During WWII, while men were being drafted to fight, thousands of women all across Asia were being drafted for sexual slavery. It has taken more than 50 years for this atrocity to be uncovered. Thousands of girls were “duped, abducted, or coerced” into an institutionalized system of rape set up by the Japanese Imperial Army from 1928 till the end of WWII.
So-called “comfort stations” were set up for three main reasons: To prevent Japanese soldiers from committing rape crimes in public, and thus prevent increasing hostility from the local civilians in occupied territories; to prevent the spread of venereal diseases; and finally, to provide comfort to soldiers and ward off espionage.
The first groups of women were shipped from Nagasaki to Shanghai in 1932, where the first comfort station was established.
At first, Japanese prostitutes were recruited as “comfort women”, but as Japan’s military expanded, more women were needed. The Japanese Army provided these women to pacify the boiling discontentment of their soldiers. They thought that potential riots and revolts could be avoided if their military forces had outlets for their frustration, and those outlets would be young girls and women – about 200,000 to be more specific. Some as young as 8 years old, were forced to have sex with up to 40 soldiers everyday in comfort stations. If the “comfort women” refused sex, they were beaten or tortured with cigarette burns and bayonets; in some extreme cases, even mutilated and murdered. Many women died as a result of disease, malnutrition, exhaustion and suicide..
At a typical comfort station, each woman would be detained in a tiny cubicle, which might have been just a bed partitioned with sheets. Every comfort station had rules about service charges, and Japanese soldiers had to pay military checks or tickets to the stationmaster. Soldiers would line up outside to pay the fee, obtain a ticket and a condom (though these were rarely used), before getting access to a woman’s quarters.
Escape was virtually impossible. The women were heavily monitored and the comfort stations were usually surrounded with barbed wire. Even if a woman managed to make it outside the perimeters, she’d find herself in the middle of a war zone, and often in a foreign place. With no money and no ability to speak the local language, she’d have nowhere to go.
The areas where comfort women were found are shockingly widespread, covering all territories occupied by the Japanese between 1930 and 1945.
Comfort stations existed in countries and areas such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Amoi, French Indochina, the Philippines, Guam, Malaysia, Singapore, British Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, Burma, Thailand, East New Guinea, New Britain, Trobriand, Okinawa, and Sakhalin. Women were also shipped to the Japanese islands of Kyushu, Honshu, and Hokkaido.
Since the war in the Pacific, South Korea has had the most contact with Japan. In 1910, Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula, and Koreans were forced to become Japanese subjects.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that an estimated 80 per cent of comfort women were Korean. The other 20 per cent came from mainly China, as well as some Asian and Dutch countries that Japan had invaded. Korean women probably served the longest amount of time at various comfort stations because they were often forced to travel with the Japanese troops. However, the women in Japanese occupied territories might have been released or abandoned when the troops moved on to other areas.
When the war ended, a minority of women did manage to make it home. But they would never be the same again, broken both physically and emotionally. Many former comfort women could no longer bear children and were left with a slew of physical ailments due to years of sexual servitude. Despite these problems, the worst aftermath of their experience as comfort women is probably the lifelong shame they’ve been branded with, and the need to keep silent about it. In countries like China and Korea there is a high moral value attached to chastity. Many women feared that if they spoke out about their horrific experiences, not only their communities, but also their own families might shun them. Some women who did disclose their past only got punished with ostracism and ended up taking their own life. But the ones who lived returned to what looked like a pretty normal existence to the outside world. As the years went by, these surviving comfort women went about their daily routines. They became grandmothers looking after their family’s homes. They would go to the market on weekends, chat and perhaps even laugh along with the other local ladies. But appearances are deceiving, and the façade of normalcy has only been sustained by their burden of silence. Within every former comfort woman is a shattered soul: she is emotionally numb, but the overbearing sense of isolation and alienation from her society is almost as bad, if not worse than her experience as a comfort woman.
