Citizens groups opposed Asian Women's Fund

From an early stage, the Japanese government was considering providing financial aid to former comfort women as a token of "apology," but no concrete steps were taken to set a system in place until the Tomiichi Murayama administration came into being in 1994. In October that year, the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Japan Socialist Party and New Party Sakigake began discussing the matter in the "Subcommittee to Address Wartime Comfort Women Issue" that was set up as part of the project team to deal with the issues related to 50 years after the war.

The Japanese government has always taken the stand that all matters related to South Korea's claims for wartime compensation have been completely settled under the Japan-South Korea agreement on property and claim rights and other agreements, and that the Japanese government bears no further legal responsibility.

Citizens groups in Japan and South Korea called for "government reparations," and the Japan Socialist Party, of which Prime Minister Murayama was a member, also insisted on them. However, in order to advance "matters concerning Japan's postwar responsibility," the party compromised and agreed to collect donations from the private sector.

In June 1995, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kozo Igarashi announced the establishment of a foundation, tentatively named "Josei no Tameno Ajia Heiwa Yuko Kikin (the Asian Peace and Friendship Foundation for Women)." The arrangement was that the foundation's capital would rely on private donations, while the Japanese government would chip in to finance medical care and welfare programs.

In reference to these programs, the South Korean government issued a statement to the effect that the Japanese government showed "sincerity" in that a "public element was being introduced into the foundation in the form of Japanese government funding for some of the programs."

A former South Korean ambassador to Japan described the Japanese government's decision as "something that was possible only under a coalition government that includes the Japan Socialist Party," and the South Korean government also praised the foundation at first.

‘Demand for government reparations'

In July 1995, the foundation was officially established as the Asian Women's Fund. But the differences in how Japan and South Korea viewed the fund began to grow as the fund entered full operations.

From the time the fund was still on the drawing board, Japanese as well as South Korean groups supporting former comfort women were critical of it, saying that "since the fund was not a vehicle for the payment of government reparations, it allowed the Japanese government's responsibility to remain vague." The most vocal critic of the fund was the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Teitaikyo), which demanded punishment for individuals who were responsible for the matter. Their differences were never ironed out.

The fact that the Japanese government--which did not acknowledge its legal responsibility--kept explaining the fund as a "private-sector project" came across to the former comfort women's support groups as an indication that the Japanese government was evading responsibility. And the objectives of the fund were further misunderstood by the South Korean public when South Korean media translated the "atonement money" being paid by the fund as "iro-kin" (bonus).

However, not all former comfort women agreed with Teitaikyo's stance.

In January 1997, a closed ceremony was held in Seoul for the first time to present atonement money and medical care expenses to former comfort women who wished to receive them. According to sources, a letter of apology from Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was read out in Korean, and the women--dressed formally in traditional Korean "chima" and "jeogori"--wept uncontrollably or expressed great joy.

But when the ceremony was made public after the fact, South Korean society reacted with outrage. The names of the seven women who took the money were disclosed, and they were vilified in harsh terms. "You sold your soul for money," they were told. "The victim becomes a licensed prostitute if she takes sympathy money from those who refuse to acknowledge their guilt."

The South Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement deploring the fact that the fund went ahead with its plans to pay money "in disregard of the wishes of our government and the great majority of the victims." At a meeting of the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea that took place immediately after the ceremony, South Korean Foreign Minister Yoo Chong-ha demanded the suspension of payment from the fund.

Independent fund raising

This sudden hardening of the South Korean government's stance owed partly to the rapid deterioration of Japan-South Korea relations over another issue.

When Japan decided in early 1996 to define its exclusive economic zone, the territorial dispute was rekindled over the Takeshima islands. Amid a surge of anti-Japanese movements at home, the South Korean government was forced to heed the voices of citizens groups. An official who was in charge of Japanese affairs at the time later recalled, "President Kim Young-sam only stressed investigating the truth and stopped allowing (the former comfort women) to accept atonement money."

Teitaikyo and other support groups began their own fund-raising drives in defiance of the Asian Women's Fund. In May 1998, the South Korean government began paying 31.5 million won (about 3.12 million yen) in government aid and 4.18 million won (about 410,000 yen) in privately collected donations to each woman, but this was only for women who had no intention of receiving money from the Asian Women's Fund. This made it considerably harder for the fund to run its activities.

In May 2002, the Asian Women's Fund completed its programs in South Korea. Murayama, who was the fund's president at the time, told a news conference that "the fund had faced many difficulties but was able to fulfill its act of atonement to the former comfort women who agreed to accept the money."

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The Asian Women's Fund was established in July 1995 in response to the Kono statement. The fund handed to each former comfort woman a letter of apology from the Japanese prime minister, together with 2 million yen in atonement money donated by the Japanese public and 1.2 million yen to 3 million yen in medical care expenses financed by the Japanese government as part of its medical care and welfare program.

In South Korea, the fund made payments to 61 out of 207 women who had been officially recognized by the South Korean government as former comfort women (as of 2002). But since they were severely criticized by their fellow citizens or denied South Korean government benefits if they announced they were taking money from the fund, the whole exercise had to be conducted behind the scenes.

There were 13 recipients in Taiwan and 211 in the Philippines. In the Netherlands, 79 women accepted medical care expenses only. In Indonesia, the difficulty of determining former comfort women resulted in the establishment of a facility for the elderly.