At first glance, the 'comfort women' seem just like any ordinary, elderly citizen. They have wrinkled lines framing their faces, and are slightly hunched over, exuding an air of grace and patience. Many of these women are warmly referred to as “grandmother,” a term attributing to both their gentle appearance and their active role in their children and grandchildren’s lives. Unbeknownst to many who encounter these women, behind this seemingly ordinary facade is a wounded history of deep, immeasurable pain. At a time during their youth when they were supposed to go through the transformational experience from child to teenager, and teenager to womanhood, they were suddenly swept up in the reverberating nightmare of the Second World War. In fact, these grandmothers are commonly referred to as “comfort women”: They were captured at a young age, held captive for many years, and suffered inhumane treatment and sexual violence at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army over 70 years ago.
Comfort women is the euphemistic name provided by Japan to over 80,000 to 200,000 women who were captured and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army from 1932-1945. By the end of the war, Japan had conducted one of the largest systematic organizations of sexual slavery in the form of comfort stations to provide constant sex for soldiers, in order to improve their morale and their performance on the battlefield. Japanese nationalists often contest the nature of comfort stations—arguing that the government was not involved in setting up the army brothels, and comfort women were willful prostitutes, not sex slaves.
While comfort women were originally recruited from Japanese brothels, the expansion of the Asia-Pacific War led to a growing demand for women. Following this, many were brought in through corrupt means, where private recruiters working with the Japanese government lured girls from other regions in Asia to comfort stations with promises of factory employment. The girls were held against their will once they realized the true nature of their jobs. For occupied countries in the war, thousands of local girls and women were outright kidnapped.
Comfort women came from various occupied countries, the largest numbers coming from South Korea, China, and the Philippines, although many also came from countries such as Thailand and Indonesia (a Dutch colony at the time of the war), and more. Some of them were as young as 11 years old at the time of capture. In True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women, former comfort woman, Kim Tokchin, said that each woman had to serve an average of 30 to 40 soldiers per day. They suffered daily beatings, rapes, mutilation, and were on the brink of starvation. Many women were killed, and those who survived contracted diseases. Often ostracized from their families and communities, they lived under severe stigma, physical illnesses, and lack of community support.
“The existing cultural norms labelled the returned women as immoral and unmarriageable instead of seeing them as victims,” said Professor Kazue Takamura, from the Institute for the Study of International Development. “Furthermore, the victims themselves internalized the social stigma.”
In the post-war era, global reparation for war crimes included the Nuremberg trials, Germany’s official apology for the Holocaust, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s public apology to the internment camps holding Japanese-Americans in the Second World War. Publicly issued charges against individuals guilty of sexual violence were also held at the International Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
However, the international post-war justice process has excluded the transitional justice of comfort women. The United Nations War Crimes Commission—an agency operating from 1943 to 1948 that identified and assisted governments for trials of war crimes in Europe and East Asia—classified rape and imposed prostitution as deserving of criminal punishment. The Tokyo War Crimes Trial (1946 to 1948), did not include crimes against comfort women.
“The Tokyo Trial was highly criticized because of the selective process of collecting memory and voices,” said Takamura. “[Its] failure of not recognizing the institutional sexual enslavement made the comfort women “forgotten war victims,” [....] The voices of the comfort women were collectively silenced by the Japanese military, by the international justice system, and by society.”
Ironically, in Japan, perpetrators of war crimes were not only free of punishment—they were able to take up prominent political roles. In fact, lieutenant Yasuhiro Nakasone’s 1978 memoir Commander of 3,000 Men at Age 23, detailed his involvement in organizing comfort stations. His high-profile accounts did not hinder his political career by any means—he became Japan’s prime minister from 1982 to 1987.
“The central issue here is collective silence by the perpetrator, by the international justice system, and by society,” argued Takamura. “The Japanese army brutally picked the most vulnerable populations who did not have voice and power in society.”
There was an ongoing debate between historical researchers and the Japanese government throughout the ’70s to ’90s, until 1991, when Kim Hak-Sun, a former Korean comfort woman, publicly stepped forward in a press conference. At that time, the official stance of Japan was to place the blame of comfort women and comfort stations on private civilian recruiters and contractors. Hak-Sun’s testimony globally broke the silence of thousands of women and revealed the harrowing and personal details of their wartime pasts. Her courage inspired other survivors to speak out, and later that year, several women filed lawsuits against the Japanese government demanding a direct apology on behalf of the nation and reparations for their terror .
Despite Japanese perpetrators’ lack of reparation for war crimes including sexual violence, human experimentation, and massacres, there were initially incremental steps taken towards reconciliation. In 1993, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued the Kono Statement, which acknowledged Japan’s participation in wartime sex crimes.