In the early 1990s, Asian women broke almost five decades of painful silence to demand apology and compensation for the atrocities they and others suffered under Japanese military sexual slavery during the Second World War. The voices of these women, speaking out about their enslavement as ‘comfort women’, reached a crescendo at the end of 2000 when they gathered together to demand justice at the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo, Japan. Organized by the Violence Against Women in War Network (VAWW-Net), the tribunal took place from 8th-12th December 2000 and was attended by 1300 people, including 390 survivors from the seven victimized countries of North and South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, China, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Breaking the History of Silence
In the early 1990s Asian women broke almost five decades of painful silence to demand apology and compensation for the atrocities they and others suffered under Japanese military sexual slavery during the Second World War. The voices of these women, speaking out about their enslavement as 'comfort women', reached a crescendo at the end of 2000 when they gathered together to demand justice at the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo, Japan. Organised by the Violence Against Women in War Network (VAWW-Net), the tribunal took place from 8th-12th December 2000 and was attended by 1300 people, including 390 survivors from the seven victimised countries of North and South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, China, the Philippines and Indonesia. With WACC support, a video documentary and publication on the struggle of these women have recently been produced
‘We are humbled to the core by the suffering and fortitude that stare us in the face’. So began the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, with a celebration of the courage of the survivors of the comfort system. Next came the call from the chief prosecutors for the judges to determine the individual responsibility of various military and political officials, including Emperor Hirohito, for crimes against humanity - the sexual slavery and rape of women and young girls who were confined to ‘comfort stations’ established by the military. The prosecutors also charged the Japanese government with state responsibility for the commission of these crimes and sought redress on behalf of the former comfort women. As expert witnesses delivered their testimonies and the prosecutors laid out the facts of their cases, the widespread and systematic nature of the comfort system became clear. The establishment of comfort stations was seen by the Japanese State as an integral part of their war effort – they established comfort stations in every area that they occupied. Officials of the Japanese State were responsible for the recruitment of women, and the authorisation for their travel, to serve as comfort women. It was not only the Japanese government and military that knew about this system, but Emperor Hirohito himself.
But it was the testimonies of the survivors of the comfort system who left the tribunal in no doubt of the atrocities committed by the Japanese military. Survivors of the comfort system in Taiwan, one of the prime locations for the recruitment of comfort women from 1932 onwards, told of how they were forced into sexual slavery, frequently enticed away from their homes with the promise of a good job. Seventy survivors in Taiwan have been confirmed but the total number is estimated to be nearer 2000. Seven of them came to the tribunal to state their case – as one of them explained, steadying herself on the witness stand, ‘I want compensation for the wounds to my body and soul’.
In China, during the Japanese occupation, sexual violence was rampant. Wan Aihua, the first Chinese survivor of military sexual slavery to make her case public, was at the tribunal to tell her story. She escaped from her captors three times but was found and brought back to the comfort station where she had served each time. Fourteen survivors from the Philippines also attended the tribunal where they testified to the mass rape that occurred at the infamous ‘Red House’ comfort station in Mapanique village on Luzon Island. Similar stories came from Malaysian, Dutch, Indonesian and East Timorese women all of whom suffered repeated rapes as comfort women, and who, in countries where a woman’s worth is measured by her marriage and ability to have healthy children, were left without any hope of ever leading a normal life. Japanese women, who have been the most silent about their ordeals at the hands of the Japanese military, also served as comfort women throughout occupied areas. Taken from brothels where they had been working as licensed prostitutes, service as comfort women was, for these women, simply a move from one highly violent and militaristic institution to another.
Charges of criminal liability for sexual slavery had never before been brought against the Japanese military. With sexual violence and armed conflicts increasing throughout the world and the UN War Crimes Tribunals and International Criminal Court becoming more important than ever before, this people's tribunal drew the attention of the international community towards what was a groundbreaking experiment. On 12th December 2000, the last day of the tribunal, the judges returned to present their findings. There was silence throughout the tribunal hall and then cheering, clapping, women standing to wave their arms in victory as the judges announced ‘today we have found Emperor Hirohito guilty of crimes against humanity’. The cheering grew louder as the judges determined that the state of Japan is responsible for the atrocities committed under the system of military sexual slavery during the war and that the individual victims of this system have a right to claim compensation from the government of Japan.
It was a historic moment that broke the biggest taboo of post-war Japanese society and a vital step towards ending the impunity for wartime sexual violence against women. Yet over a year later and the former comfort women have still not received compensation for the atrocities visited upon them over fifty years ago. The government of Japan, while acknowledging its moral responsibility for war crimes against the survivors of the military sexual slavery system, denies its legal responsibility and refuses to offer restitution which restores the dignity of the women and provides meaningful compensation. As recently as October 2001, an American federal court dismissed a class suit filed by Asian women against Japan for rape during the Second World War. The Judge ruled that while it was true that Japan committed the crimes it was being accused of - 'it tortured, beat, mutilated, and sometimes murdered' the Asian women - the court could do nothing to appease them because the case was beyond American jurisdiction and Japan has sovereign immunity from prosecution. The ageing survivors of the system of comfort women are dying one by one yet civil law suits seeking an apology and compensation from the Japanese government continue to end in failure. The former comfort women's desire for justice is as yet unfulfilled.