The phrase "comfort women" was originally a euphemism that has become the standard phrase when describing the thousands of women used to sexually serve the Japanese soldiers during World War II. The Japanese termed the women, "jugun ianfu" (military comfort girls), "teishintai" (women volunteers), or, more crudely, "niku-itchi" (29:1, the ratio of men expected to be serviced by the woman). It has been estimated that anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women within the Asia-Pacific were used in such a manner by the Japanese army, with anywhere from 80-85% of the total being drawn from Korea.
The survival rate of these women was calculated at a dismal 30%.
I used to work for the Queens Borough Public Library as one of the student staff. This was back in 1998 or 1997, when the whole internet thing was still fairly new and people were just getting by on learning on what a "search engine" doodad was and such. With kids and college students, they adapted to this whole thing pretty quickly, but older people, parents and grandparents, they weren't too quick to catch on. I was assigned to make sure that everyone got a fair chance to use the computer terminals with internet access and, occasionally, teach a few classes.
It always takes a long time to teach old people how to use the computer; it always takes hours to even get them started, which is why not too many of my fellow co-workers liked or even could deal with them; it's hard to keep track of everyone else around when you're so focused on a few people. Since I was among the most easy-going of the group, I ended up tutoring a lot of the elderly.
One day, like one of any other days, I met this old Asian couple. "Old" wasn't even the right word; "ancient" might have been better. The man walked slowly, hobbling every step, but he had one arm around what I presumed to be his wife, cradling her every step of the way. They walked like this as if they had done it all their life, their steps shuffling together in harmony, ever step slow and sure.
They spoke oddly, their accents heavy and unusual. When they spoke to each other, they murmured in their own private language, a language I thought was Korean, but then I'd catch a fragment of Japanese, and I'd be confused all over again.
The woman caught my eye. She hobbled, like her husband, but it was not entirely of old age; it appeared as if one leg was shorter than the other... Age lines carved her face up like old wood, and across her arms were a welter of small scars... I was irresistably reminded of Jorge Luis Borge's words:
"A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face."
She had gone from old to ancient into something else entirely. Her papery skin was translucent, her hands painfully thin, her fingertips as worn away as a stone by the ocean... I was reminded of a bird when I saw her.
She was so utterly beautiful that my heart ached.
I taught her as much as I could. They came in every day. Time passed, as it does, and I left my job to go to college. I never saw them again; in all likelihood, I don't think I would ever be able to see them again, considering their great age.
A long time later, I found out the old woman was, once upon a time, a comfort woman.
Comfort houses were established in March of 1932 in Shanghai. According to his memoirs, Lieutenant General Okamura Yasuji confessed to have been the originator of such stations; a number of Korean women were sent to the province by the Governor of the Nagasaki prefecture. After the brutal massacre at Nanking/Nanjing, construction proceeded much more rapidly.
Among the countries where the women were taken from: Corea (which eventually split up into North Korea and South Korea), Japan, Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia. There was a very famous case of thirty-five Dutch women who were taken to be used by Japanese officers and subsequently raped; these women brought a suit against Japan, though a witness puts the numbers of Dutch women used in such a manner at two hundred rather than thirty-five.
"...When we got into the house, we were told we were there for the sexual pleasure of the Japanese military. In fact, we found ourselves in a brothel. It was a brothel. And, you know, our whole world just collapsed from under our feet. And we started protesting straightaway. We said that we were forced into this, that they couldn't do this to us, they had no right to do this, it was against the Geneva Convention, and that we would never do this. But they just laughed at us, you know, just laughed. They said they could do with us what they liked.
"I always wanted to be a nun, you know. I was brought up by the Franciscan nuns right through primary school and teacher's college, and I always wanted to be a nun. I mean, then to find out, you know.....yeah, what's going to happen. I can't describe it. We were given flower names and they were pinned on our doors, you know. I can't remember my Japanese flower name. I just didn't even want to know about it. They started to drag us away one by one. And I could hear all the screaming coming from the bedrooms, you know, and you just wait for your turn, you know. And there stood this large, fat, bald Japanese officer looking at me, grinning at me, and I put up an enormous fight, but he just dragged me to the bedroom. And I said, "I'm not going to do this." And he said, "Well, I will kill you. If you don't give yourself to me, I will kill you.
"And he actually got out his sword. I went on my knees to say my prayers and I felt God very close. I wasn't afraid to die. And as I was praying, he...he had no intention of killing me, of course. He just, you know, threw me on the bed - got hold of me, threw me on the bed and just tore off all my clothes and most brutally raped me. And, I thought he would never stop. It was the most...the most horrendous... I never thought suffering could be that terrible. And eventually he left the room and I was in total shock. I thought, "I want to go to the bathroom. I want to wash this all away. I want to wash away all the shame, all the dirt. Just wash it away, wash it away..."
Australian Story transcript (full citation below)
To say this was all on the part of Japan would be turning a blind eye to the truth. What many papers and articles don't like to mention, however, is that it was not entirely Japan's fault when it came to the acquirement of women; there was a healthy industry in Korea, by Koreans (both men and women) on the collection and recruitment of young girls for the Japanese army, as they were given an economic incentive to do so.
