COMFORT WOMEN – WORLD WAR II SEX SLAVERY – SURVIVORS CONTINUE TO CALL FOR JUSTICE, COMPENSATION, APOLOGY FROM JAPANESE GOVERNMENT
08 March 2010
Former “comfort woman” Lee Yong-Soo (L) stands beside her supporters holding portraits of Philippine, South Korean and Chinese comfort women who were sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II, at a protest held in front of the Japanese parliament in Tokyo. Japan on 27 June 2007 brushed aside calls from US lawmakers for a fresh apology to wartime sex slaves, even as the former “comfort women” renewed their demands for Tokyo to acknowledge their plight. Japan said the US move to pass a resolution calling for an “unambiguous” apology from Japan for the coercion of women into army brothels during World War II would not damage relations between the two allies. Inset: Recruitment advertisements for comfort women in the Japanese Imperial Army.
Top: Former comfort women want Japan to do more to apologize. Bottom right: Rangoon, Burma. August 8, 1945. A woman who was in one of the Imperial Japanese Army’s “comfort battalions” is interviewed by an Allied officer.
Former Filipino “comfort woman” Piedad Nobleza, 86, at a demonstration outside the Japanese Embassy in suburban Manila. Elderly Filipino women and their supporters demanded Tokyo’s clear-cut apology and compensation for wartime sexual slavery by Japanese troops.
Local volunteers advocating for the “Comfort Women” resolution honoring survivor of a military rape camp organized by the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII. The “Comfort Women” were primarily girls under 18, some as young as eight, who were subjected to systematic rape and enslavement at “Comfort Stations” set up in Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China. Most of the survivors are in their 80’s.
From 1928 until the end of World War II, about 200,000 Asian women were forcibly drafted into sexual servitude by Japanese Imperial Army as “comfort women”. Survivors demand justice, compensation, apology & Japanese Gov. to admit its guilt. To date the Japanese Government has refused all their demands.
The story of Pak Kumjoo, one of the Japanese Army’s comfort women during World War II. The story of the army’s comfort stations begins in 1932, with Japanese Lieutenant-General Okamura Yasuji. Seeking a solution to the 223 reported rapes by Japanese troops, he asked for comfort women to be sent for his soldiers in China.
Pak (her surname) was about 17, living in Hamun, Korea, when local Korean officials, acting on orders from the Japanese, began recruiting women for factory work. Someone from Pak’s house had to go. In April of 1942, Korean officials turned Pak and other young women over to the Japanese, who took them into China, not into factories.
Pak’s history is not unusual. A majority of the women who provided sex for Japanese soldiers were forcibly taken from their families, or were recruited deceptively. Sometimes family members were beaten or killed if they tried to rescue the women, most in their teens. A majority of the 80,000 to 200,000 comfort women were from Korea, though others were recruited or kidnapped from China, the Phillipines, Burma, and Indonesia. Some Japanese women who worked as prostitutes before the war also became comfort women.
(Comfort women. For Caroline Berndt, the phrase evokes no comfort, only the brutality of men at war. As part of her honors thesis in Asian studies, Berndt, a UNC-CH law student, translated the story of Pak Kumjoo, one of the Japanese Army’s comfort women during World War II.)
“To see what happened to one woman is a way of making history concrete,” Berndt says. “I felt I was discovering her history sentence by sentence.”
Many women became sterile from the repeated rapes. Women who became pregnant or infected with a sexually transmitted disease were given a shot of the antibiotic terramycin, which the women referred to as “Number 606.” “The drug made the women’s bodies swell up and would usually induce an abortion,” Berndt says.
Nearly all of the two-and-a-half million Japanese soldiers who surrendered to the Allies in 1945 would have known about the comfort system, according to George Hicks’ book The Comfort Women. However, after the war the comfort stations quickly faded from public consciousness, and for years the issue received little attention. Accounts of former comfort women reveal that many told only a few family members or no one about their experiences.
The events that led to international awareness of the issue began in 1988. In that year, Professor Yun Chung Ok of Ehwa Women’s University in Korea began to lead an activist group that conducted and presented research about the comfort women. In 1990, 37 women’s groups in Korea formed the Voluntary Service Corps Problem Resolution Council and demanded that the Japanese government admit that Korean women had been forcibly drafted to serve as comfort women, publicly apologize, fully disclose what happened, raise a memorial, compensate survivors or their families, and include the facts in historical education.
In response, the Japanese government denied that women had been forced to work at comfort stations and maintained that it was never involved in operating comfort stations. In 1991, three Korean former comfort women filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government.
In 1992, Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki of Chuo University found wartime documents in the Library of the National Institute for Defence Studies that confirmed that the Japanese Forces had operated comfort stations. On the same day that excerpts from the documents were published in Japanese newspapers, the government admitted its involvement.
Berndt says that meeting the comfort women’s demands could help Japan discourage what she calls the “commodification” of women, not only in war but in peacetime. According to Berndt’s sources, some Japanese corporations still reward hardworking businessmen by organizing “sex tours” of prostitution houses in cities across Southeast Asia.
Berndt also found reports that women from Southeast Asia are recruited by agencies for work in Japan as receptionists, host esses, and waitresses. When the women arrive, the agency takes their passports, and many become prostitutes.
“The idea that these types of practices are so rampant today scares me,” Berndt says. “If Japan could address the comfort women issue, it might send a stronger message against current practices.”
In 1993, 18 Filipina former comfort women filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government. So far, neither the Korean nor the Filipina women’s lawsuits have been resolved, and the Japanese government has not proposed alternative reparations satisfactory to the former comfort women. “I’m feeling pessimistic about the government or the courts giving the women what they want,” Berndt says. “But I do think that the women have continued to bond together and affirm their own dignity through their testimonies.”
