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Japan's divisive 'comfort women' fund
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo
Published: 2007/04/10 13:20:01 GMT
When the prime ministers of Japan and China meet in Tokyo this week, the Japanese will be hoping the summit talks will not be derailed by controversies over its wartime record.
Other Asian nations claim Japan has not faced up to its World War II brutality, but despite these accusations the Japanese have made at least some efforts to heal the scars of the past.
One initiative is the Asian Women's Fund which, until it wound up recently, offered compensation to so-called "comfort women", the women forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army.
It started with a full page newspaper advertisement, published on the morning of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, on 15 August 12 years ago.
The advertisement announced that a fund would be set up to compensate women who had been used as sex slaves during the war.
The money would be given by the government, but the fund would be run by independent trustees.
From the start, there was controversy.
Some right-wingers were opposed to anything that offered compensation or an apology.
Yet some activists, in countries where the comfort women came from, complained that this was not an official apology or official compensation from the government.
Haruki Wada, the fund's executive director, admitted that there was initial confusion about the fund's status.
So he started his explanation of the fund by giving some facts:
*565m yen ($4.7m) was raised in donations from the Japanese people, and given to 285 comfort women from Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, each of whom received about 2m yen ($16,700)
Mr Wada wanted to list all this detail because of how sensitive this issue of whether or not the compensation was 'official' has become.
"The very first criticism we received," he said, "was that the Japanese government was running away from their responsibility and using the Asian Women's Fund as cover."
"It is true that it was not state compensation. Although the Japanese government spent lots of money on this, we were not able to give the impression that the government was taking full responsibility."
There were further difficulties with the letter of apology signed by the prime minister, which was given to each victim.
Copies of the letter were delivered by the Asian Women's Fund rather than by diplomats.
Activists in South Korea and Taiwan claimed that the letter was a personal not an official one, and that the money available was from charity funds rather than state compensation.
They persuaded more than half the former comfort women in the two countries not to accept the money.
In fact, the women in these countries were compensated locally if they said they did not want to receive the Japanese money.
Mr Wada said there was a similar debate in the Philippines, but activists there decided that if the elderly victims wanted the money, they would support them.
"The way we distributed the fund did not leave the right impression," he admitted, "and that is why we have problems now."
But not all the difficulties can be blamed solely on the Japanese side.
No money has been paid to the Japanese army's former sex slaves in China, because the Chinese government did not want to help in establishing an authorisation system for women, like the South Korean government did, Mr Wada said.
"There were lots of different sorts of victims of the war in China, and I believe it was difficult for the Chinese government just to single out comfort women for help".
The fund was wound up at the end of last month, its work finished according to Mr Wada.
It had set a deadline of five years for applications for financial support from former sex slaves. Those requests have now all been processed.
Despite the criticism directed at the fund, Mr Wada feels it was important, not just to provide compensation for those wronged by Japan but also to educate the Japanese people about what he calls "the new consensus" about the wrongs committed by the Imperial Army.
"We know that [the comfort womens'] deep scars and damage will not be compensated by a little money and we will not be forgiven for what we've done," he said.
"But both the Japanese government and the people of Japan felt it was necessary for us to apologise for the past and we wanted them to receive compensation as a sign of our vow that it will not be repeated again."
And although the fund has been wound up, Mr Wada feels there is still more work to be done for other victims of the Japanese during World War II and before.
"One issue is that of forced labour. The South Korean government is considering paying compensation to those victims. But it was Japan who forced them to work, so I wonder whether that is the right way to deal with the issue," he said.
"And then there are the comfort women in North Korea too," he added. "There are about 200 of them, and I believe only around half of them are still alive."
Haruki Wada is now ready to move on from the fund, and plans to finish a book he has been writing.
"I believe we can now move forward from here," he said. "That's why I'm proud of the fund, and I feel I'm done with it."
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