A young Chinese woman who was in one of the Imperial Japanese Army's 'comfort battalions' is interviewed by an Allied officer/ Photo from Wikipedia
The subject of World War II Asia is a difficult one for me to think about. My mother was 13 years old during the Japanese invasion. Through my childhood I recall hearing her tell an account of two or three stories. Her stories were sort of recited in a detached way, as though she was narrating a tale that belonged to someone else. I have an image of her although there are no photos of her at the time. Her clothes are simple but clean. She is fiercely prideful and one can see defiance and fire in her eyes but it is only there to conceal her fright. She is tiny in comparison to me at age 13. I am half Dutch and that combined with excellent nutrition creates a vast contrast. At age thirteen, I did not know war. I did not know hunger and I lived safely tucked into the rolling hills of north-eastern rural Kansas.
The truth is that although we have a great deal of information about WWII Europe, information about WWII Asia is less plentiful. An Asian Holocaust occurred also, over 23,000,000 people died during WWII Asia. Actually the subject that I want to address is more specific than WWII Asia. For a long time the subject that I want to address was only discussed in quiet whispers and was shrouded in shame. The subject is Asian Comfort Girls, the over 200,000 women that were kidnapped and forced to provide sex to soldiers as many as 50 times a day.
About 20 years ago, as many of the women who survived forced sexual slavery began to age, the whispers of their experiences began to emerge. Some were encouraged to break their silence by family, some felt a calling from their God, some could no longer contain their anger and some felt that by sharing their story, they might protect others in the future. Each voice from around the world began to be heard, each courageously validating the next.
Many of the women were very young, some as young as 8. Some of the girls had no knowledge of sex, some had not even begun to menstruate. Many were tricked, they were told they were being given a prize or a job that would help to feed their hungry families. Many were simply taken off the street as they walked home. Some were taken to ships where a few girls would serve hundreds of men, some were taken to barracks, some to houses much like brothels, some were taken far from home to serve soldiers in other countries that were also under occupation. In each case the young women were forced to have sex and beaten if they resisted. In each case they were used over and over again, through night and day. There were no days off, there were no breaks. Some contracted venereal diseases, some became pregnant and were beaten until they miscarried, some delivered live babies only to have them taken from them. Some died.
There are hundreds and thousands of stories. Not all of them are from Asian women. I read the story of Jan Ruff O’Hern whose Dutch family was interned in a Japanese Concentration camp in Indonesia. One day soldiers walked through her camp, chose a group of girls, loaded them into a truck and took them to a large house which they would learn would serve as a brothel. Each girl was taken to a room and brutally raped, each could hear the screams of the others. Later they saw one another in the bathroom where they tried to wash away the filth of the repeated rapes. O’Hearn who lives in Australia has testified before the US House of Congress on her experiences. She has written a memoir titled Fifty Years of Silence.
In 1999 a Philadelphia newspaper reported a story shared by a South Korean woman named Yoon-shim Kim. (http://articles.philly.com/1999-03-16/news/25511482_1_korean-comfort-woman-japanese-soldiers-brothels) Kim says that she was kidnapped from her village at age 13. A jeep carrying soldiers drove through her village while she jumped roped. Because it was unusual to see an automobile she stopped to look. She gladly accepted a ride from the soldiers who promised to drive her around her village. Instead she was driven to a city four hours away and was then shipped to China. She said that while other girls attempted suicide, the dream of seeing her mother again kept her alive. She returned to her family two years later and was immediately married off.
As a child I longed for stories of my mother’s early life. I distinctly remember asking for photos from her childhood. It was hard for me to believe that she had ever been a child. I somehow wanted validation of that fact. When I reflect upon that now, I realize how short her childhood was. At 12 I was still very much a tomboy, tramping through water filled ditches wearing holey converse and cutoff jeans. My days were filled with catching tadpoles and studying their various stages in their journey to becoming a frog. At 13 I was studying the neighboring farm boys who were strangely becoming young men. I was amazed by how they had suddenly developed biceps which strained the sun worn fabric of their hand-me-down shirts. At age 13 my mother felt fortunate to be paid in rice to work in the office of a high-ranking member of the Japanese Imperial Army. He likely set up office in the stately home of a newly evicted Dutch family who were transferred to a new location bounded by barbed wire fence. Her childhood was a short one. She did not look out over golden Kansas wheat-fields but likely walked with her eyes cast down to avoid seeing death and destruction around her.
Many of the Comfort Girls who survived their experiences lived with pain and injuries for the rest of their lives. Many were unable to conceive. Many suffered heartbreaking miscarriages. Some were able to share their stories with the families who welcomed them home, believing them dead. Some never found their families who were killed or moved away. Some told the men that they would marry, men who loved them and patiently help them heal. Some kept their experiences from the men they married who would call them damaged and deformed, ignoring their scars. Some never married and held their secrets close. Some, even today are subject to the shame and humiliation of having been a comfort girl. Even in very modern cultures around the world there are still some who maintain the belief that rape is a negative reflection on the victim.
Many of the women that came forward with their stories simply want an apology from the Japanese government. It seems that most will die without that apology. A few weeks ago a well-publicized statement was made by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who said, "To maintain discipline in the military, it must have been necessary at that time. 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." He has since attempted to justify his statement and offered a backhanded apology.
Frankly I think that Mayor Hashimoto’s initial statement speaks volumes. It speaks volumes about himself, those represented in his party (the right wing Japan restoration party) and about modern culture in general. The lack of acknowledgement given to the issue of sexual violence is demonstrated in all countries, by men of all ages and by women too. The lack of concern given the issue of sexual violence perpetuates it. We cannot force a genuine apology for the remaining surviving Comfort Girls but we can honor them by recognizing them and by acknowledging that an epidemic of rape continues. Women and children in war torn countries are the still victims of war today. Their perpetrators come in all shades of color, sizes and religion. Their countries of origin leave none excluded.
My mother will be 86 this year. She is still strong and active although sometimes when she is tired her memory seems foggy. I don’t believe that she was a comfort girl but I also don’t believe that she came through the war unscathed. She however is a survivor and the same inner fortitude that carried her through the war is apparent today. Her fire still burns brightly. When I read each account and viewed video concerning Comfort Girls it was difficult not to attach my mother to their stories. Each woman became my pretty, 13 year old mother, my aunt or my cousin. The woman who made it through with the belief that she would one day be in the comfort of her mother’s arms suddenly bore my daughter’s face. I wanted to walk away from this writing project because it hurt me, because it made me weep and because I was enraged. I pinned a photo of an 80 year old Comfort Girl from Indonesia to my desktop. Each time I tried to close my computer, her image stopped me. I wrote this because of her and all of the others. I wrote this because I have a responsibility to them. If their story is lost, if my children and yours don’t hear this story, then all of the tears and blood that spilled was for nothing. If it is forgotten, their horrible suffering served no purpose.
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A beautiful photo and journalism project on the comfort girls of Indonesia: http://www.janbanning.com/gallery/comfort-women/
Thank you to my group of Indo Sisters who propped me up as I wrote this. Thank you to my brother, who held me accountable for my emotions. Thank you to my husband who offers comfort and hot coffee. Thank you to Linda, who edits, calms and encourages me. Finally, thank you to the comfort girls of WWII wherever you are, for your courage, for your lost childhood and for sharing your stories. Your suffering was not for nothing.