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Category: International, Race/Ethnicity, Violence against Women

A Crossroads for Human Rights—the Achievement of the Korean Comfort Claims

| April 2, 2007

In the years following World War II, we are in what legal scholar Eric Yamamoto has called a global “Age of Reparations.” Yet reparations claims and settlements have until recently ignored harms uniquely experienced by women.

During wars or at the hands of oppressive regimes, women are targeted in gender-specific ways, such as rape and sexual torture. Because of perceived racial inferiority, women of color are often specially targeted. They suffer a unique kind of oppression—submerged at the bottom of hierarchies of human unworthiness based on both gender and race. And once repression stops, women of color can be marginalized once again when it comes to post-conflict reparations schemes.

For example, one failing of the Tuskegee reparations efforts was the invisibility of gender. In the 40-year Tuskegee experiment, from 1932 to 1972, the United States Public Health Services used African American men as laboratory animals to study the effects of late stage syphilis. The 399 African American men were denied penicillin, the known treatment for the disease. Nothing came out of the experiment to help cure or control the venereal disease, but lives were ruined. Ultimately, 28 men died from syphilis, 100 died from related complications, 40 of their wives had contracted the disease, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.

The Public Health Services accepted responsibility and awarded reparations to the surviving male African American victims only after litigation and intensifying public scrutiny. But the women who suffered because their husbands were dying from a curable disease, in addition to the women who were infected by their husbands, received nothing. Women were the experiment’s invisible victims—even the official apology by President Clinton addressed only the few surviving African American men.

What happened to the women? Reparations for the women harmed by the experiment never even entered the discussion. Their gender rendered them and their suffering invisible. Looking at gender alongside race in such cases does not displace race. Rather it compliments and expands reparations as a whole. Reparations for the Tuskegee men were vital to help remedy the injustice. However, the women must not be forgotten. Examining gender helps us to cross conceptual borders and realize new possibilities of coalition.

The value of looking at both race and gender is most poignantly revealed by the claims against the Japanese government for the mass rape by Japanese soldiers during World War II. The racial hierarchy in Japan prompted the Japanese government to select and transport Korean women (the “ianfu”) to serve as sex slaves for soldiers. Eighty percent of the 200,000 enslaved women were of Korean ancestry.

The horrific harms in this case are illuminated by race and gender analysis at two distinct points. First, the Japanese government forced mainly women of Korean descent living in Japan instead of “superior” Japanese women to serve as prostitutes. Gender oppression lay at the heart of the atrocity—sending women was, to the Japanese government, the obvious response to the soldiers’ sexual needs. But race, or ethnicity, was also crucial. The government was compelled by racial norms to target expendable Korean women. They were marked for degradation and even death not just because they were women, or just because they were of Korean ancestry, but because they were Korean women.

Second, Japan was able to evade prosecution for these crimes when the post-war trials focused on aggressive acts of war rather than wartime crimes against humanity. Consequently, Japan’s crime of mass rape went unacknowledged and unprosecuted. The result was a chilling message to the victims: that their suffering as women—more distinctively, as Korean women—was unworthy of international legal scrutiny. Racial unworthiness when linked to gender notions of inferiority made the Korean women close to invisible to not only the Japanese government, but also to its and the world’s justice systems. The disturbing reality is that these women of color were expected to suffer both at the hands of soldiers and then by the legal system.

But no longer. The comfort women’s legal reparations claims failed in the courtrooms, but the litigation process in Japan and later the United States elevated the status of women internationally as worthy candidates for reparations. The ianfu’s stories of suffering created a searing publicized official record. Through the litigation the women exposed documents long-hidden by the Japanese government that directly refuted the government’s denial of involvement in the sex slave industry. The high-profile lawsuit created political education forums that sparked worldwide awareness of the sex slave industry as a human rights atrocity—a grave injustice orchestrated by the government of one of the world’s most powerful countries.

Bolstered by women’s and human rights groups, the comfort women’s struggles for reparations in courts of law and world opinion have contributed to a changing legal consciousness about gender as well as racial redress. Indeed, because the Japanese government still refuses to provide meaningful reparations, the United States Congress—led by Mike Honda of California— recently held hearings to further educate the public about the ianfu and the human rights responsibilities of nations. In response, a stumbling new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, attempted to retract Japan’s acknowledgement of its conscription of the ianfu. And last month, a CNN report on the continuing horrors in Darfur, Sudan, specifically identified the mass rape of women—something that would not have figured in the news only a short while ago.

The combination of gender and race in international redress movements marks a new dimension to reparations theory and practice. Crossing conceptual and political boundaries, the strategy opens fresh possibilities of alliances for American reparations advocates.