Japan aggressively recruited girls from Korea with the same sort of ideal they pursued Japanese women: teishintai, as known in Japanese, or yoja chongsindae, as known in Korean, both of which played heavily on Confucian values towards women: voluntary self-sacrifice on behalf of the Japanese Emperor (Hirohito). They were often lured on the promises of eating white rice, being paid well, and serving the army as cooks or nurses, and in fact, often did work these jobs before being forced into prostitution.
"Because we were with the Japanese, we became like them. When Japan fought with China, we cheered for Japan. We could live only if Japan won. I didn't know about Korea and Japan, I was young. I was blindly on the side of Japan. I'm being frank; I am not lying."
During this period, Korea was primarily a Japanese colony and as such, used as fodder for women and construction; great efforts were made to completely stamp out Korean culture by the Japanese during this period. Many girls were volunteers, as they initially did it to show their willingness in the war effort and because it was initially portrayed as something innocent: working in the ammunitions factories. On August 23, 1933, Emperor Hirohito issued an order for the recruitment of Korean women as comfort women, a "'royal gift' from the Emperor to the Imperial Army".
The usage of comfort women was primarily to bring down the level of civilian rape, which had damaged the Japanese army's reputation greatly after news of the Nanking massacre spread throughout the world. This did not always succeed, as the case of Burma, who submitted meekly (and therefore considered "friendly territory") but still faced heavy abuse by the soldiers.
Towards the end of the war, indiscriminate kidnapping and recruitment of extremely young girls occurred after the Military Compulsory Draft Act of 1943 was passed. Virgins were sought after, as they were less likely to be contaminated with venereal disease, though STDs spread rampantly throughout the army, most notably syphilis. Girls of ages as low as 12 were taken and used.
Comfort women were expected to service anywhere from 20-40 men a day. Women were also repeatedly injected with a chemical labeled "606" to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, but also in many cases destroyed the fertility of women.
"The soldiers were allotted 30 minutes each for sex, and they queued up in long lines in front of the cubicles at the 'comfort station.' If a soldier was even one minute longer than his allotted time, the next soldier in line would pound on the door fiercely. These soldiers were so greedy that if they couldn't have sex with women, they would have sex even with dogs..."
Voices of "Comfort Women" (full citation below)
Strictly under watch, these women - girls, really - had very little chance of escape, and those who tried were either beaten or (more likely) killed in gruesome ways to deter other women from trying. When a girl infected several men with a disease, a hot iron bar was placed over her vagina to "sterilize" her; when another girl tried to run away, she was drawn and quartered in front of the other comfort women as punishment.
Those that did not service men all day were expected to do menial work: cleaning, laundry, even going so far as hauling ammunition in the middle of the battlefield. For this, the women were given names such as "female ammunition" or ""sanitary public toilets".
There was a crude sort of system set up for the soldiers. Officers had perks: the prime hours of the day were set aside for the officers' leisure, and certain women were reserved exclusively for their use (typically Japanese and European women). The rest were given over to the basic troops. Women were supposed to be paid by their "rank"; Japanese women were paid the most, but Korean comfort women were technically supposed to be paid more than their Chinese counterparts, for example. This system broke down quickly and many were to never see a single cent.
As they were considered nothing more than equipment, the comfort women were often left to die when the Japanese forces retreated, slaughtered by grenades, guns, or in more merciful cases, by cyanide (but this mercy death was often reserved only for the Japanese comfort women). In many cases, the Japanese army left the women to fend on their own, or used later to serve as "pan pan" girls for the Americans.
The only charge to be immediately brought suit against Japan after the war was by the Dutch government on behalf of the 35 women residing in the Dutch East Indies (though the transcript does not say anything outright, I believe Jan Ruff-O'Herne was one of the 35).
On December 6, 1991, 3 Korean women filed charges against the Japanese government. Of the three plaintiffs, only one was willing to name herself: Kim Hak-soon (sometimes referenced as Kim Hak-Sun). They demanded several things: an official apology from the government, monetary compensation, an investigation of their cases, revision of textbooks to reflect their plight, and a memorial. The Japanese government denied of all wrong-doing, claiming that they had absolutely no involvement in the establishment, maintenance, or recruitment of these comfort women stations, going so far as to say that basically all the women who part of this institution did so willingly and were paid.
Itagaki: At that time, there was the licensed prostitution system under the poverty, and there were unfortunate women. (The issue of the comfort women is not) something to be praised, and I feel sorry, but it was not a fact that the Japanese military authorities took women by binding ropes around their necks.
Kim: I moved in the front-line with the soldiers. People who took us along were all military people. When we tried to escape from the brothels, soldiers shot us. My friend committed suicide. As a result of Japanese making reckless remarks that women were not taken forcibly, I felt like my heart was stirred. I gave my name with the feeling that otherwise you will never recognize the truth.
Itagaki: All were done by the military? I don't believe that. The military might be involved with that but not all of this was done by the military. There must have been some dealers to play that kind of role... Didn't you receive any money for 8 years?
