Lee Yong-soo, a surviving “comfort woman” and activist, former United States Rep. Michael M. “Mike” Honda (D-Calif.), and other advocates for comfort women spoke at a virtual roundtable hosted by Harvard Law students Tuesday evening aimed at “debunking denialism” on the issue.
With more than 500 attendees, the webinar, which was hosted by the Harvard Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, highlighted activism around recognizing and reparating comfort women, a term for sex slaves under the Imperial Japanese military before and during World War II.
The APALSA webinar comes after an academic paper by Harvard Law Professor of Japanese Legal Studies J. Mark Ramseyer stoked international controversy in recent weeks. In the paper, set to be printed by an academic journal, Ramseyer goes against the historical consensus by arguing that comfort women were voluntarily contracted to Japanese brothels. Due to mounting outcry at Harvard and beyond, the paper’s print publication has since been delayed by the journal and its contents are under review.
The Japanese Empire took sex slaves from its occupied territories, including from Korea, in the early 20th century. Estimates are disputed, but range from tens of thousands to up to 410,000. Since the war, many activists and former comfort women have argued the Japanese government has never fully reconciled with the issue.
In an interview on Friday, APALSA organizer and law student Janet Park said she wanted the event to enable viewers to learn directly from Lee, known worldwide as “Grandma Lee,” adding that comfort women survivors are “living proof of history.”
At a Tuesday morning press conference in Seoul, Lee requested the Korean and Japanese governments refer the comfort women issue to the International Court of Justice for resolution.
During the Tuesday evening panel, dressed in hanbok, traditional Korean clothing, Lee delivered an initial keynote, appealing to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to bring the comfort women issue up with Japan at the ICJ. Phyllis Kim, the executive director of American activist organization Comfort Women Action for Redress and Education, provided English translation for Lee.
On Jan. 8, a South Korean court found the Japanese government liable for crimes against a dozen comfort women, ordering an official apology and legal compensation. The administration of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, according to Lee, continues to ignore and deny its responsibility for the issue.
“I don’t have a lot of time left,” Lee, who is 92, said during the webinar. “I hope President Moon can persuade Prime Minister Suga so that this issue can finally be resolved and we regain our honor and justice.”
“My wish is to go to ICJ and get a clear decision and judgment from ICJ so that the Japanese government and the people can learn what really happened and the correct history,” Lee added.
Estelita Dy, an activist and surviving comfort woman from the Philippines, was also slated to attend, but was ultimately unable to.
In 1999, Honda, the California representative who spoke at the webinar, introduced a resolution passed by Congress which urged the U.S. government to encourage Japan to acknowledge its historical responsibility and apologize to comfort women.
Honda said Tuesday that the Japanese government is taking that resolution and movement “very seriously,” spending beyond its national budget to shape the narrative around the issue.
In light of the controversy surrounding Ramseyer’s recent paper, Lee urged webinar attendees to “ignore” Ramseyer’s claims in the paper, which she called “absurd.”
She added, however, that Ramseyer’s paper may also be a “blessing in disguise.” Lee said his paper has become a “wake up call” to spread awareness about comfort women.
In response to statements made about his claims during the event, Ramseyer said he is putting together a “short package of material on this topic” to make available to colleagues and anyone else who may be interested.
Other panelists discussed misconceptions in the historical record surrounding comfort women, responding to claims made in Ramseyer’s paper and by others who have denied the significance of the issue.
Former San Francisco Superior Court judge Lillian K. Sing, a panelist, said that though recent calls for reparations have only involved Korea and Japan, the issue surrounding comfort women involves “all the countries Japan invaded between 1931 and 1945.”
“It’s a story of the brutal commodification of women,” she said. “We need to focus it on the issues of human rights, of economic disparity, exploitation of women, and also about what happens during military times of conflict — how women, especially, are victimized during this time.”
Sing said she hopes those who have argued against the historical consensus on the issue would understand that denying the stories of comfort women causes them grief.
“I hope Mr. Ramseyer is watching and listening and has the compassion to understand and feel the pain that Grandma Lee is going through,” she said.
Sing questioned the Japanese government’s position on the issue more broadly.
“Why don’t they just accept what happened and move on?” she asked.
Second-year law student Rosalind Liang, who moderated the event, asked the panelists on behalf of audience members how they should combat “Japanese propaganda" that promotes an inaccurate historical narrative.
Panelist and fellow retired San Francisco Superior Court judge Julie M. Tang emphasized said comfort women's testimonies must be preserved for posterity.
“What we’re going to be doing is to continue to support our grandmas,” Sing added. “In the last search for justice, we just won’t give up.”
—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.