- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2001

On July 6, the U.S. government delivered to Japanese authorities an American Air Force sergeant accused of raping an Okinawan woman. The U.S. was not required to act with such speed, but a firestorm of protest had erupted across Japan, culminating in demands made at the highest levels of government. Following the handover, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told Ambassador Howard Baker that U.S. forces should "tighten discipline and guidance" of troops stationed in Japan.

One would expect that a country outraged about an alleged rape of an Okinawan woman would be deeply concerned about its own legacy of mass rape during World War II. Yet only three days later, the Japanese government rejected calls from South Korea, China and others to revise history textbooks glossing over Japanese atrocities, including the systematic program of rape and sexual slavery in the 1930s and 1940s: the "comfort women" system.

These Japanese refusals took a step backwards from the government's earlier position and violated a 1996 international commitment to disclose the historical facts of their wartime aggression in their nation's textbooks.

Nothing, however, can obscure the facts. Under the "comfort women" system, Japanese government agents abducted, forcibly or by deception, more than 200,000 women and girls, mostly Korean, Chinese and Filipino, from their homes and forced them into sexual slavery to satisfy the whims of Japanese troops posted across occupied Asia. One survivor described her life in Japanese captivity as a "living hell." Confined to tiny, unsanitary rooms, these women were fed survival rations at best and forced to service some 40 men a day. Those who tried to escape were often tortured. Many women killed themselves. The rest were mentally and physically scarred for life.

For almost 50 years, from the end of the war until 1994, the Japanese government refused even to admit the existence of this brutal policy. The surviving "comfort women" themselves had been afraid or ashamed - given pervasive societal taboos - to step forward. The Japanese government made its grudging acknowledgment only after independent historians had uncovered documents that irrefutably showed the history of the "comfort women" program.

To this day, Japan has refused to offer any compensation for the grievous crimes inflicted upon its former "comfort women" victims. But in September 2000, as a last resort, a courageous group of these women filed a class-action lawsuit against Japan in federal court in Washington, D.C. These ex-"comfort women" expected the U.S. government to view their claims with sympathy and to help them negotiate a resolution with Japan. After all, this was an administration that came into office promising to raise moral standards with a "faith-based initiative."

The opposite happened. The American government in April filed a formal request asking that the case be dismissed. Japan, the U.S. said, should be shielded from suit by "sovereign immunity." The U.S. is saying, in effect, that the systematic rape, torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of women over a period of years should be recognized as just another ordinary government action.

The filing was a conscious political decision by the Bush administration. While Secretary of State Colin Powell has made supportive remarks regarding claims by former U.S. POWs impressed into slave labor by the Japanese during the war, he opposes the rights of these former sex slaves who endured equally horrific crimes.

The Bush administration seeks to help Japan avoid any consequences for its crimes, even in the face of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act, which declares that "sexual slavery and trafficking in women and children are … abhorrent to the principles on which the United States was founded."

The U.S. government's stance also reveals a double standard. In the recent series of cases against companies profited from slave labor in areas controlled by the Third Reich, the U.S. championed the rights of the European victims and eventually helped them achieve multi billion dollar settlements. But when it came to the Asian victims, the U.S. actively thwarted efforts to seek justice. It is not yet too late for the comfort women to have their day in court.

On July 23, human rights activists held a demonstration at the State Department to protest the department's role in obstructing efforts to secure reparations for the survivors. On July 24, Rep. Lane Evans, the ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee, introduced a resolution calling on Japan to issue an apology to the former "comfort women." Then, on Aug. 1, Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr., will hear the joint Japanese - U.S. request to dismiss the "comfort women" case. Only time will tell whether Japan will be held accountable for its crimes, and begin to repair America's fractured image as a global advocate for human rights.


Iris Chang is the author of "The Raping of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II." Barry Fisher is an international human rights lawyer.

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