When Japan agreed to publicly apologize for its role in soliciting comfort women and pay reparations to those affected, it took hesitant first steps in repairing and neutralizing relations with South Korea. However, December’s sign of good will didn’t immediately make the decades-long struggle right, as many activists are quick to point out, and may not even represent what the women directly affected want. The issue of proper representation in institutions of law stretches far beyond what happens in Asia, and can be seen in the United States.
For starters, women who were directly affected by the actions of the Japanese government and soldiers do not view financial retribution as a fair settlement for the pain they were caused. The government originally created ‘comfort stations’ in areas of Japanese military occupation, to prevent sexual assault and violence against those subjugated to their control. Ironically, in doing so, they caused incredible harm to the young women growing up in those communities, and willingly so – a possible war crime.
“Do you think we’ve been struggling like this for such a long time out of greed for that 1 Billion Won? What we are demanding is legal reparation. It means that Japan must admit that it committed crimes as a criminal state,” said Kim Bokdong to the Huffington Post.
In short, the Japanese government has downplayed the full scope of what it meant to be a ‘comfort woman’ (a softer term for sex slave) to soldiers during World War II. While acknowledging that they were coerced into slavery, Japan often glosses over how badly women were treated, and even denied that it happened until recently. The country still does not acknowledge the existence of comfort women in other territories controlled by the Japanese.
Despite South Korea’s previous insistences that no one had officially apologized, former Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa publicly stated one in 1993 and a private fund was set up for survivors in 1994, though many former comfort women refused to accept it because they did not see it as an ‘official’ apology from state funds. A similar situation occurred in 1965 when funds were offered to Korea as well, but this too was an example of unwillingness to fully acknowledge their individuality and experiences. However, an issue that Korean diplomats are facing is that they seemingly are unaware of exactly what the victims want, as evidenced by Kim’s words.
What we see happening between the governments of Japan and South Korea is not exclusive to their societies. Globally, citizens – and more specifically women – are shut out of their government’s politics, most often when representatives fail to voice their constituents’ concerns. Some are more corrupt than others, taking bribes from larger groups to espouse one thing while benefitting personally. Others simply think that they are qualified in some way to speak for the entire population without the ability to justify so. One such example is the United States Congress, which is made up of 535 members – 362 men and 78 women — and while the gender ratio in the country is closer to an even split critics are wary of proposals to curb funding for groups that provide underrepresented women with healthcare, especially when they are proposed by male politicians. While male politicians are certainly welcome to represent women’s issues, it is concerning when they fail to do so adequately.
Female representatives (and of course, some of their male counterparts) are doing their best to represent who they believe are their constituents, but they don’t always get it right. Their success may vary depending on how well they know their area, and the context of how they were elected – for example, what platforms they may have run on when campaigning for the nomination. A recent example of this problem is Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wassserman Schultz, who has come under fire in recent days for her comments regarding abortion and the ‘complacency’ of young women in fighting for more rights. Many people identifying with her party believe that she no longer represents what they believe.
It is perhaps a strange and discouraging look into how politicians fail to best serve their citizens’ needs, but that’s not to say that it is impossible to break through. Many groups have been successful in lobbying for causes they believe in, especially in city and state politics, and it’s possible for others to do the same, so long as they are willing to be heard.
Cover image courtesy of Pulse.