The ills of Japan’s imperialist past — the comfort women
Content warning: mentions of rape and suicide
As the abhorrent legacy of colonial rule lingers over many European nations, Japan’s rebrand away from imperial power is considered an exception to the historical rule. Despite this, the West is sparsely taught about Japanese imperialism and the detrimental impact it had on neighbouring countries, such as Korea, the Philippines and China. A lack of documentation makes it difficult to outline the exact number of ‘comfort women’ in total but it is estimated that there were 200,000–300,000 women abducted over Asia.
In actively ignoring Japanese imperialism, we are neglecting to acknowledge the realities of the sexual slavery that permeated this time. During World War II and the reign of Japanese imperialism, comfort women were women forced into sexual slavery and prostitution to provide ‘comfort’ to these soldiers. By attributing the term ‘comfort women’ and channeling a euphemistic meaning, when in reality, huge numbers of women and girls were forced and kidnapped. In reality, it’s sexual slavery. The Japanese called them “comfort women” — a term derived from the Japanese word ianfu, which combined the Chinese characters meaning “comfort or solace” (i-an) with woman (fu).
As early as 1932, before World War II, women and girls were ‘recruited’ for ‘comfort stations’ within Japanese-occupied territories. By roaming these territories, troops convinced girls and women that they would become nurses in the military or work in factories. Comfort stations are known as camps set up by the Imperial Japanese Army where girls as young as 12 were sexually assaulted, attacked and raped repeatedly by members of the Imperial Japanese Army. This history reminds us that women and girls were never allowed to be free and autonomous beings, rather that these women and girls had their own comfort stolen. The majority of these women were Korean. This knowledge raises uncomfortable questions about the historical context behind K pop stans referring to their favourite performers as ‘comfort idols’. As it’s prevalence grows in popular culture, debates continue on it’s problematic implications.
In 1993, the Japanese government finally acknowledged the atrocities — but will this ever be good enough for those affected?
Estelita Dy, a former Filipina comfort woman, never told her father she was raped. After escaping, she carried the unbearable weight of shame into her married life, never telling her husband who she would later separate from. In her interview, she mentioned that if you told Filipinos you were raped by the Japanese, “they would think lowly of you”.
Whilst Korea has the Statue of Peace to commemorate each survivor, the Philippines removed the Filipina Comfort Women statue due to Japanese pressure. Many note that if the statue wasn’t removed, Japan would stop sending funds for Filipino projects. This belief was reinforced by Estelita. Due to her traumatic experiences, she began to attend Lila Pilipina in 1993 to seek psychiatric help and has been a member ever since.
Estelita hopes that we are able to continue the fight for comfort women, even after they are long gone.
Furthermore, the Japanese government established these comfort stations to avoid a similar situation like the Rape of Nanking. On December 13, 1937, a 6 week massacre was led by Japanese troops in the Chinese city. During this massacre, an unfathomable number of Chinese women (20,000–80,000) were raped by the Imperial Japanese Army. At the time, Emperor Hirohito was more concerned with the image of Japan following the Rape of Nanking and instead ordered the Imperial Japanese Army to expand their ‘comfort stations’ in order to avoid an atrocity like the Rape of Nanking. Again, we can see how time and time again, history never respected women and rather viewed women as beings who were to be seen and not heard. These women were not viewed as humans but as objects to sexually satisfy Japanese troops.
By roaming Japanese-occuppied territories, troops convinced girls and women that they would become nurses in the military or work in factories. Former human rights activist and human rights advocate Kim Bok Dong, prior to her death, gave an interview with Asian Boss about her experiences as a comfort woman. At the age of 60, she took the courage to tell her story because of the denial and fabrication by the Japanese government, claiming these women were paid prostitutes and not victims.
“When I asked my mom where I was going, she said because of WWII, I was working in a factory that made soldiers’ uniforms.” Madame Kim said if they refused to go, they would have “lost everything and gotten exiled from Korea.” “If the Japanese confiscated all our possessions, how was our family supposed to live?”. After agreeing to work in this factory, she was taken to a port in Busan, a city in South Korea and arrived in Shimonoseki, Japan the next morning with 30 to 32 other women. She recalled being the youngest, at no older than 15.
After arriving in Japan, they were ordered to get onto another ship that took them to the Guangdong Province in China, where they were met with highly ranked Japanese officials, unable to escape. On Madame Kim’s first day, she was beaten up and raped by a military official. With the other women, Madame Kim contemplated committing suicide as she believed that they couldn’t live as sex slaves. Unfortuntaely, this was a frequent occurrence for the comfort women and she mentioned that she would have sex all day and was stationed across Asia, from Guangdong, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. For her, it was important for her to live and tell her story as she imagined it could be erased or glossed over in a history textbook like it is today. After spending almost a decade in comfort stations, she returned home at 22 years old. Due to Madame Kim’s experience, she chose not to get married as she “didn’t want to screw up another man’s life.”
Their stories are just two of many. Where does this leave the thousands of survivors now?
In 2015, the Korean government and the Japanese government reached a deal, enabling Japan to pay 10 billion Korean won (at the time 5.6 million GBP) as compensation and reparations for these atrocities. It prompts me to think how can any amount of money compensate for the suffering that these women endured? Madame Kim also noted that “it’s not about the money, they’re still saying we went there because we wanted to. ” Furthermore, South Korea demanded a stronger apology which led to a strong condemnation by the Japanese with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “We can by no means accept South Korea’s unilateral request for additional measures.”
Rather than consulting with Kim Bok Dong and other comfort women, they would have provided solutions but instead these women were practically silenced by the money. Madame Kim claimed that it was “one sided deal.” In the interview, she says she wanted “an apology from Japan having dragged us away and making us suffer.” She wants Japan to correct their history textbooks, so people know more about the war and what really happened, instead of engaging in this palpable collective amnesia.
Founded in 1992, the House of Sharing (나눔의집) is a house for survivors of sexual slavery from the Imperial Japanese Army. Rather than calling these survivors ‘comfort women’, a euphemism that the Japanese used to erase their history, these women are called ‘halmoni’ in Korean, meaning grandmother. The House of Sharing is located in Gwangju, South Korea and has the first museum dedicated to survivors of Japanese sexual slavery, provides records to the public and even replicates the comfort rooms where these women lived. In addition, they provide therapy for these survivors and even have residential space for halmonis living there.
Despite many survivors’ dying, their stories still live on. Those in power write and tell history from their own narratives and of course, comfort womens’ stories were silenced and excluded from history.
Writer’s note: This is why it’s important to learn different histories and globalise your historical, social and political contexts to become more aware of the world and how historical events impact our present today, e.g Southeast and East Asian relations with Japan in international affairs.