Sylvia Yu Friedman is the author of Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women
In 1970, Willy Brandt, the late German chancellor, dropped to his knees spontaneously in front of a memorial as a sign of repentance before survivors of the Holocaust in Poland. Many said they were healed by his moving gesture.
For the thousands of girls and women forced to be sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese military from the 1930s to the end of the Second World War, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should have knelt on the ground in deep contrition for these "comfort women" – but instead, a Japan-South Korea deal was quietly expedited behind closed doors.
I was 15 and living in Vancouver when I had first heard of the comfort women. But I could hardly find any written information on this important historical topic, as if it had never happened.
Years later in 2001 as a TV reporter in Victoria, I travelled to Washington to hear a shy, petite, 80-year old Kim Soon-Duk testify at a press conference in which she described her three-year harrowing ordeal as a sex slave for the Japanese military.
Ms. Kim gave chilling details of how long lines of Japanese soldiers would stand outside her room. One after another in a steady succession, the men used her and the other women.
Those who tried to run away were caught and killed to intimidate the others.
After hearing Ms. Kim's testimony first-hand, I wrote a commentary for this paper in August, 2001, about her and her fight for an official apology and restitution from the Japanese government. Immediately, a publisher reached out and asked for a book proposal on the topic. I wanted to describe their unspeakable stories for the world to know.
That is what compelled me to interview dozens of survivors in different countries for more than 10 years. What struck me the most from these interviews was how this period of captivity destroyed their lives. Universally, they told me that they wanted a sincere apology from the Japanese government that would bring healing and closure to their suffering.
The Japanese government has claimed that all rights to compensation were dealt with in treaties after the war. Until 1991, Tokyo repeatedly denied that women and girls were forced into a systemic sexual enslavement and blamed private profiteers. For the victims, these denials added insult to injury. That is why these women began to speak out.
After more than 70 years, a simple bilateral agreement between two elected officials to push this painful truth under the carpet will never be acceptable to the victims or the general public. These women must have a seat at the table. They must have a chance to express their views. They have a right to the last word.
This issue goes beyond Korea and Japan. Victims of this atrocity can be found in China, Taiwan, the Netherlands, the Philippines and Indonesia. If discussions are going to take place, these countries need to be included in the dialogue.
Many people throughout Asia Pacific, and some elder Koreans and Chinese in North America, continue to hold on to anger and hatred toward the Japanese. Unless this is resolved, these feelings will be passed down from generation to generation. A sincere, compassionate apology given to these women would help to heal wounds that extend beyond the issue of wartime military sex slavery. It would show the world that the Japanese understand that what they did hurt many people, but they are willing to take sincere steps toward true reconciliation from historical wounds.
As a last push for justice for comfort women survivors, the first Korean-Canadian senator, Yonah Martin, has invited me to participate in the International Parliamentary Coalition for Victims of Sexual Slavery, which includes ex-MP Joy Smith and U.S. Congressman Mike Honda, a long-time advocate for comfort women victims. Ms. Martin told me that the plight of the aged survivors – almost half of the victims were Korean – strikes a deep chord within her. She launched the global network last year at the United Nations.
Closure of these past wounds is urgently needed for all those involved, even for the Japanese. The survivors are dying off – only a handful of women are alive in China, Taiwan, the Netherlands, the Philippines and Korea. They need healing and reconciliation. That can happen only when a foundation of truth has been laid.