“After experiencing that life in the garrison and being raped, I swear that until I die, I will fight for justice, not just for me but for all the women who were victims during the war,” Narcisa Claveria, 85, said.
“They ruined our lives as women. My elder sister, she lost her mind because of the trauma. And I took care of her until she died. If this happened to you in Japan, would you be happy about it?” asked Claveria, who recalled being brought into a Japanese garrison when she was 13 or 14 in her home province Abra north of Manila together with her two sisters and five other women. They were then sexually abused.(1)
‘Comfort Women’; Women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories before and during World War II. The name ‘comfort women’ is a translation of the Japanese euphemism ianfu (慰安婦) and the similar Korean term wianbu (위안부). Ianfu is a euphemism for shōfu (娼婦) whose meaning is “prostitute(s)”.
Estimates vary as to how many women were involved, with numbers ranging from as low as 20,000 to as high as 360,000 to 410,000, in Chinese sources; the exact numbers are still being researched and debated. Many of the women were from occupied countries, including Korea, China, and the Philippines, although women from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan (then a Japanese dependency), Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies), East Timor (then Portuguese Timor), and other Japanese-occupied territories were used for military ‘comfort stations’. Stations were located in Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, then Malaya, Thailand, Burma, New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, and French Indochina. A smaller number of women of European origin from the Netherlands and Australia were also involved. Most former comfort women are now in their 80’s; old, sick and in need of maintenance medicines.(2)
But it is essential not to forget that those who came forward are just a very small fraction of all of the victims. Many have already passed away, and others do not wish to identify themselves.
In a decisive moment Kim Hak-Sun, a victim, came forward in Seoul, Korea in the summer of 1991 and demanded that Japan take responsibility. Ms. Kim was the only complainant to use her own name in a lawsuit demanding compensation for Pacific War victims. The lawsuit was lodged in December 1991.
The Japanese government’s denial of responsibility and casual approach to the issue irked the Republic of Korea and a movement promoted mainly by women quickly gained ground in the country. On 10 January 1992, Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a Chuo University professor and Japanese historian, announced the existence of documents proving the involvement of the Japanese military and the fact that the phenomenon was part of Japanese wartime policy. These developments created a shock in Japan.(3)
Military correspondence of the Japanese Imperial Army shows that the aim of facilitating comfort stations was the prevention of rape crimes committed by Japanese army personnel and thus preventing the rise of hostility among people in occupied areas.
Given the well-organized and open nature of prostitution in Japan, it was seen as logical that there should be organized prostitution to serve the Japanese Armed Forces. The Japanese Army established the comfort stations to prevent venereal diseases and rape by Japanese soldiers, to provide comfort to soldiers and head off espionage. The comfort stations were not actual solutions to the first two problems, however. According to Yoshiaki Yoshimi, they aggravated the problems. Yoshimi has asserted, “The Japanese Imperial Army feared most that the simmering discontentment of the soldiers could explode into a riot and revolt. That is why it provided women.”(2)
On 31 August 1994, the Prime Minister issued a statement looking ahead to the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, expressing his “profound and sincere remorse and apologies” with regard to the comfort women issue, and stating his desire to find “an appropriate way which enables a wide participation” of Japanese people in order to share such feelings of apology and remorse.
The Government decided to acknowledge moral responsibility for the comfort women issue and establish a Fund in cooperation with the people of Japan – Asian Women’s Fund. It was decided that the fund, funded through donations from the people of Japan, would go towards (i) those conducting medical and welfare projects for former comfort women; (ii) when these projects are executed, the government will express the nation’s apology; (iii) Government will collate historical documents relating to the comfort women, to serve as lesson of history.
‘Comfort Women’ from all former Japanese colonies emphatically say, ‘Not Enough’.
Japan government needs to acknowledge its involvement and should be held legally responsible. While Japan accepted moral responsibility for the harm to women, the issue time and again gets looked at as an incidental to war time crisis. A comment from Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka in 2013, highlights the same, “For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest a comfort women system was necessary. That’s clear to anyone.”
For the women who were forced into wartime prostitution, the nightmare remains part of their psyche.
Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Rapporteur to the UN Commission 1996 regards the issue of ‘comfort women’ as ‘military sexual slavery’ and said, “The Japanese Government has accepted moral responsibility and this is a welcome beginning. The Asian Women’s Fund is an expression of the Japanese Government’s moral concern however this does not exempt the Government from the ‘legal claims’ of the comfort women under public international law.”
Inspired by the Korean women who gave voice to the issue, María Rosa Luna Henson or “Lola Rosa” (“Grandma Rosa”) (1927- 1997) became the first Filipina who made public her story as a comfort woman (military sex slave) for the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War.(4)
She said that during the occupation, after being raped the first time, she joined the guerrilla resistance movement, then was captured, raped again, taken by order of Japanese military headquarters and confined with other women for nine months, during which time she was raped time after time. They were taken to a two-storey house and were held there for a year washing clothes during day time and being raped at night.(5)
Fidencia David, 86, was only 14 when she watched Japanese bombs drop in her Philippine village in 1942 during the Second World War. Soldiers burned down David’s house and used her as a sex slave for 10 days.(6)
Isabelita Vinuya, 81, can vividly hear the screams of men – brothers, fathers, uncles – as soldiers tied them up in the nearby school and burned them to death. The Japanese soldiers then gathered the young girls like Vinuya, then 13, locked them in a dark, two-storey red house, tortured them and took turns raping them through the night. The Bahay na Pula or The Red House stands to this day in San Ildefenso, Bulacan.(7)
Every Wednesday, living comfort women, women’s organizations, socio-civic groups, religious groups, and a number of individuals participate in the “Wednesday Demonstrations” in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. In December 2011, a statue of a young woman was erected in front of the Japanese Embassy to honor the comfort women, on the 1,000th of the weekly “Wednesday Demonstrations”. The statue has stayed irrespective of the Japanese Government’s request for it to be taken down.
Different groups formed by the comfort women have asked the Philippine government to back their claims against the Japanese government. These groups have taken legal actions against Japan, then against their own government to back their claims and, as of August 2014, planned to take the case to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and Children (CEDAW).
These groups have made demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Manila on many occasions, and give testimonies to Japanese tourists in Manila.
Since the 1990’s Taiwanese survivors have brought the issue of comfort women to light in the Taiwanese society through newspapers, books, and documentary films. They receive the support of a non-profit organization, Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation (TWRF). Due to this, the Taiwanese government has asked Japan to apologize and compensate the war victims on a few occasions.(2)
While enmeshed political policies translate to a sluggish pace of support to the issue and demands but the former comfort women continue to fight.
Filipino Fidencia David captures the political cobweb and sentiment of the ‘military sex slaves’, across all former Japanese colonies –
“A state apology and state compensation. Many of my colleagues have passed away with no justice after fighting for 22 years. The Japanese government has not acknowledged the atrocities. The Philippine government has also denied support to comfort women survivors because the country receives aid from Japan. It’s unfinished business. I will fight up until my deathbed.”(1)
Fellow Filipina, Isabelita Vinuya cannot conceal her anger when she says, “I no longer cry about what happened. I am angry. I am still very angry.”(7)
8. Feature image – http://www.thenanfang.com