The Asian Women’s Fund was established by the Japanese government in 1995 in the wake of an investigation into the Japanese military’s use of comfort women during World War II. The fund’s purpose was to convey Japan’s apologies for their treatment of the women, give them compensation and put up medical and welfare assistance to the surviving ones who had finally come forward and told their stories.
The issue of comfort women is still a contentious one in Japan as well as in the Asian countries where the exploitation and brutalization of these women occurred. Due to a raft of aggressive campaign orchestrated by South Korean government, the issue has been echoed from South Korea to the U.S.
How the Fund Stared
In 1995, the administration of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama acknowledged their brutality and abuse of women during the war and expressed apology, and wanted to atone for their transgressions. They found that reparations had indeed been made through the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and the 1965 Japan-South Korea Claim Agreement which was signed at the same time as Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea wherein war-related issues were discussed and settled.
But Japan wanted to do more. It formed the Asian Women’s Fund, a government initiated organization run by private individuals and financed by a combination of government funds and donations from generous Japanese entities.
The sum of donated funds reached 565 million yen and Japanese government had also additionally contributed 4.8 billion yen. Comfort women numbering 285, with majority coming from the Philippines, and the rest from Indonesia, the Netherlands, Taiwan and South Korea, received an average of 2 million yen each (about $19,000), with more money spent for their medical care and other projects that would benefit the comfort women in particular and the general elderly population in Indonesia.
The circumstances leading to the creation of the Fund began with the 1978 memoir of Lieutenant Yasuhiro Nakasone. Titled “Commander of 3,000 Men at 23,” Nakasone gave an account of his role in the sexual slavery of women for Japanese soldiers, starting with a comfort house in Borneo. Since prostitution in Japan had been an open industry, although not legal, the comfort houses and their inhabitants had not been a moral issue. But the shortage of willing women eventually led to the Japanese Army luring and coercing women from other countries with false promises of jobs. Yasuhiro Nakasone went on to become Japan’s prime minister from 1982-1987.
In the 1990s, documents from the library of Japan’s Self Defense Ministry detailing the military’s involvement in comfort houses surfaced. Eventually hundreds of documents were found within various government departments. Adding to the clamor for deeper investigation was Seiji Yoshida’s memoirs in 1977 and 1983, recounting the horrors of the war and highlighting the comfort women issue. In the later developments of research however, Yoshida’s accounts were debunked by scholars and historians for being false.
Further research led to testimonies from survivors and in 1993, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono released the Kono Statement. The statement acknowledges the Japanese military’s involvement, whether direct or indirectly, in the presence of comfort houses and at least the coercion of comfort women both before and during World War II. The Kono Statement led to the Japanese government’s creation of the Fund in 1995.
Mixed Reactions of Other Countries to the Asian Women’s Fund
Although the Fund was created with the best of motives, not all intended recipients greeted it with appreciation and gratitude, maybe much to Japan’s surprise. Some of the comfort women from these countries were after all living in poverty and could have made good use of the money to improve their living conditions and get medical treatment they couldn’t otherwise afford. If it were up to the individual women, they would have enthusiastically accepted the assistance from Japan, but in South Korea, government officials and sanctimonious organizations put pressure on these women to refuse.
Raising the loudest objections, the South Korean government and a non-governmental organization, The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, or Korean Council for short, lambasted the Fund and its meager offers. They conveniently forgot that Japan had given the government a grant of 300 million dollars and loans of 200 million dollars in 1965by the conclusion of Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea.
The same reaction happened in Taiwan- the organization Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation objected to the source of money of the Fund. They argued that the Japanese government, not private donors, should pay the compensation. Conforming to its rhetoric, the foundation and the government separately paid each woman a sum of money to refuse the AWF offer. Taiwan is displeased that various national governments, yielding to pressure from China, carry out their governmental activities using not the name of the government but the name of some private organization, and it is possible that it reacted negatively to the fact that the Asian Women’s Fund took a “private” form.
The Philippines, Netherlands and Indonesia valued the action of the Japanese in reaching out to the victims of war and accepted its apology and the monetary remuneration, with varying terms. Indonesia wanted the projects to benefit their elderly citizens and not limited to the comfort women. The Netherlands, acknowledging that Japan had made its reparations in the San Francisco Peace Treaty, expressed their sentiments that the AWF is a private matter between Japan and the comfort women. Two organizations in the Philippines initially made some noise about their objections to the Fund but shortly soon saw how it could help the women have a better quality of life in terms of health, better nutrition and comfort.
Within Japan, diehard nationalists saw the Fund as an admission of guilt and a confession that the army had indeed committed the crimes attributed to them.
