25 years after Beijing: Two steps forward or one step backward for women in Japan and South Korea?

The following article was published in the March 2020 issue of the International Review of Contemporary Law, the journal of the IADL.

by Osamu Niikura and Youjeong Jeong

The Beijing Conference marked a milestone for protest movements against military crimes in Japan. Since that time, however, the situation of violence against women is nearly unchanged. As the concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee for the 6th National Report for Japan indicated, there is still much to do in solving the problems of gender inequality.

The situation of “comfort women” is another major concern that requires a further immediate and comprehensive response.

Is Rape a Banal Military Incident?

September 4, 1995, three US military servicemen sexually assaulted a twelve-year-old elementary school girl in Okinawa, a prefecture where 15 % of its mainland territory is occupied by US military facilities. More than two-thirds of all U.S. troops in Japan are stationed in Okinawa. Participants in the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing returning to Okinawa swiftly raised their voices against the victimization of a young girl. Similar incidents of sexual assault have occurred repeatedly over the half-century of U.S. military presence following World War Two. There have been frequent protests against the long-standing practices that have seen perpetrators rarely brought to justice, due to a dubious application of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). When the rule of law is impeded by the SOFA, it can block the implementation of justice for crimes or incidents committed by US military service personnel.

Another incident which occurred in South Korea illustrates a different kind of military recklessness and violence affecting women.. Seven years after the Okinawa incident, in 2002, two junior high school girls in South Korea were struck and killed on their way to school by a US military vehicle stationed in the country. Soon furious movements and protests emerged throughout the countr. In Seoul,protestors organized candlelight vigils and demonstrations every evening.

These two cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The rights of women in both countries are at stake under a heavy burden of a policy of “National Security First” with insufficient legal institutions to protect and promote human rights for women and, indeed, for all people. Surprisingly the situation has not improved in these twenty-five years.

Revisionist Politics and the Status of Women

Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party known for his revisionist historical view and his avid support for constitutional change, took over the government from the Democratic Party of Japan in December 2013, the situation surrounding women in Japan has changed little or even worsened. It is true that the Administration created a general “Plan for Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens” that included some mechanisms for improvement, especially regarding the situation of childcare and nursing in Japan. [1] However, the Plan’s prospective target focuses on economic growth, and it is almost a copy of the National Economic Growth Plan of late 1980s. The plan lacks concrete target figures for improving the status of women both qualitatively and quantitatively and, overall, remains in dismal shape. Japan must make a big change in this regard. It is preferable to take into account a proposal made by OECD Tokyo Center, “Beyond GDP – Development of Measures for Understanding Well-Being.”[2]

In South Korea, which suffers from deep-rooted social structures of gender inequality, the #MeToo movement’s swelling impact since 2018 has shaken the society with women’s demands for fundamental change. In particular, these protests have focused on ending discrimination against women and combatting social and personal violence against women. On the contrary, in Japan, no palpable movement can be seen in regard to #MeToo, sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. In 2019, South Korea went further to establish a social infrastructure for gender equality on the initiative of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which has taken substantial measures to reform core social structures and to promote wider participation of female representatives in the political sphere and other public sectors.

The Human Rights Committee delivered “concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Japan” on August 20, 2014 [3]. Gender equality is one of the four major concerns expressed by the Committee, as follows [4]:

Gender equality

The Committee is concerned at the State party’s continuing refusal to amend the discriminatory provisions of the Civil Code that prohibit women from remarrying in the six months following divorce and establish a different age of marriage for men and women, on the grounds that it could “affect the basic concept of the institution of marriage and that of the family” (arts. 2, 3, 23 and 26). The State party should ensure that stereotypes regarding the roles of women and men in the family and in society are not used to justify violations of women’s right to equality before the law. The State party should, therefore, take urgent action to amend the Civil Code accordingly.

While welcoming the adoption of the Third Basic Plan for Gender Equality, the Committee is concerned at its limited impact, in view of the low levels of women carrying out political functions. The Committee regrets the lack of information regarding the participation of minority women, including Buraku women, in policymaking positions. It is concerned about reports that women represent 70 per cent of the part-time workforce and earn on average 58 per cent of the salaries received by men for equivalent work. The Committee is also concerned at the lack of punitive measures against sexual harassment and the dismissal of women as a result of pregnancy and childbirth (arts. 2, 3 and 26).

The State party should effectively monitor and assess the progress of the Third Basic Plan for Gender Equality and take prompt action to increase the participation of women in the public sector, including through temporary special measures , such as statutory quota s in political parties . It should take concrete measures to assess and support the political participation of minority women, including Buraku women, promote the recruitment of women as full-time workers and re d ouble its efforts to close the wage gap between men and women . It should also take the necessary legislative measures to criminalize sexual harassment and to prohibit and sanction, with appropriate penalties, unfair treatment based on pregnancy and childbirth.

