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Japan’s sex slave legacy remains an open wound

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Hashimoto, 43, sought to calm the uproar Monday, telling a packed news conference that he personally didn’t condone using "comfort women," which he labeled a violation of human rights.

But he repeatedly insisted that Japan’s wartime government did not systematically force girls and women into prostitution, although he acknowledged that some may have been deceived and coerced. He said the historical record isn’t clear, which is similar to Abe’s view that there is no proof the women were coerced as a result of a state order. He said historians from both Japan and South Korea should settle the matter.

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Hashimoto acknowledged that this murkiness probably is the key stumbling block in Japan’s ties with South Korea.

Chuo University historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi, one of Japan’s most respected experts on "comfort women," criticized the Japanese government for taking an extremely narrow interpretation of what constitutes coercion.

He said documents show "comfort women" recruited in Japan were mostly adult professionals, although many had been sold into the sex industry by their poor families. However, in Asian countries invaded by Japan, there was no consideration of the rights of minors or the right to quit, which he said should constitute coercion by international standards.

"Neither Prime Minister Abe nor Mayor Hashimoto has tried to look at how those girls and young women were abused. Their view is worlds apart from the international view," he said.

Kim was dragged across Asia, from Hong Kong to Singapore and Indonesia, until the end of the war in 1945. She was freed in Singapore and returned home in 1946. She later was married but — like most former sex slaves — was never able to reveal her past to anyone but her mother — until decades later.

"Even as I returned to my homeland, it never was a true liberation for me," she told listeners at the community center. "How could I tell anyone what had happened to me during the war? It was living with a big lump in my chest."

She finally broke her silence several years after her husband died in 1981. Later she joined a group of women seeking official recognition as victims of Japan’s sex slavery.

Kim has since traveled around the world to tell her story and participates in weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

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Kim and another former sex slave, 84-year-old Kil Won-ok, had been seeking a meeting with Hashimoto for some time when he made his comments this month. He then offered to meet with them, but they canceled, saying they didn’t perceive that he was remorseful and didn’t want to be used by him to rehabilitate his image. Instead, they spoke to the public in Osaka.

"We won’t be around much longer," Kil said. "But we have to tell you our stories because we don’t want the same mistake repeated again."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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