“The then-Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort states,” Kono said in the statement. “The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military.”
Former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama also formally apologized to victims of Japanese terror during the Second World War, including comfort women, in the 1995 Murayama Statement.
However, the current Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is reversing this step towards reconciliation by contesting the role of the Japanese military in comfort stations. As a right-wing, neo-nationalist, and revisionist government, the Abe Administration has launched a campaign to remove dishonour to its nationalistic history and restore Japanese imperial wartime pride. This includes full denial of the Japanese government’s direct involvement in human trafficking system during the war and in coerced prostitution. Abe attempted to reinterpet the Kono statement by implying that comfort women were simply licensed prostitutes, recruited by private-sector operators.
According to Takamura, this contradicts Abe’s position in denying the military’s direct involvement.
“The Japanese military established a highly institutionalized human trafficking system by integrating non-state sectors in the process,” she said. “Unfortunately, Abe’s position deeply mirrors what the mainstream Japanese politicians and elites stand for concerning the mass atrocities committed by the military in the past. The 1993 Kono Statement becomes merely a friendly mask for the conservative leaders in order to avoid international criticisms.”
Abe ignited the criticism of many East Asian neighbours’ as well as Western countries in his high-profile visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. This monument memorializes Japanese individuals who died during the war, including war criminals. Furthermore, just last week, the Abe administration demanded that the comfort women statue placed outside of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul be removed to improve diplomatic relations.
According to Takamura, Japan’s post-war discourse was also developed by self-victimization rhetoric among politicians and governments.
“By emphasizing Japan as a victim of ‘Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’ another mass atrocity committed by the U.S., [...] such self-victimization of history and the popular revisionist position made the Japanese leaders even more dismissive toward the comfort women,” she said.
The Abe regime recently pushed an educational reform bill, removing anything related to comfort women from middle school and high school textbooks in Japan.
“The key purpose of the educational reform bill is to impose patriotic values in public schools and to control political behaviour and attitudes of educators concerning historical and political understanding, including the war memory,” Takamura said. “The ultimate goal of the [...] bill was part of the larger push toward constitutional reform, especially concerning the amendment of Article 9—[using] the renouncement of war as a means to settle international disputes. It has a crucial role to play in terms of constraining Japan’s capacity for militarization.”
Notwithstanding this attack on history within Japan’s educational curriculum, there remains a large gap in global education, too. Many secondary school history curriculums in North America are primarily Western-oriented and do not teach anything about the comfort women. Nonetheless, earlier this year, representatives of the Abe administration asked New-York based McGraw Hill Education publishing company to change the text in their textbook regarding “comfort women.” The textbook only contained two paragraphs on the issue to begin with.
“These revisionists are trying to achieve this by distorting the past and denying mass crimes including comfort women,” Takamura said. “Today, the conservative position condemns any textbook which portrays the Japanese army in Korea and in the Sino-Japan War as ‘anti-Japanese,’ hannich kyokasho. [....] [These] are seen as the major obstacle for the neo-patriotism promoted by the Abe regime in Japan.”
Education is essential in acknowledging the victims who suffered immeasurable pain at the hands of military leaders. These are individuals who continue to live in the shadow of their torment from the war and received no official apologies from a nation that participated in their anguish. Many victims have passed away without ever receiving an official apology for the pain inflicted upon them, and a large portion of these victims are comfort women— the remaining ones are at least over the age of 80, still awaiting justice.
Multiple groups have emerged fighting for recognition of these atrocities. Various international organizations have participated in pressuring Japan to properly acknowledge and accept victims’ demands. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Economic and Social Council, Commission on the Status of Women, and Legislatures in Canada, the United States, and the European Union have also passed similar resolutions.
In 2000, Tokyo hosted the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal for the Trial of Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery. According to Takamura, that was an important step in making a comprehensive and accurate historical record for including voices of victims; however, the current geopolitical situation in East Asia is further exacerbating the patriotic and revisionist position in Japan.
“Under such a political environment, I believe that the role of the international transitional justice framework is particularly crucial in terms of collectively pressuring the Japanese government for a formal apology and recognition,” Takamura said. “The major dilemma is that because of the prolonged transitional justice process, we have lost most of the victims and perpetrators. Collecting available living testimonies is an urgent task.”
Since 1997, The Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (ALPHA), a Toronto-based, non-profit organization, has worked to promote education and critical understanding of the Second World War in Asia so younger generations can learn more about social justice values and humanity from this context.
“Even today, this historical conflict is still unresolved [and] there are a lot of misunderstandings among young peoples of different ethnic groups,” Flora Chong, ALPHA’s executive director, said. “Our goal is to educate our younger generations in this context [...] We have to learn from this and how to prevent this in the future.”
