Local Activists Push for Resolution on Comfort Women

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee will take up a resolution on Tuesday that asks the Japanese government to apologize for enslaving women as prostitutes during World War II. Some of the most effective lobbying for the resolution has come from Korean Americans in Southern California.

Kitty Felde: During a committee hearing early this year, Jan O'Herne told members of Congress she was living in Indonesia when the Japanese invaded. At the age of 21, she was taken away from her family and forced into sexual slavery.

Jan O'Herne: The horrific memories of opening night of the brothel have tortured my mind all my life. In the bathroom I tried to wash away all the dirt and shame off my body. Just wash it away, just wash it away. But the night was not over yet. There were more Japanese waiting.

Felde: As many as 200 thousand women, some as young as 12, were forced into prostitution. Some, like O'Herne, were Dutch. Others were Chinese and Filipino. About half were Korean.

Daniel Lee: I almost cried. I mean, I'm a strong man, so I wouldn't cry, but that really touched me hard.

Felde: Korean American Attorney Daniel Lee remembered learning about these so-called comfort women when he was a student at UC Berkeley. The February hearing on Capitol Hill rekindled his interest.

Democratic Congressman Mike Honda from California's Silicon Valley introduced a measure, House Resolution 121, that calls upon the Japanese government to officially acknowledge and apologize for enslaving women during the Second World War.

Congressman Mike Honda: A sincere official apology heals wounds.

Felde: Honda should know. As a child, he and his Japanese American family spent the Second World War in an internment camp. Nineteen years ago, President Ronald Reagan signed a House Resolution that apologized on behalf of the U.S. Government.

But the Japanese embassy insists officials have already apologized for the sexual enslavement and contributed to a fund for survivors.

Honda: That's accurate. Individual Prime Ministers have apologized. Individual government officials have apologized. They have set up an Asian Women's Fund. What these apologies were were personal apologies. It's not an official governmental apology.

Felde: The measure has 146 co-sponsors so far. Grass roots organizers like L.A. attorney Daniel Lee are the reason. Lee has spoken at his PTA, at local churches and high schools. He's worn out his email list. He and other local activists have gathered 27,000 petitions asking local members of Congress to support House Resolution 121.

Lee: Once we get petitions, we need to sort them out district by district. And then once we have a certain number of petitions gathered, then we schedule a meeting with a local district office. Sometimes, it's very hard to schedule an appointment, then we just visit without making an appointment.

Felde: So far, 22 of Southern California's 27 Congressional representatives have become cosigners. They include San Gabriel Valley Democrat Adam Schiff. Schiff has been trying – unsuccessfully – for the last 7 years to get Congress to pass an Armenian genocide resolution. Schiff says the two issues are different, but...

Congressman Adam Schiff: It does, I think, represent a willingness of the Congress to speak very plainly about the facts of history and to be less concerned about whether even our allies want to hear those facts.

Felde: Last year, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the comfort women apology measure. But the House leadership didn't bring it to the floor. The new Democratic Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has promised a full floor vote if the committee approves the measure.