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Japan Political Pulse: S. Korean professor sends powerful message on 'comfort women'

What is wrong with the placement of statues dedicated to so-called "comfort women" in front of Japanese diplomatic establishments including its embassy in South Korea? The essential answer is included in a statement that Sejong University professor Park Yu-ha, who was indicted on charges of defaming former comfort women but subsequently acquitted, made in a court statement.

Prosecutors indicted professor Park, 59, over the publication of her book, "Comfort Women of the Empire," and demanded she receive a three-year prison sentence. The move represents suppression on freedom of speech, which is unthinkable not only in Japan but also in any other mature country.

Park criticized the prosecutors who indicted her for acting unfair. "What disappoints me isn't the prosecution's demand for sentencing itself but a lack of conscience or rigidity on the part of prosecutors, who acted as if they had not read my counterargument and simply stated, 'We demand severe punishment.' Behind such a move are not former comfort women but people around them. Prosecutors' demand for the sentence was written by some 'intellectuals' who provided logic made up of ignorance and distortion, and these 'intellectuals' made prosecutors repeat it just like a parrot," she said in a note attached to her final statement in court. Park translated the note into Japanese and released it online.

"Comfort Women of the Empire" is a book that denies a politically motivated, simplified conclusion by anti-Japan organizations that comfort women were girls taken forcibly by Japanese servicemen.

Park carefully read Japanese war literature works, news reports during and shortly after World War II, testimonies by those concerned and reports and wrote that the wartime comfort women system was essentially managed prostitution although such women were treated as slaves.

She concludes that the comfort women system is a by-product of the "imperialistic" war modern Japan waged while following the West, and is not a product of "unethicality unique to Japan's military."

Park contended that the statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in South Korea reflects an image of a "holy girl" that organizers of anti-Japan movements idealized and does not represent real comfort women. She also raised questions about the theory that some 200,000 people served as comfort women for Japanese soldiers during the war.

Professor Park is not saying that Japan was blameless over the issue. What she means is that if people are caught up in an anti-Japan stereotype, they cannot see complicated historical facts. Her book is based on her view that the issue should be redefined from the broader viewpoint of imperialism, and lessons learned from such efforts should be used to prevent the history of military expansion and exploitation from being repeated.

However, organizations supporting former comfort women were infuriated with her book. They filed criminal accusations against the professor and filed a civil suit demanding some 30 million yen in damages from her in the names of former comfort women. The professor lost the civil case and was ordered to pay 9 million yen in damages, but she has appealed the ruling to a higher court. Park almost had some of her salary seized, but she barely evaded that by depositing some money with judicial authorities.

In a provisional injunction, the publication of her book was suspended. She was forced to delete 34 sections in the Korean version of the book before republishing it. At the same time, she evaded being forced to delete any phrase in its Japanese edition published by Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc.

Park has faced up to the lawsuit, enduring criticism based on twisted facts and fighting a lone battle. She used her fluent Japanese to translate the note attached to her court statement to send a message to "intellectuals around former comfort women" who are also in Japan.

An international convention bans any party from installing structures that violate other countries dignity in front of their embassies. Seoul has agreed with Tokyo to recognize Japan's concerns and make efforts to resolve the matter.

Japan has refrained from officially speaking out against former comfort women. As a result, the view that approximately 200,000 women were forced into sex slavery is still widespread, just as BBC news reported on Jan. 6.

The Seoul Eastern District Court acquitted Park in her criminal trial after recognizing her freedom of speech, but it remains to be seen whether higher courts will uphold the ruling.

Deceitful reconciliation is harmful. Reaching a settlement based on a clouded perspective is impossible. Japan should learn sufficiently and have self-awareness to proactively send the international community a message on what is the problem with statues symbolizing comfort women. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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