In 2007, ALPHA pushed forward a campaign asking the Canadian government to pass a motion demanding that Japan apologize to all victims of the comfort women issue. Four comfort women survivors were brought in from China, South Korea, the Philippines, and the Netherlands to testify in parliament. The motion was passed unanimously in the House of Commons.
Chong recalls a scenario with a survivor, Liu Mianhuan, who spoke at the first public testimonial in the University of Toronto’s convocation hall. Liu was barely a few sentences into her witness statement, when she broke down in tears. The room was silent; coordinators were unsure of how to react. Should they wait a bit longer? Should they remove her from the witness stand?
“I went to her and [told her she could stop if it was too difficult],” Chong said. “She told me, ‘I [won’t] stop, I want to tell my story and I want people to believe in what I say.’”
Not all former survivors carry the same level of courage to come forward with testimonies. Chong said that many comfort women carried this pain after the war, discriminated by families and communities, and filled with shame.
“I met some grandmas in China, and they told me, [that] every time they talk about [their experiences], their families would treat them badly, one of them even getting beaten by [her] husband,” Chong said. “Of course, there’s a lot to do with gender discrimination and [the] cultural patriarchy phenomenon in Asia, and also lots of survivors and victims [feeling] shameful so that’s why they keep silent for a long time.”
Liu died in 2012 without ever receiving the apology she fought for. In a similar fashion, the last living Chinese comfort woman to sue the Japanese government, Zhang Xiantu, 89, died earlier this month. In 2007, Japan’s supreme court’s final answer was acknowledging the historical fact that Japanese soldiers harmed comfort women. However, they did not compensate Zhang, because the limitation of action for such a lawsuit had passed, and individuals cannot sue the government according to Japanese law. Like Liu, she passed without an apology—one that she had formally sought for 15 years.
Since 1992, the comfort women and supporters in South Korea have congregated at the Wednesday Protests, peacefully demanding apologies for their captivity from the Japanese government. Today, the majority are over the age of 80. They sit in wheelchairs, raising posters (if they are physically capable to do so), and ask for acknowledgement of their pains. Just like Zhang, Liu, and thousands of other women who were victims of the the Japanese imperial soldiers, they have yet to receive one. Approximately 55 comfort women remain alive. For many, it is their last remaining wish.
Stephanie Wong, a McGill alumnus, joined the Wednesday Protests during a visit to Seoul in 2012.
“As I stood alongside them, I was overwhelmed by their resilience and their strength,” she said. “I thought about how at my age, these women had suffered the unimaginable, with their dignity stripped and their youthful spirits shattered.”
Nothing could ever undo the innocence robbed of them or the years of trauma that followed. Yet, despite this injustice the comfort women suffered and endured, decade after decade, several of them continue to persevere in their fight for justice.
In all of Wong’s encounters with the comfort women, she saw that all the survivors desperately wanted was for their stories to be heard, recognized, and remembered in future generations.
“These women are more than war victims or survivors in my mind,” Wong said. “They are heroes, inspiring each of us to persevere for justice. They are willing to relive their pain to tell their stories, in hope that no one would ever have to suffer through what they have experienced.
In the summer of 2012, I went to Seoul as part of a study tour with ALPHA to learn about past war atrocities in Asia, through lectures from scholars, testimonies from surviving comfort women and even a former Japanese soldier attesting to these cruelties, and visits to monuments and occupation sites. Near the end of the tour, we found ourselves on a bus to the House of Sharing in a suburb in Seoul. A community of surviving comfort women resided here, and everyone on the bus was anxious. Two weeks ago, most of us had a broad knowledge of the history of the Second World War in Asia. Two weeks later, we found ourselves torn by the injustice and about to personally encounter some of the very women who were first-hand victims. What would we say to these women? What type of condolences could we possibly offer that would measure up to even a fraction of what they deserve?
Several translators were there to help us converse with the survivors. Just like my own grandmother, they rushed to offer me food, and ask me about my studies—not once did they mention the horrors of the war or the pain they felt. If you did not look closely, you would not see the burden they carried for over 60 years on their faces, its weight felt by all those in the room who were made aware of the tragedies they suffered over the course of the tour. What struck many of us was that the grandmothers were constantly thanking us, for listening to them, and believing their stories. They remained silent and ostracized for decades, despite the trauma they endured, and still suffer the injustice of their pain being denied to this day. Many have fought until death so that their stories will not be part of a large vacuum in history, erased by a country’s nationalistic aims, and that they will be recognized as human beings deserving dignity, which they were stripped of in their youth.
Full disclosure: Stephanie Wong is the older sibling of the author.