Gender-based and domestic violence

The Committee regrets that, despite its previous recommendations, the State party has not made any progress in broadening the scope of the definition of rape in the Criminal Code, setting the age of sexual consent above 13 years and prosecuting rape and other sexual offences ex officio. It notes with concern that domestic violence remains prevalent, that the process to issue protection orders is too lengthy and that the number of perpetrators who are punished for that offence is very low. The Committee is concerned by reports of the insufficient protection provided to same-sex couples and immigrant women (arts. 3, 6, 7 and 26).

In line with the Committee’s previous recommendations (see CCPR/C/JPN/CO/5, paras. 14 and 15) the State party should take concrete action to prosecute rape and other crimes of sexual violence ex officio, raise without further delay the age of consent for sexual activities and review the elements of the crime of rape, as established in the Third Basic Plan for Gender Equality. The State party should intensify its efforts to ensure that all reports of domestic violence, including in same-sex couples, are thoroughly investigated ; that perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions; and that victims have access to adequate protection, including through the granting of emergency protective orders and preventing immigrant women who are victims of sexual violence from losing their visa status.

“Comfort women”

The Human Rights Committee also delivered recommendations in regard to sexual slavery or “comfort women.” [5]

The Committee’s expressions of concern place further pressure on the position taken by the Japanese Government, which sometimes swings for or against reconciliation with surviving victims. It states:

The Committee is concerned by the State party’s contradictory position that the “comfort women” were not “forcibly deported” by Japanese military during wartime but that the “recruitment, transportation and management” of women in comfort stations was done in many cases against their will, through coercion and intimidation by the military or entities acting on behalf of the military.”

It further charges that “all claims for reparation brought by victims before Japanese courts have been dismissed, and all complaints to seek criminal investigation and prosecution against perpetrators have been rejected on the ground of the statute of limitations”, and then it says that this situation reflects ongoing violations of the victims’ human rights, as well as a lack of effective remedies available to them as victims of past human rights violations (arts. 2, 7 and 8).

In the six years that have followed, the Government of Japan has failed to take any action, good or bad, whatsoever. One problem is that a gap between the governments of Japan and South Korea is yet to be filled.

Japan claims that former South Korean President Park Guen-hye accepted an accord in December 28, 2015 to set up a foundation to grant a support fund to victim-survivors and family members of the deceased. However, the succeeding government of South Korea, led by President Moon Jae-in rejected the accord because it fails to sufficiently reflect the will of the victims or satisfy the demands of survivors. As a result, there has been no convincing final solution or reparations for the suffering of the “comfort women”. Hopefully a comprehensive approach will be taken to provide a permanent solution and permit reconciliation between both nations. This may include not only the issue of sexual slavery, but also compensation for conscripted workers before and during wartime or even further cooperation to promote common understandings of historical events.

We anticipate the 7th National Report of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is expected to be released in the near future.

Osamu Niikura (Japan) is president of the Legal Culture Institute for Communal Justice (LCICJ), Professor emeritus at Aoyama Gakuin University and an attorney-at-law.

Youjeong Jeong (Republic of Korea) is the Chief Research Fellow at the Legal Culture Institute for Communal Justice (LCICJ) and Lecturer at Aoyama Gakuin University.

1 The Japan’s Plan for Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens, 2016, https://www.kantei.go.jp/jp/singi/ichiokusoukatsuyaku/pdf/gaiyou_e.pdf
2 Beyond GDP – Development of Measures for Understanding Well-Being, OECD Tokyo Centre. http://www.oecd.org/tokyo/publicationsdocuments/Beyond_GDP_Servicology2020.pdf
3 CCPR/C/JPN/CO/6, UN Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on the Sixth Periodic Report of Japan, August 20, 2014 http://docstore. ohchr.org/SelfServices/FilesHandler.ashx?enc=6QkG1d%2FPPRiCAqhKb7yhsuBJT%2Fi29ui%2Fb4Ih9% 2FUIJO9nQa93Boy0croOoLTDvEPGY0kpztyF26TNPPD6smh3p9YJ5KgXGu0vYZb1NM8mpET5PRv% 2FLCx0HP6sZ3QjgcWI See also https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/files/000054775. pdf.
4 Id. 5 CCPR/C/JPN/CO/6, p.
5 Recommendations are as follows: “The State party should take immediate and effective legislative and administrative measures to ensure: 1. That all allegations of sexual slavery or other human rights violations perpetrated by the Japanese military during wartime against the “comfort women” are effectively, independently and impartially investigated and that perpetrators are prosecuted and, if found guilty, punished; 2. Access to justice and full reparation to victims and their families; 3. The disclosure of all available evidence; 4. Education of students and the general public about the issue, including adequate references in textbooks; 5. The expression of a public apology and official recognition of the responsibility of the State party; 6. Condemnation of any attempts to defame victims or to deny the events.”