FROM 1928 until the end of World War II, about 200,000 Asian women were forcibly drafted into sexual servitude by the Japanese Imperial Army.
These women, many in their teens, were often either tricked by offers of legitimate employment or abducted by Japanese soldiers and forced into so-called comfort houses. There they were forced to sexually please their captors, sometimes several at a time up to several times a day. To resist, invited beatings, torture and even death.
According to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a Swiss-based international women’s rights organisation, they generally received little or no medical treatment even if they were injured in the process of rape and torture or became pregnant or infected with venereal disease.
Towards the end of the War, thousands were executed to conceal the existence of the comfort houses. In the Philippines, a human rights group has documented the cases of three survivors who bear the marks of where the Japanese tried to behead them.
About 60,000 comfort women survived the War and approximately one thousand are alive today, the youngest of whom is in her sixties. After decades of hiding what happened, they are now finding the courage to come out and tell their stories.
In the Philippines in 1993, about 150 women came forward when the Task Force on Filipino Comfort Women asked in a series of popular radio programs for comfort women to contact it.
One of these was Felicidad de Los Reyes. This is her story:
Felicidad was born on November 22, 1928 in Masbate, Philippines.
One day in 1943 three truckloads of Japanese soldiers from the garrison compound at the back of her school visited Felicidad’s class. Her Japanese teacher had organised the students to perform songs and dances for the visiting soldiers. The Japanese army often introduced Japanese civilian teachers into schools in its conquered territories.
Felicidad, then only 14, was made to sing. The following day her teacher told the class that the soldiers were so impressed with the students’ performance that they wanted to reward them. Felicidad was identified as one who was to be given an award and later that day two soldiers arrived to fetch her. They told her that she would be given the gift at the garrison. Thinking that there might be other students there, Felicidad went along. But when she got there, she did not see any of her school friends. Instead the only other women she saw were doing the soldiers’ cooking and laundry.
She became worried. She asked to leave. The two guards refused. Instead they took her to a small room in the compound and pushed her in. They told her that her gift was coming.
A few hours later five Japanese soldiers arrived. Three of them were in uniform and two in civilian clothes. One of them jumped onto her catching her by the arms and forcing her down onto the ground. When she struggled, another punched her in the face while another grabbed her legs and held them apart. Then they took it in turns to rape her.
Felicidad had no knowledge about sex. She did not even have her menstruation. So she did not understand what they were doing to her. She begged them to stop. But they just laughed and whenever she struggled or screamed, they would punch and kick her.
Confused and frightened and tired and in pain, she drifted in and out of consciousness. That night three more soldiers came and repeatedly raped her. For the next three days a succession of soldiers abused her.
The continual raping and beatings finally took their toll and on the third day she fell ill. Her body and mind could take it no more. But even though she was obviously sick, the abuse continued. Not even her fever drew pity from her rapists.
Finally on the morning of the fourth day, a Filipino interpreter working for the Japanese visited her. She told him she was very sick and wanted to go home to recover. Feeling sympathy for her, he let her out of the compound.
When she arrived home, her parents who had no idea where she was, cried after learning what had happened. Just the year before an older sister had been taken by the Japanese. She died in a comfort house.
Fearing the soldiers would come looking for her, her father hid her in a nearby village. She stayed there for about a year until the American army arrived.
After the War, Felicidad returned to her home town. But her experiences at the hands of the Japanese soldiers had left deep psychological scars. She found it hard to socialise and could not face going back to school. She felt dirty. She dared not tell anyone outside her parents. She was afraid of how others would view her if they knew the truth. So she buried it inside.
When she was 25 she moved to Manila where she met her husband. Before marrying, Felicidad decided she could not conceal her experiences from the man she was going to marry, so she told him.
They were married in 1956 and had six children and 15 grandchildren. But outside her husband, she told no one else for almost 37 years.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ANTHONY BROWN is an Irish-born journalist based in Brisbane. Anthony has written several articles on Filipino women’s issues for KASAMA. His most recent book “The Boys from Ballymore” is published by Penguin Books Australia Ltd.
IN late June 1995, Felicidad de los Reyes and Nelia Sancho visited Brisbane as part of a national speaking tour entitled Women’s Human Rights: Eliminating Violence Against Women in the Home and on the Battlefield. Organised by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the tour was funded by a grant from the Office of the Status of Women.
The tour aimed to galvanise public interest and raise public awareness about gender-specific violence in the Asia and Pacific regions, in the belief that breaking the silence is a preliminary for ending the violence against women in the family and in war.
The final event of the Brisbane visit, a public meeting at the Miscellaneous Worker’s Union Building in Spring Hill, enabled Felicidad and Nelia to tell their stories to the local communities, show slides, and raise public awareness about the cause of Filipino “comfort women”, the activities of Lila Pilipina, and the issues which still need to be addressed. After an opening by Mary Crawford, MP, Nelia and Felicidad – as always during the tour- spoke powerfully and sensitively about the issues to a hushed audience.
Surviving comfort women throughout Asia are now demanding justice from the Japanese Government for what happened to them.
They allege the Japanese Government during the War not only knew what its soldiers were up to, but that the system of sexual slavery was official government policy.
They argue that the authorities systematically planned, ordered, conscripted, established the army brothels and encouraged the abductions of women in countries occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army.
Besides seeking compensation and prosecutions of those responsible, they want the Japanese Government to admit its guilt. To date the Japanese Government has refused all their demands.