The three women above are in Washington, D.C. right now, testifying before Congress about their experiences as survivors of rape and forced sexual slavery as “comfort women,” so called, enslaved on orders of the Japanese government during World War II. Jan Ruff-O’Herne is Dutch and was 19 when she was kidnapped and made to be a “comfort woman” when the Japanese invaded Indonesia. Yong Soo-Lee and Kim Gun-Ya are Korean. Women from many nations, kidnapped when the Japanese invaded, were enslaved, tortured, and brutally raped, including by the “doctors” who examined them, including by American troops when the war ended. If they were virgins when they were kidnapped, they were raped first by officers. After they’d been gang-raped over months and years, or were injured, or developed sexually transmitted diseases, they were not viewed as quite so valuable to the soldiers who raped them. If they became pregnant, they were given primitive abortions, which often killed them. By day, they washed the soldiers’ clothes, cleaned their quarters, and did heavy labor. By night they were raped and brutalized by 20, 30 or more men. Approximately 200,000 women in all were made to be sex slaves. Their stories, if you can bear to read them, will test every belief a decent person might have as to the humanity of men.
The photos above are of former “comfort women” demonstrating, as they have for 14 years straight, every single Wednesday, before the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, Korea. This particular demonstration was their 700th Wednesday demonstration. They are demonstrating because the Japanese government, although it apologized and established a fund for surviving “comfort women,” has never actually taken responsibility for the fact that it authorized the enslaving of thousands and thousands of women for the purpose of rape. For decades the government denied any of the “comfort women” had been forced into sex slavery, arguing that they were prostituted women who agreed or volunteered to be “comfort women,” or that their families sold them into prostitution which, though it might have been wrong, was not the responsibility of the Japanese government. Despite pressure from Japenese intellectuals who continued to raise the issue through the years following World War II, despite pressure from Japanese, South Korean and international feminists during the Second Wave and afterwards, despite the testimony of former comfort women themselves, ultimately, the Japanese government did not acknowledge the coercion of the “comfort women” until it was forced to do so when confronted by a Japanese historian with documentation which proved it. Even after acknowledging that the women were forced into sexual slavery, the government has not acknowledged responsibility or liability.
Additionally, the Japanese people are divided over the issue. In a recent poll, barely over one-half of Japanese citizens agreed that Japan should apologize to, and compensate, the “comfort women.” Neo-nationalist Japanese conservatives believe no apology is in order and, consistent with their project of instilling nationalist pride in schoolchildren, have published a majority of middle school history textbooks which, since 2002, make no mention of the “comfort women,” sparking protests and outrage in South Korea, in particular. Other Japanese don’t believe the “comfort women” should be compensated because they were “paid” for their services (!) or have justified the “comfort women” as necessary to prevent rapes by soldiers, including rapes by American military (even though survivors testify that many of the “comfort stations” quickly degenerated, in fact, into rape camps.)
The three women depicted at the top of this post are in Washington urging congresspeople to support a nonbinding resolution, sponsored by Mike Honda, D-Calif, a Japanese-American citizen who was interned in internment camps in the U.S. when he was a child. The bill doesn’t seek compensation, but asks that the coercion of “comfort women” be openly acknowledged, that “comfort woman” deniers be rejected, and that children be taught about the comfort women. A similar bill never made it to a vote a few years ago in the Republican-dominated congress and admidst fears about how the bill might affect the alliance between the U.S. and Japan.
In the meantime, the “comfort women” are getting old, and many have already passed on. They deserve some justice in their lifetimes.