Kim: How is it you can ask if it is true or not for a person who is lingering on the verge of death? You used to rape my body at battlefields, and now you disgrace my soul after 50 years. I strongly protest that I never received any money at all.
Conversation between Kim Sang-Li and (former?) Upper House member Itagaki Tadashi
Tokyo Kaleidoscope (full citation below)
In January 1992, professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki, from Chuo University, uncovered documents in the Self Defense Force Library (in Tokyo) that explicitly pointed to the government's involvement. Due to this rather unfortunate timing by the professor (at least on Japan's part), the Prime Minister Keichi Miyazawa expressed his regrets in a speech during a visit to South Korea on January 17, 1992, probably to save face as he had been previously denying the allegations. However, he denied the right to compensation, stating that all matters had been settled in the 1965 agreement between Korea and Japan.
On April 13, 1992, 6 more Korean women filed suit, among them a woman named Shim Mi-Ja.
On April 5, 1993, Song Siin-do filed suit against Japan. Also in that year, a separate suit was filed against Japan by 46 Filipino women (the Filipina Comfort Women Core Group), after a public hearing was held that was televised throughout Japan: several women stepped forward for the first time to testify, including O'Herne, who was the first European woman to disclose the truth.
On August 5, 1993, the Cabinet Councilors' Office on External Affairs admitted to the military's involvement, stating that "the government admitted that Japanese military authorities were in constant control of women forced to provide sex for soldiers before and during WWII, and the government apologizes and expresses remorse over the issue."
In 1995, there was apparently a suit filed by a group of Chinese women. Put under pressure, Japan established a private organization, the Asian Women's Fund, to compensate the women, with "the aim of expressing a sense of national atonement from the Japanese people to the former 'comfort women' and to work to address contemporary issues regarding the honor and dignity of women."
However, the establishment of this fund has been met with mixed reactions by the various governments, and the dealings by the AWF has been dubious. AWF directly contacted seven survivors in 1997 in South Korea to offer a reparation payment of 4,280,000 yen (approximately $40,000 US), consisting of 2,000,000 yen atonement money and 2,280,000 welfare money. All seven accepted the offer; however, the distribution of the monies was under a ghost company name of "Asia Dialog", which may or may not have been done to avoid the impression that the Japanese government was distributing the money. This outraged South Korea, and to date, only two countries give the survivors a chance to accept money from the AWF: the Philippines and the Netherlands. Three countries disallow their survivors a chance to accept the money: South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia. The rest have been ambivalent.
To date, Japan has not apologized formally.
"I have nothing to be ashamed of. Our country was powerless. So we were forcibly taken by the Japanese and suffered. When I returned home, I openly told all my friends and neighbors. I hid nothing. Those who dragged us away and treated us like slaves, they should feel shame. Why us? If Japan compensates us legally, that I will receive. Instead of legal reparation, they offer us private money. Unthinkable! What happened to us is bad enough. Why should we become prostitutes? If we receive private funds, we become prostitutes."
Chung Seo Woon
The knowledge of what the old woman at the library was once has haunted me since. What her story was, how she managed to survive when so many died, or even if she was happy in the end - I do not know.
I do not know a single thing at all.
Yet again a monstrously huge list. Please pardon incorrect citing.
- Author Unknown, Japanese Army Sex Slaves: "I don't believe that you didn't receive any money.", Tokyo Kaleidoscope, June 7, 1996 (http://www.kimsoft.com/korea/jp-comf.htm): talk about abusive language.
- Go, Lisa, An Unbroken History of Japan's Sex Slaves, ASA-News, April 1994.
- Kazuko, Watanabe. Militarism, Colonialism, and the Trafficking of Women: "Comfort Women" Forced into Sexual Labor for Japanese Soldiers, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, vol. 26, no. 4, Oct-Dec 1994.
- Soh, Chunghee Sarah, Human Rights and Humanity: The Case of the "Comfort Women", The ICAS lectures, No. 98-1204-CSSb (http://www.icasinc.org/lectures/cssl1998.html): An interesting evaluation of the AWF as well as an interesting guess on the numbers game.
- Soh, Chunghee Sarah, Human Dignity and Sexual Culture: A Reflection on the 'Comfort Women' Issues , the ICAS lectures, No. 2000-0501-CSS (http://www.icasinc.org/s2000/s2000css.html): a more global perspective
- The Forgotten Ones: Jan Ruff O'Herne's Story, Australian Story, first aired August 30, 01 (http://www.abc.net.au/austory/archives/AustoryArchivesIdx_Thursday30August2001.htm): A very interesting transcript of one of the Dutch women involved. She also, incidentally, won a Peace Prize for her efforts.
- http://www.cmht.com: it's part of their case watch, under Japan's Mass Rape and Sexual Enslavement of Women and Girls from 1932-1945: The "Comfort Women" System. Them being a law site and all, I'm going to respect that they know what they're talking about.
- http://www.twotigers.org: a website for a documentary. Contains some small nuggets of info most dry papers don't have, including pictures of the victims. It makes me so unbearably sad when I look at the pictures.
- Voices of Comfort Women (http://www.library.american.edu/about/exhibits/comfort_women.html) : some testimonies of women as part of an exhibit.