Author’s note: This article involves discussion of sexual violence.
Sometimes the most painful and tragic stories of history are the ones most forgotten, whether they are relegated to the recesses of memory through apathy or active attempts to cover the truth, awareness and dialogue about them are necessary to seek justice. The story of the comfort women of World War II is one of them.
During World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army forced hundreds of thousands of young girls and women from China, Korea, the Philippines and other occupied nations into sexual slavery for the Japanese soldiers. These women were kidnapped from their homes or lured with false promises of work at factories or as nurses and instead forced to service the “comfort stations.” These comfort stations were set up by the Japanese military to placate soldiers and offer them “comfort.” For the women who endured this heinous existence, the conditions were brutal and inhumane. They were forced to service up 20-35 men a day and died from beatings and sexually transmitted diseases. After the war ended, the women who had survived found difficulty returning to normal lives as a result of trauma, physical incapacitation, and the social shame associated with their status.
The most inhumane aspect of this human rights violation is the lack of recognition by the Japanese government. While an apology was issued in 1993 acknowledging the coercion tactics used by the Japanese military in order to establish the comfort stations, it was only issued by a cabinet member and many find it inadequate. In order to combat the silencing of the issue, former comfort women have gathered every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul for over twenty years to demand acknowledgement and resolution of the war crime. These resolutions include revealing the whole truth and history, an official apology, legal reparations, punishment for those responsible, and remembrance through accurate records in history. There are less than 100 comfort women alive, but they still trek to the Japanese embassy each Wednesday. One former comfort woman fiercely protests, “Our numbers are dwindling every year, but we are still full of anger and they should apologize for what they did to us!”
Many forces are undermining these efforts. First, the Prime Minister Abe and the current Japanese government are arguing that efforts to demand transparency and truth are attacks to discredit the government. As Mindy Kotler points out, “The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is engaged in an all-out effort to portray the historical record as a tissue of lies designed to discredit the nation. Mr. Abe’s administration denies that imperial Japan ran a system of human trafficking and coerced prostitution, implying that comfort women were simply camp-following prostitutes.” The second condition is that as time passes, the women are becoming older and the numbers of those who remain to tell their stories dwindle. Sooner or later, they will no longer be able to voice their protests, and many fear that this will give the Japanese government exactly what they want: silence.
In 2007, Jan Ruff O’Herne testified to the US House of Representatives, “For fifty years, the ‘comfort women’ maintained silence; they lived with a terrible shame, of feeling soiled and dirty. It has taken 50 years for these women’s ruined lives to become a human rights issue.” The tragedy of the comfort women and the legacy that follows has broader implications for all violence against women and sexual slavery that continues to persist today. To continue in a tradition of silence and apathy in the face of reprehensible actions is to tacitly accept these violations as a norm and this poses a danger to the progress of human rights everywhere.
Cover image courtesy of Peace and Justice.