comfort women: sexual assault and war
The mass abuse of women always seems to follow in the wake of war. During World War II, the government of Imperial Japan was involved in the management of so-called ‘comfort stations’, or brothels for Japanese soldiers. Historians estimate that between 50,000 and 200,000 woman and girls from various countries were kidnapped, coerced, or deceived in order to be taken to these brothels where they were raped and beaten multiple times each day. Even now, the surviving ‘comfort women’ suffer emotional and physical trauma. Yet they continue to fight to have their story recognized.
The issue is still prominent today; every Wednesday demonstrators gather outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea, to call for an apology from the Japanese government. At a protest on 12 August 2015, a man set himself on fire, it is assumed, in an expression of anger and hurt. The wounds inflicted on these women still strain relations between countries and, though decades have past, haunt the survivors.
Following the end of World War II, the women who served in the brothels did not speak of what happened. Ha Sang-suk, who was abducted from South Korea and taken to a brothel in China, never returned home to her family after the war ended. When speaking to a reporter in the documentary, One Last Cry, she said, ‘I didn’t even write once to my family since I left home…Imagine how heartbroken my mother would have been had she found out what happened to me.’ Yong Soo Lee, another former comfort woman from South Korea, never spoke of her experience 47 years after the war ended; ‘she said she felt ashamed, afraid, and isolated’ and ‘had no idea that her ordeal had been shared by thousands of other young women,’ according to a Washington Post article. It wasn’t until 1991 when survivor Hak Sun Kim spoke in public that others began to rally. Speaking about their harrowing experiences paved the way for recovery. On an Australian Story program, Jan Ruff- O-Herne talks about how for decades she hated flowers because as a comfort woman she was given a new Japanese flower name. It was not until she told her daughters about her time in the military brothels that she began to come to terms with what happened; ‘Now I love to get flowers,’ she says, ‘because I’ve spoken out now. Now I can enjoy flowers’.
These women deserve an apology for the inconceivable pain forced upon them. Philippian Pillar Galang was only 14 when she was kidnapped. In One Last Cry, she describes the horrors she faced, saying ‘I was taken into a dark room by two soldiers…One soldier held me down while the other raped me. They took turns… I passed out. When I woke up, my body was covered in blood.’ An article in The Asia-Pacific Journal included a former comfort woman’s description of a day in the brothel: ‘The life of comfort women was this–during the day doing laundry of soldiers’ clothes, cleaning the barracks, and some heavy labor such as carrying ammunition, and at night being the plaything for the soldiers…When I resisted…I was beaten by the supervisor, pulled by my hair, and dragged around half-naked.’ Yet Japanese revisionists and nationalists continually downplay these atrocities. In an interview with BBC news, revisionist Toshio Tamogami asserts that this violent version of Imperial Japan is unfairly imposed, saying, ‘We should take back our true history that we can be proud of.’ Tamogami is not the only one, Yumiko Yamamoto also believes that Japan is being unfairly judged, declaring in an interview that comfort women were ‘nothing but high-paid prostitutes’ who lived in luxury. And while it is true that in the beginning of the war, comfort women were volunteers and that some were treated well, the testimony of survivors and research of historians shows that this was not the case for all.
In the past, Japanese politicians have come forward to apologize, to mixed reviews. Some accept the apology, others remain skeptical of its sincerity. There has been some outrage that Australia’s plan to build a comfort women memorial in Sydney has been discontinued, due to feelings that the statue would divide the community. On the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (14August 2015) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued an apology for Japanese actions, though it is not yet certain whether Abe’s statement will satisfy China and South Korea. The comfort women issue is a reminder to us all of the pain sexual abuse causes and the importance of providing a supportive and non-judgmental communities. Attempting to ignore the testimonies of victims of sexual assault, especially in cases of the comfort women where there a numerous survivors, is equivalent to rubbing salt in the wound. We must face this painful past and learn from it, because it is not just part of Japan’s history and should not foster prejudice against any one country. It is part of a history we share as human beings.