Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Laws


This paper delves into the legal accountability and historical narrative, which go hand in hand, surrounding the comfort women system implemented by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII. These women, including my late grandmother from South Korea, were forced into sexual slavery, servicing Japanese soldiers across the Asia-Pacific. Despite being one of the most significant atrocities in history, with victims from 10 countries and between 20,000 to 500,000 individuals, the plight of comfort women remains relatively unheard of.

The politicization of the comfort women movement has been a barrier to both acknowledgment and justice. My grandmother's silence for 80 years reflects the complex interplay of shame, fear, and the manipulation of survivors’ narratives by political agendas. This politicization has led to the marginalization of survivors in monumental historical and legal discourses, including treaty negotiations and any relevant discussions with Japan.

Central to my grandmother's concerns were the possibilities for legal redress and acknowledgment of individual criminal responsibility at the post-WWII tribunals and the outcome of a hypothetical ICC trial. These questions anchor the scholarship presented in this paper, which seeks to expand the criminal responsibility record of WWII Japanese government and military leaders regarding the comfort women system.

This research unfolds across several sections. Initially, it explores the emergence of the comfort women reparation movement, the delayed public recognition of these atrocities, and the global litigation efforts to secure justice for survivors. Subsequently, it argues that a substantial body of evidence exists capable of establishing the systematic and bureaucratic nature of the system. Despite the limitations of international criminal law during the Nüremberg and IMTFE eras, this paper posits that the IMTFE could have feasibly extended arguments that crimes against humanity had been committed by Japanese leaders for their role in the enslavement of comfort women.

Further, the paper examines the WIWCT's successful attribution of criminal responsibility to Japanese officials, enabled by advancements made during the ICTY and ICTR towards the legal understanding of sexual violence and slavery, as well as shifts in societal attitudes towards women in the 1990s. Additionally, it considers how the Rome Statute's detailed provisions on crimes against humanity could hypothetically be relied upon by comfort women survivors to pursue justice if any perpetrators remained alive today.

Essentially, this paper is a granddaughter's effort to reconcile her grandmother's lingering questions with the evolving landscape of international criminal law. It highlights the enduring relevance of the comfort women narrative in discussions on gender equality, sexual subjugation, and legal redress for wartime atrocities. This effort advocates for continued scholarship and legal scrutiny to properly understand the mechanics of the comfort women system and the socio-political dynamics involved, to prevent the recurrence of similar atrocities, and to honor the legacy of comfort women.


Criminal Law | Law | Military, War, and Peace | Sexuality and the Law

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