that too. We haven’t set the date yet, because we have to consult with other countries in Asia and with whoever feels that wartime violence against women should be eliminated.

Lastly, we’re building a war and women’s human rights museum, because we think that these things should be remembered and taught to future generations. These women’s sufferings, what they’ve documented, what our movement is doing to bring peace and honour and dignity to these women, and what should be done – all this needs to be commemorated. We’re planning to build this museum as soon as possible and are accepting donations from anybody. We’re planning to write the names of donors on the wall of the museum. So, those are our immediate plans.

I have one last question: has Japan ratified CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women]?

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: Yes.

I see CEDAW as a very strong mechanism to support women’s human rights. Would it be possible for Korean “comfort women” to gain support from the CEDAW committee? Is there some sort of legal mechanism there to support them?

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: Oh yes, CEDAW – the convention and the committee – have already been used because Japan’s report was reviewed back in 1993 and also in 2003. When a Japanese delegation was questioned in front of the CEDAW committee, the issue of “comfort women” was raised and the Japanese Government, of course, gave their version of the story. But in the concluding comments from the CEDAW committee the issue of wartime sexual slavery was included. When Japan’s fifth report was reviewed in July 2003, we again asked that question and again in our concluding comments we urged Japan to sort out this issue. So we’re waiting for the next report and hopefully they’ll do something about it.

However I have to say that the Japanese diplomats in New York did a rather regrettable thing. There were four experts on the CEDAW committee who asked questions about the military sexual slavery issue, including myself. Afterwards, all the committee members (except me) were lobbied by the Japanese diplomats and felt somewhat threatened because the Japanese were demanding that we not include this issue in our concluding comments.

That’s unbelievable!

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: I asked the most experienced CEDAW member – who is from Germany – whether this sort of thing had ever happened before and she said “no”. I asked the other three members what sort of comments the Japanese diplomats had made. They said the Japanese had said “If you include this issue in the concluding comments, the comments would lose credibility.” The experts then felt uneasy and uncomfortable because diplomats shouldn’t say that sort of thing. In fact, governments shouldn’t lobby CEDAW experts about what should or should not be included in reports.

So that’s what the Japanese Government is doing – trying to block these issues appearing publicly, in forums such as the Commission on Human Rights and the ILO in Geneva. I’ve just come from there and we tried to raise this issue at the ILO committee on the application of standards and conventions. Japan has been trying to block it there as well.

I had a similar situation in Vienna – representatives of the Japanese Government refused to talk to NGOs. Then they realized that other Asian countries were supporting NGOs, so they started sponsoring delegations from small countries to come to Vienna. But this meant that small countries that accepted this kind of support from Japan or the USA were in the pockets of their sponsors.

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: That reminds me of what happened during the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. In the draft document at that time – the Vienna program for action – there was a section on the equal status of women and human rights for women. Violation of women’s rights during wartime was mentioned, including systematic rape, sexual slavery and so on. And the Japanese government tried to confine it to current violations of this kind, because they wanted to block the inclusion of the “comfort women”. We lobbied against it and in the end the document referred to all violations, which meant that sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WWII was included. So that time they failed, but they are always trying to block these issues being aired anywhere at an international level as well as inside Japan. Consequently all the law suits have been failing because the Japanese court cannot go against what the Government wants.

That’s very important information for us because here at the moment there’s political opposition to the US because they’re also blocking human rights issues. So, it’s important for us to hear what Japan’s doing – at least at the university level we can talk to students about how governments can block human rights issues.

We always cite the example of Germany when we compare what Japan is doing regarding wartime crimes because, with regard to Nazi wrongdoings during the war, we believe that Germany is continually punishing war criminals. And compensation is given without statute of limitations which Japan has been refusing to do. So Germany is cited as a good example!

One really last question – you mentioned a hotline before where “comfort women” can call …. has a soldier ever called that number – a soldier who actually raped a woman?

