Our Voices

Education as a Pathway to Reconciliation of Historical Harm: The Case of Korean Comfort Women

In our most recent Human Rights Defender speaker series event, Dr. Jongwoo Han, President of the Korean War Veterans Digital Memorial Foundation, shared the history of comfort women during World War II, emphasizing education as an important way to heal historical harm and end conflict-related sexual violence.

Lead educator Mona Al-Hayani, a history teacher at Toledo Early College High School, began the conversation by defining conflict-related sexual violence and discussing it in conjunction with modern human trafficking. While there are differences between the two, both target vulnerable populations and use coercion and deception to enslave women.

Al-Hayani, who works to educate about and raise awareness of human trafficking, noted it is important to understand that sexual violence is a tool of war used to dehumanize and subjugate civilians. When widespread and systematic, sexual violence is considered both a war crime and a crime against humanity, according to UN Resolution 1820, which stresses the “importance for ending impunity” for these crimes to achieve “sustainable peace, justice, truth, and national reconciliation.”

Dr. Han asserts that neither Japan, the survivors, nor families of survivors can move forward until these crimes are acknowledged; there must be an apology, restitution, and education about what really happened. And the reality is horrifying: About 200,000 women from 12 countries, but primarily Korea, were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army between 1932 and 1945.

The choice to commit this widespread sexual violence against women was both condoned and perpetrated by the Japanese government, Dr. Han explained. Historical documents show the Japanese Imperial Army requested women to “comfort” the soldiers, and the government provided logistical details about how to procure the women. The women were captured or coerced, then enslaved by private groups before being sent to “comfort stations” – similar to brothels – where survivors report being forced into sexual servitude in horrific, inhumane conditions.

When moderator Mya Glover, senior and valedictorian at Toledo Early College High School, asked Dr. Han to define “comfort women,” he called the term ridiculous: “comfort for whom,” he asked. Surely not the victims. The term was nothing more than a way of obfuscating the truth and shirking responsibility.

While the Japanese government in 1992 acknowledged comfort stations had existed – going so far as to include a brief history of comfort women in Japanese textbooks in 1997 – it has since retracted its public acknowledgement and redacted any mention of comfort women in textbooks.

This refusal to acknowledge the crimes and apologize is a significant issue for the Japanese people, Dr. Han asserts, because they cannot “come clean and move ahead.”

The U.S. House of Representatives in 2007 passed Resolution 121, urging the Japanese government to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner” for its “coercion of young women into sexual slavery.”

While this is perhaps ironic now given recent efforts to elide history in the U.S. educational system, the need for the public acknowledgement of history and apology for historical wrongs remains one of the only clear pathways toward authentic reconciliation.

Dr. Han pointed to Germany, which continually and publicly admits its crimes during World War II, seeks to make restitution to victims, and teaches about the events in history textbooks and courses. It is this continual choice to educate and accept responsibility that allows for healing and showcases that there is a shift in values and that these acts must not happen again. Education, then, is one of the most important ways we can take action to end conflict-related sexual violence.

To join this education effort and learn more about the history of comfort women, watch the entire discussion with Dr. Han and Mona Al-Hayani here (45:35). You can also download a c3 Inquiry lesson plan about comfort women titled “How Can Historical Harm Be Reconciled?” For additional resources, visit the Korean War Legacy Foundation Teacher Network. You can also view additional Speak Truth to Power lesson plans on our website. If you have questions or if you would like more information about how to integrate human rights education in your classroom, please contact us: stephens@rfkhumanrights.org.