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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.3 (2001) 611-620

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Global Civil Society Remakes History: “The Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal 2000”

Kim Puja

In the last month of the final year of the twentieth century “The Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal 2000 for the Trial of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery” (hereafter the Tribunal) convened at the Kudan Kaikan Hall in Tokyo.1 The choice of the venue carries a partly intended irony: The Kudan Kaikan was formerly the Gunjin Kaikan, a military assembly hall; it is adjacent to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 2.5 million Japanese war dead—including seven “A-class” war criminals—are presently enshrined as deities.

The Tribunal had three purposes. First, it aimed to reopen the question of responsibility for Japanese military sexual slavery euphemistically called “the comfort women” system and to clarify that this system of sexual slavery was a war crime whose perpetrators should have been brought to trial. Second and third, it aimed to pursue justice for the survivors and preserve their dignity and, in so doing, break “the cycle of impunity” of sexual violence [End Page 611] that continues throughout the world to this day.2 I am a second-generation zainichi, a resident Korean in Japan, and have been deeply involved in organizing the Tribunal from the outset as one of the principal members of the research team of VAWW-NET Japan.3 The following report on the Tribunal is based on my personal involvement and perspective.

The hall was filled to overcapacity for all five days of the event. Sixty-four survivors from nine countries (South Korea, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, the Philippines, the Netherlands, Indonesia, East Timor, and Japan) were in attendance. Prosecution teams from each country, an international audience of one thousand, and around three hundred journalists from Japan and abroad filled every corner of the hall. On 8 December the judges declared the opening of the trial, and the two chief prosecutors read the common indictment.4 Following them were presentations by the prosecution teams of each of the nine represented countries. Each presentation included testimonies by the survivors, the submission of documentary evidence, and cross-examination by the panel of judges. In addition, expert witnesses and former Japanese soldiers who served in the war provided testimonies. The case for the defendant—the Japanese state—which did not respond to the Tribunal’s invitation, was made by amicus curiae.5 Counting video testimonies, twenty former “comfort women” from nine countries testified at the Tribunal. The overwhelming intensity of each survivor’s testimony powerfully revived the history that had long been silenced and forgotten. On the day of the judgment, 12 December, the four judges declared their historic ruling through their summary of findings:6 “Emperor Showa is guilty” and “the government of Japan bears state responsibility.”7 I will never forget the moment the judgment was read; it inspired cries of joy, clapping, and a standing ovation from the audience.

Revisiting the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, 1946

The success of the Tribunal was important, not only from the viewpoint of its primary objectives stated above, but also from that of the intellectual history of postwar Japan and of global civil society. It overturned the fatal mistakes of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) in 1946, namely, declaring the impunity of the emperor, neglecting to address Japan’s [End Page 612] colonial domination in Asia, and disregarding sexual violence committed against countless Asian women.

On the first day of the Tribunal, the two chief prosecutors indicted Emperor Showa, ten high military officials, and the Japanese government for “crimes against humanity.”8 During the trial, countless pieces of evidence were presented: statements of expert witnesses on the Japanese government’s and military’s chains of command;9 official documents that attested to the role that the Japanese military played in instituting the “comfort women” system; “comfort station maps,” which demonstrated the systematicity of expansion and geographical extent of the “comfort stations”; and materials establishing that the emperor was in a position to know about the rape of Nanking. The prosecution...


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