Japan was recently reviewed by two different human rights bodies: the Committee against Torture (CAT) and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). Both expressed concerns regarding the issue of ‘comfort women’ and the lack of cooperation from Japan on this issue.

Who are ‘comfort women’?

‘Comfort women’ is the common designation for all women that have been trafficked and forced to serve as sexual slaves for the Japanese military forces during the Second World War. These women are still waiting for recognition of the crimes they have been victims of, and are still seeking redress today. Moreover, most of the victims, owing to their advanced age, are already passing on without ever seeing justice.

If you wish to know more about ‘Comfort women’, have a look at our previous statements:

Japan’s denial

The Convention against Torture obligates Japan to provide assistance, redress and rehabilitation for victims of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. Yet, although they have recognized that this sexual exploitation constituted such treatment, Japan has done nothing to address the issue so far, apart from apologies in the 1990’s.

Indeed, the Japanese authorities are still denying the existence of sexual slavery, as demonstrated by the recent regrettable comments given in the media by the mayor of Osaka. He claimed that this system of sexual exploitation was necessary and that no one has proved that force was used against the ‘comfort women’. Such accusation is particularly painful as, far from recognizing the responsibility of Japan, it implies that the women willingly entered in some kind of ‘prostitution’, which would place the responsibility on the victim and further stigmatizes them in most traditional societies.

That’s why both the Committee against Torture (CAT) and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) called upon the Japanese government to make strong and complete apologies, and to provide the victims with the necessary reparation they deserve. They recommended that Japan fully inform and educate the public on the exploitation of ‘comfort women’ by including it as a wrongdoing in school textbooks. They stressed the need to educate the public in order to prevent hate speech, sexual abuse and stigmatization of the victims.

Photo of a Chinese 'comfort girl'Education would be the first step towards redress for victims. Yet, the government must also take action to rehabilitate the victims and to prevent impunity. But so far, Japan has continuously failed to prosecute those responsible for these sexual abuses and to provide reparation to the ‘comfort women’.

Facing the criticisms from the two committees on this issue, Japan responded that neither the Convention against Torture nor the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were retroactively applicable to this issue of ‘comfort women’ that took place decades before Japan’s accession to these treaties.

In addition, the Japanese delegation stated that Japan has provided reparation to the victims through the implementation of the Asian Women’s Fund to support projects for former ‘comfort women’, and through bilateral agreements with the countries concerned, making the issue of claims legally settled.

Yet, for both committees, this was not sufficient: the amount of money spent for compensation and reparation by the government was very small compared to the $5 million raised in donations for the fund.

Furthermore, the Convention against Torture is meant to be applicable to all cases of inhuman and degrading treatment committed by a public official, and the crime committed by Japan against ‘comfort women’ is definitely inhuman and degrading treatment within the scope of the convention.

What can civil society do now?

The process of human rights reviews does not end at the review itself, it is rather a continuous process that civil society needs to be involved in to ensure the supervision of the implementation of the recommendations given by the human rights bodies. The recommendations from the CAT will soon be available on their website. In the meantime, you can already read the CESCR’s observations here.

Civil society must keep advocating for the protection and promotion of all human rights, and also monitor and assess the implementation of the recommendations. If you are engaged on this issue, you can quote the conclusions from these bodies in your advocacy work and you should be able to monitor and report on their implementation.