Korean Comfort Women v. Japan

Song Shin-do

 Filed: April 3, 1993

Song Shin-do, a native of South Korea’s South Chungchong Province, filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court against the Japanese government on April 3, 1993 seeking an official apology and ¥120 million (US$1 million) in compensation.  Song, a resident of Miyagi Prefecture in Japan, is the only Korean resident of Japan to bring a lawsuit as a comfort woman.

Song testified in court that the Japanese army tricked her into accompanying soldiers to China in 1938, where she was forced into prostitution, at the age of 16, to serve Japanese troops until the end of the war in 1945.  She alleged that when she refused to have sex with a Japanese soldier, he cut her back with his Japanese sword.  She also claimed that she was a virgin at the time and was forced to provide sex for up to 80 soldiers a day at one peak period.

On October 1, 1999, the Tokyo District Court’s decision dismissed Song’s claims (Japanese text of the court’s decision).  Presiding Judge Kitaru Narita told Song that individuals had no right to seek damages for what a nation did to them under current international law.  The judges admitted the facts as presented by Song that she was taken from her home in South Chungchong Province to Wuchang, Hubei Province in China, by the Imperial Japanese Army as a sex slave in 1938.  The court ruled that Song had to have sex with up to 70 soldiers a day and she was beaten at a number of brothels in China set up by the army during the seven years until the war ended in 1945.  Judge Narita stated that it was possible to share the agony she suffered at that time when considering people’s feeling who were forced to be comfort women.  The court ruled that Song’s suffering could not be covered by the State Redress Law as she demanded since the law took effect in 1947 and thus did not cover what happened before that date.

Song appealed to the Tokyo High Court on October 7, 1999.  On November 30, 2000 the Tokyo High Court dismissed the appeal (Japanese text of the court’s dismissal) The Tokyo High Court acknowledged Japan’s legal responsibility for Song’s suffering had she sued years earlier.

Song appealed to Japan’s Supreme Court on December 12, 2000.  The Supreme Court’s ruling, rather than a decision, dismissed Song’s appeal on March 28, 2003The ruling was based on breach of Constitution.  The Supreme Court decided that Japan had no legal obligation to pay Song for the suffering she endured from her seven-year forced sexual slavery because the 20-year statute of limitations for such a claim had expired.  This ended her judicial avenue for redress.

Pusan Comfort Women and Women’s Labor Corps members

Filed: December 25, 1992

Ten South Korean women filed lawsuit with the Shimonoseki branch of the Yamaguchi District Court in Fukuoka Prefecture against the Japanese government seeking an official apology and a total of ¥564 million (US$6.66 million) for suffering they endured at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army during WW II.

The plaintiffs included three former comfort women: Lee Son Dok, Ha Sun-nyo, and Park Tu-ri.  According to the lawsuit, Lee Son Dok, from Kwanju (southern Korea), testified that she had been taken to Shanghai in 1937, at the age of 18, on a false promise of work.  She was then confined and forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers until the end of the war in 1945.  Pak Tu Ri claimed she was forcibly taken to Taiwan at the age of 17 and coerced to have sex with Japanese soldiers.  Ha Sun Nyo stated that she was taken to Shanghai when she was 19 years old and was forced to serve as a comfort woman.  The remaining seven plaintiffs, among them Pak So Tuk and Yu Chan I claimed that they were forced to work from 1944 to 1945 at a munitions factory in Toyama Prefecture without being paid.

The plaintiffs explained that they picked Shimonoseki as the site of the lawsuit because all of them were dropped off in that location before being taken to different destinations.  They said that Japan’s act violated an international treaty banning forced labor.  They also insisted that the Japanese government had an obligation to offer an official apology and pay compensation based on the State Redress Law for their physical and mental agony.  Five of the plaintiffs submitted medical certificates in order to prove that they were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by being forced into prostitution and hard labor.

On April 27, 1998 the ruling of the Shimonoseki branch of the Yamaguchi District Court stated that compensation be awarded to the comfort women  (Japanese text of the court’s ruling).  The ruling was the first in compensation lawsuits filed by former comfort women.  The presiding Judge Hideaki Chikashita stated that Tokyo neglected to fulfill its legal duty to take measures to repair the wartime anguish suffered by the victims and ordered it to pay¥300,000 (US$2,800.00) to each of the three plaintiffs: Lee Son Dok, Ha Sun Nyo and Pak Tu Ri.  Judge Chikashita stressed that the comfort women system was a clear case of sexual and ethnic discrimination, as well as a violation of the human rights enshrined in the constitution, and that it was the responsibility of the Japanese government to consider and ensure ways to stop the former comfort women’s suffering from intensifying.

The judge further stated that the government’s duty to initiate compensation dated from 1993 when then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized to the former comfort women.  It was at that point, Judge Chikashita stated, that the Japanese government became responsible vis-a-vis the Constitution to promptly implement compensation for damages inflicted on former comfort women.  He also said the government did not take any action for three years, which the court considered to be a reasonable length of period for the government to have introduced the necessary legislation and which made the government responsible for compensation under the State Redress Law.  Finally, the judge acknowledged that the three comfort women were brought to the ‘comfort women’ facilities without knowing their destination and were coerced to work as comfort women.  The Shimonoseki branch of the Yamaguchi District Court court dismissed the charges of serious human rights violations in the case of the laborers and did not address the question of apology.