More Information about the AWF
Misconceptions about the Asian Women’s Fund were brought about by a lack of information that should have been made public. The officers admitted as much, presumably because their efforts were focused on its provisions and the mechanics by which it would be operated. This is understandable since the Fund was not a publicity stunt but a sincere deed to atone for past offenses and offer aid in the form of projects and financial help. Certainly, the AWF was not run by PR people but by esteemed statesmen headed by Bunbei Hara, previous chairman of the upper House of the Japanese Diet. It was also under the supervision of the Cabinet and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Wada Haruki, a professor emeritus of Tokyo University and a proponent of the AWF, stated that although money can never erase the pain inflicted by the war, the Fund and its provisions are a promise that Japan will never commit the same mistakes again.
The fund was established primarily to compensate the surviving comfort women of the comfort house system. In 1994 there was still much debate over the issue of comfort women. Many in the ruling parties believed that Japan could not compensate the women individually because compensation had already supposedly been dealt with in the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea (the 1965 Japan-South Korea Claim Agreement) between Japan and South Korea. PM Murayama, highly esteemed even in China and in South Korea for his completing Murayama Statement, said as much during the opening rites of the AWF:
“Established on this occasion and involving the cooperation of the Government and citizens of Japan, the “Asian Women’s Fund” is an expression of atonement on the part of the Japanese people toward these women and supports medical, welfare, and other projects. As articulated in the proponents’ Appeal, the Government will do its utmost to ensure that the goals of the AWF are achieved.”
Thereafter, a letter of apology had been sent to the Former Comfort Women from the series of Prime Ministers with their autographic signature.
How the Recipients Benefited from the AWF
Comfort women who had accepted the apology and money from the Asian Women’s Fund were profuse in their thanks and gratitude to the Japanese government and its people for many reasons:
They gained peace of heart that Japan finally acknowledged its sins and apologized. For years, these women were pariahs in their own lands, scorned by mainstream society and ostracized by neighbors, friends and even their own families. Quite a few people did not believe that stories of rape and torture but chose instead to think that all the women went into the sex industry willingly. That Japan reaffirmed the victims’ stories paved the way for these women to be accepted back into society.
Majority of the women are poor and all of them are old. Due in parts to their social outcast status, jobs were hard to find. Moreover the women are now suffering from chronic and age-related diseases that require regular checkups and maintenance medication. But because they lacked sufficient funds for medical consultations and treatment, the women suffered from the complications of the diseases. Included in the improvement of their physical health is being able to afford enough food to provide them with proper nutrition.
Their living conditions were enhanced from the money the Fund gave. From their derelict shanties, they were able to build better and sturdier houses, furnish them with fixtures and appliances for a more comfortable way of life and enjoy the small pleasures of watching television and listening to the radio.
The AWF sponsored projects to benefit and sustain medical and welfare projects for the women, and in some cases, even the elderly who did not go through the sufferings that these women endured. Social workers and health providers did regular follow ups of the women and their living conditions and made the appropriate reports. In Indonesia, as their government requested, homes for the aged and medical clinics were put up to serve the old population, giving preference to the comfort women. A total of 69 facilities were built through the Fund and any person admitted to them was allowed to stay there until his or her death.
In Taiwan, a well-meaning lawyer took up the cudgels for the women victims of war who were under pressure and thus afraid to accept the Fund’s assistance. He undertook the process of filling up their application forms and obtaining the necessary documents. He also made sure that their aid from the Taiwan government would not be stopped. The women were profoundly grateful to Japan and the lawyer and were able to avail of medical treatments and physical needs. They ate better food, live in better houses and enjoy the little comforts in living.
There are no reports of how the 61 South Korean women who accepted the Fund’s offers fared.
The Termination of the AWF
The Fund completed its projects on different dates in each country. In South Korea, the project was terminated after several unsuccessful attempts by the Japanese to reach out to them. In the Netherlands, the project ended on July 1, 2001 after the women received the letter of apology and financial compensation. Aside from the monetary aid, the AWF also brought them emotional and mental closure.
In the Philippines, projects remained ongoing. They were coursed through the proper government agencies. Indonesia had the last closing period on January 2007 and the AWF was dissolved on March of the same year.
Comfort Women in Other Countries
The issue of sexual slavery exists in other countries in conflict and is committed even now. The South Korean government is embarrassingly embroiled in a lawsuit filed by its own women who suffered rape and indignities at the hands of the American soldiers in the Korean war. Interestingly, the women are not so much angry at the US but at their own officials for encouraging the practice to keep the good relations between the United States and South Korea.
In the Vietnam War, the Sokor soldiers raped and abused thousands of Vietnamese women, impregnated them and forced abortions on some. They were abandoned and now live in shame, their children called Lai Dai Han looked down on by their own countrymen.
The mass rape of Bosnian women in the Bosnian War, the Rwanda genocide, the rape of native women in African countries by NGO personnel and humanitarian workers – these are only some of the sexual abuses committed by people from other nations and still ongoing in some.
It leaves the question of why Japan is being singled out for war crimes when many others are also doing them. This is not to condone Japan’s actions that were done 70 or so years ago but to point out that the country has made atonements for.