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: There were obviously many Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese colonizers, but no one has called the line because of the possible repercussions of such an admission. However a month ago in Korea, we passed a law in our national Assembly about collaborative behaviour with the Japanese during the colonial period. To understand why this legislation came as late as now, you need to know the background. After liberation Korea was under US military rule and Korea was divided, so we were under the American/Russian influence and the US wanted to keep Japan as a continuing power in Asia – that’s why this issue has not been settled. We couldn’t settle an issue about the past by ourselves, because the US was the dominant foreign power in South Korea and because the US condoned right-wing people in the leadership who hated any nationalistic or socialistic element. So all the progressive forces were oppressed and killed – a great tragedy in our history. That’s the role the US played in keeping Japan as the dominant power in Asia. That’s why the crimes of military sexual slavery never came before the military tribunal in 1948.

Thank you very much.

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin: You’re welcome.

Biografien und Links

Dr. Hei-Soo Shin

1972: Abschluss eines Anglistik-Studiums an der Ihwa-Universität

1976: Abschluss eines Magisterstudiums in Soziologie an der Ihwah-Universität

1991: Promotion in Soziologie an der New Jersey Universität (Rutgers Universität)

1993-2000: Professorin für den Fachbereich Sozialwesen an der Jangsin Universität in Korea

1994-2001: Direktionsmitglied des Netzwerks der Frauenverbände in Korea

Seit 1991: Mitglied der Women's Rights Human Right Working Group

1992-2003: Vorsitzende des Komitees für die Wiedergutmachung für die Opfer der japanischen Zwangsprostitution

1995-2002: Präsidentin der telefonischen Beratungszentrale für Frauen in Not in Korea

1999-2001: Vorstandsmitglied der Stiftung für Menschenrechte in Korea

Seit 2001: Mitglied der CEDAW (Kommission für Gleichberechtigung der Frauen) der Vereinten Nationen

Seit 2001: Gastprofessorin an der Kyunghee Universität, Korea

Seit 2003: Vorsitzende des Komitees für die Wiedergutmachung für die Opfer der japanischen Zwangsprostitution

Nivedita Prasad

Projektkoordinatorin und wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin bei Ban Ying, einer Beratungs- und Koordinationstelle gegen Menschenhandel; Dozentin.

Lehrtätigkeit (Auswahl):

Seit Nov. 2003: „Marginalisierung auf Grund von Kultur, Ethnizität und Migration“, im Rahmen des Masterstudiengangs „Sozialarbeit als Menschenrechtsprofession“.

Seit Feb. 2002: „Racism in Europe“, im Rahmen des MA in European Social Studies in Maastricht.

Nov 2001 bis Feb. 2004: „Intercultural Socialwork“ im Rahmen des Mastersocialwork Studiengang der ASFH in Berlin

Nov. 2002 bis Feb. 2003: „Intercultural communication“ im Rahmen des Mastersocialwork Studiengang der ASFH in Berlin

Sommersemester 2000: „Möglichkeiten und Grenzen interdisziplinärer Arbeit am Beispiel des Frauenhandels“, TU Berlin

Veröffentlichungen (Auswahl):

Voraussichtlich 2004: „Frauenhandel und Zwangsprostitution in Deutschland.“ In: Deutsche Aidshilfe: Aids – Forum Band zum Thema Frauen.

„Die Migration asiatischer Frauen als Hausangestellte von Diplomaten – eine Form der selbstbestimmten Migration oder ein Freibrief für ausbeuterische Arbeitsverhältnisse?“ In: Maria do Mar Castro Varela, Dimitria Clayton (Hg.): Migration, Gender, Arbeitsmarkt. Königstein/Taunus 2003.

„Präventionsmodelle für Migrantinnen und Schwarze Mädchen.“ In Sibylle Härtl, Adelheid Unterstaller (Amyna) (Hg.): Raus aus der Nische! Prävention von sexuellem Mißbrauch als fester Bestandteil pädagogischen Handelns. München 2003.

„Garantierte Straffreiheit bei diplomatischer Immunität – Auch Menschenrechtsverletzungen gegen Frauen werden nicht geahndet.“ In: Südostasien 9/2001.

„NGO – Lobbyarbeit bei den Verhandlungen zum UN-Zusatzprotokoll der Crime Commission.“ In: KOK (Hg.): Frauen handel(n) in Deutschland, Bonn 2000.


URN urn:nbn:de:0114-qn052335

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