On May 1, 1998, the women brought the first appeal to the Hiroshima High Court demanding a “proper apology and compensation” and claimed that the amount awarded to them was an insult to women “who were treated lower than human beings.”  On March 29, 2001 presiding Judge Toshiaki Kawanami at the Hiroshima High Court rejected the appeal and overturned the April 27, 1998 decision (Japanese text of the court’s decision).  Judge Kawanami stated that he could imagine the frustration of the plaintiffs at the government’s failure to enact a law to fully compensate victims of Japan’s war effort, but the Constitution did not clearly state that the government was obligated to introduce such a law.

Unlike the 1998 ruling which stated that the Japanese government had failed to make laws to compensate comfort women, the March 29, 2001 ruling rejected comfort women’s requests stating that their abduction was not a serious violation.

On April 12, 2001, two of the comfort women (Ha Sun Nyo died in May 2000), represented by Lee Pak Song, appealed to Japan’s Supreme Court on the basis that the ruling was unconstitutional.  They sought to revert the decision of the Hiroshima High Court which claimed that the issues of compensation for wartime suffering were a matter for the Diet and not the judiciary.

On March 25, 2003 Japan’s Supreme Court rejected the appeal.  The ruling, rather than a decision, nullified the April 27, 1998 ruling – the only court ruling so far which had ordered the Tokyo government to compensate the plaintiffs.  Supreme Court Justice Toyozo Ueda ruled that what the plaintiffs had insisted was a technical matter that should not constitute an appeal to the highest court.  The ruling ended judicial avenues for redress.

Korean victims of the Asia-Pacific War
(including Kim Hak-soon)

Filed: December 6, 1991

On December 6, 1991, 35 members of the Association of Korean Victims filed a lawsuit in Tokyo District Court against the Japanese government for violating their human rights during WWII.  Kenichi Takagi headed the lawyers’ group.  For the first time, the plaintiffs included three former ‘comfort women’ for the Japanese army and were represented by attorney Mizuho Fukushima.  Korean women who were forced into prostitution as comfort women had never before gone public, preferring to maintain their privacy.  The other 32 plaintiffs included 13 male Koreans who were forced into the Japanese Imperial Army and persons who lost family members during WW II.

The plaintiffs demanded: 1) an official apology; 2) compensatory payment to survivors in lieu of full reparation – each plaintiff asked for ¥20 million (US$154,000); 3) a thorough investigation of their cases; 4) the revision of Japanese school textbooks identifying this issue as part of the colonial oppression of the Korean people; and 5) the building of a memorial museum.

According to the lawsuit, Kim Hak-soon, the first woman who made a public statement in August 1991 that she was forced to serve as a comfort woman, claimed that she was abducted from her home in Pyongyang in 1941 at the age of 16 and forced by the Japanese imperial army to work as a prostitute in northern China.  She claimed that she was given a Japanese name, “Aiko,” and was forced to have sexual intercourse with Japanese soldiers, as many as 20-30 a day.  Another woman claimed that she was taken to Shanghai and beaten when she refused to have sex with Japanese soldiers.  She further stated that due to numerous assaults she was not able to have children.  Another woman claimed that she was taken to Rabaul, Papua New Guinea where she served a comfort woman.

Following the December 6, 1991 lawsuit the Japanese government reversed an earlier claim that it bore no responsibility for World War II comfort women and stated that it was prepared to consider the sufferings of an unknown number of Korean women forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers. (Search “Cabinet Secretary Koichi Kato’s statement from July 6, 1992” for additional details ).

On March 26, 2001 the Tokyo District Court dismissed the compensation demand.  Presiding Judge Shoichi Maruyama, while admitting that the plaintiffs had suffered, stated that individual victims’ claims for damages against the victimizer country were not thought to be acceptable under international law.  He ruled out compensating individual South Koreans for wartime damage stating that the redress issue was settled by a 1965 bilateral agreement between Japan and South Korea which normalized their relations.

The plaintiffs appealed the decision in March 2001.  On July 22, 2003 the Tokyo High Court rejected the appeal, but ruled that the Japanese government failed to fulfill its obligation to provide security for several plaintiffs.  Presiding Judge Sueo Kito stated that the Japanese government at the time had an obligation to protect the comfort women from danger, but ruled that their right to demand compensation had already expired.  According to the ruling, the high court stated that it was difficult to conclude that the Japanese government was not to be held liable for damages claims by former soldiers and civilian workers relating to the period before 1947, when the national redress law took effect in Japan.

The Supreme Court upheld the Tokyo High Court’s rule, and rejected the appeal on November 29, 2004. (The Japanese text of the court’s decision)

News Reports

2011 August — Korean Supreme Court ruling on comfort women released. (English translation available here.)

2012 July — Seoul considers changing the term “comfort women”

2013 September — North Korean and South Korean women’s delegation meet and criticize lack of Japanese responsibility for the comfort women issue

2014 March — PM Abe says that he will not review the Kono Statement

2014 March — Realities of Korean Comfort Women

2014 April — South Korea and Japan begin dialogue on comfort women

2014 April — Senior Japanese, Korean diplomats plan sex slave talks in Tokyo

2014 May – Japan, South Korea stay divided on history

2014 May – Japan reviews 1993 ‘comfort women’ statement, has no plans to revise

2014 June – Former ‘comfort women’ join activists in demanding Japanese gov’t apology and compensation

2014 June – Former ‘comfort women’ submit documents to PM Abe, demand official apology

Op-ed Articles

2014 May – Opinion Article on Joongang Daily about Korean perpetrators of the comfort women system should also be tracked down

2014 May – Time to move on, rebuild ties