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For Women Forced Into War Brothels, Failing Fund Is Fresh Insult

January 10, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ It was supposed to be Japan’s way of atoning for a long-ago atrocity that still haunts and humiliates its aging victims.

Instead, a government-backed campaign to raise private funds for Asian women forced into sexual servitude during World War II is falling far short of its goals, highlighting Japan’s failure to come to terms with a painful past.

Nearly six months since the fund drive began, it has netted only $1.3 million, and organizers acknowledge they have little chance of meeting the goal of giving the women $10 to $20 million by this summer.

``Frankly speaking, we can’t be optimistic,″ said Yasuaki Onuma, a Tokyo University professor who helped set up the fund.

Historians estimate that as many as 200,000 Asian women and girls, most of them Korean, were kidnapped to work in front-line brothels operated by Japan’s Imperial Army during World War II.

It wasn’t until 1992 that the discovery of archived documents forced the government to acknowledge that its military had set up the network of brothels and conscripted women to work in them.

Until that proof emerged, the government had insisted that the brothels were privately run and that the women worked willingly as prostitutes.

Survivors _ who were euphemistically referred to by the Japanese authorities as ``comfort women″ _ described hunger, illness and beatings while being forced to sexually serve dozens of soldiers a day.

For most, the experience blighted the rest of their lives. Many of the women, especially those from conservative societies like Korea, felt too shamed by what had happened to them to ever marry or have children.

Even after admitting direct government involvement in the women’s servitude, Japan refused to pay direct compensation to the women, taking the position that all war claims were settled in postwar treaties.

But the issue came to a head last year, as the 50th anniversary of the war’s end prompted a reevaluation of Japan’s wartime accountability.

The government feared direct payments would open the door to a flood of claims from other war victims, including the thousands of Asian slave laborers who fueled the Japanese military machine.

Under mounting pressure from Asian neighbors, Tokyo instead lent its support to the establishment of a private foundation that would channel private donations to the women.

It was a solution that pleased almost no one. Many of the women, now in their 60s and 70s, say the fund was only a way for the government to get off the hook.

Shim Mi-ja, 71, was kidnapped by a Japanese military policeman in her Korean hometown in 1940, when she was 14. She was taken to the police station and raped. When she resisted, police broke one of her fingers and a leg. She still limps.

Weeks later, she found herself in a Japanese military camp in Fukuoka in southern Japan, raped by more than two dozen soldiers a day. After the war, she worked in a shoe factory for 13 years before she earned enough money to go back to Korea.

She thinks the Japanese government, not private donors, should pay.

``It was not civilians who kidnapped us,″ said Shim, who lives alone outside Seoul. ``So we want government compensation.″

Other surviving women, though _ many of them poor and ill _ indicated they would accept payments, even though the fund’s creation did not amount to the full apology they had sought.

The fund’s backers had hoped the bulk of donations would come from corporations and executives. The donations are tax-deductible.

But fund staffer Shinishi Harada reported a discouraging response in the boardrooms, where men in power are often in their 60s and 70s _ old enough to have served in the Japanese army, or to have lost friends and relatives in the fighting.

Some top executives think that donating money to the fund would amount to accepting accountability, something they do not wish to do.

``Are individuals and companies the only ones that should take responsibility?″ said Mitsuru Shinozaki, spokesman for the nation’s most powerful business group, the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations.

``The government hasn’t presented us a clear picture of how we can all share the responsibility as a nation.″

The women, meanwhile, are pursuing court claims against the Japanese government. But the cases could drag on for years, and most of the victims could be dead before any agreement is in place.

And with the drumbeat of last year’s war anniversaries having passed, many wonder whether the women’s plight will simply be forgotten.

Activists vow not to let that happen.

``Japan must pay for its crimes _ this is the only way to restore my dignity,″ said Shim. ``I will fight for this until the end of my miserable life.″

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