Thursday, May 30, 2013


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. ( 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:

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.


  1. We may never know if our mothers were comfort women/girls. What we do know is that they lived under constant threat in a war zone just by being young women. Wartime traumas spill over to the next generations as they deal with its aftermath - mostly the piercing silence and erratic behavior. As an Indo Sister, I applaud you for exposing this topic as the Japanese government continues denial and perpetuates blatant sexism, as seen in this mayor whatshisname.

    1. Chacar, Thank you so much for your response. I'm sorry that I was so long in responding. I had to give myself some space from this entry for a while. It was such a difficult thing to write. I am so grateful to you for reading my blog and sharing my story.

      Thank you,


  2. This issue of mens' pandemic pseudo sex right to female bodies is not just about the so-called 'Comfort Women' but is about mens' global pseudo sex right to female bodies. Prostitution continues to be condoned and promoted because men claim they will 'spontaneously combust if they don't have regular sexual access to a dehumanised disposable female body!'

    'Comfort women' is a male created misogynistic term because what those innumerable male sexual predators did was not to 'seek comfort' rather they enacted their pseudo male sex right to females. I note no male was a 'Comfort boy' for the male soldiers.

    The ones who must be shamed are the men who enacted their pseudo male sex right to females and this is why we must continue to focus on holding males accountable. Male rape apolgist Mayor Hashimoto is not alone in his pathetic attempt at justifying male sex right to females.

    Here in the west we have innumerable prominent males claiming 'male sexual violence against women and girls' is as rare as the unicorn! (A mythical creature just as male sexual violence against women and girls is supposedly mythical).

    In both war and peace males are continuing to wage war on women and girls and yet this global male sexual violence against women and girls continues to be ignored. Why? Because holding males to account is a no no and women know that if they speak out individually males will swiftly retaliate and punish the woman/girl for daring to hold males accountable.

    Shame on those male soldiers for their sadistic sexual crimes committed against women and girls and shame on the Japanese male dominated government for continuing to deny male sexual violence against women and girls exists.

    It is not 'sexism' which the Japanese government are enacting but misogyny which means male hatred/male contempt for women and girls. Name it as male hatred/male contempt for women and girls and we can then begin to challenge male pseudo sex right to female bodies. 'Spontaneous combustion?' I'm still waiting to read a male has 'spontaneously combusted because he was denied sexual access to a female body.'

    1. Hi Jennifer, I'm sorry to be so delayed in responding. The epidemic of rape is still in full force isn't it? We all have to work together to educate other and to attempt to eradicate the culture of rape. Your message holds so much passion and power. I hope that you will also use your words to fight this war.

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing the time that you took to write your message.



  3. My mother was a Comfort Woman. She was told her "service" would help her numerous younger siblings secure more food and goods. My mother never talked about her time; when we were young, we were told she was "married" to a Japanese soldier who was "stationed" in Indonesia. We were told her baby was stillborn because of a physical fight she had with a sister. It wasn't until my mother was gone many years that I finally pieced together her story.

    It makes me tremendously sad that because of my mother's experience, she never was able to feel affection for my sisters and me, nor my father, and she was never truly a happy person. She was unable to talk to me about sex and the facts of life, and consequently, my early sexual identity was warped in some ways.

    I wish I could have told my mother that she didn't have to carry the burden of shame that she did for so many years. She never told her daughters the truth out of fear; decades after her death, I wish I could tell her how proud I was of her for her sacrifice and dedication to her siblings. She never knew how much my father loved her and adored her, and that is the saddest part of her tale.

    1. Dear Desert Songbird,

      Your message was the first thing that I read this morning. In my half awake state it occurred to me that this horrible tragedy that your mother experienced also provides us with such a sweet synchronicity. The words that you have written to me echo parts of my life so closely that I could have written them myself. Your mother's sacrifice not only served her siblings but provide future generations with knowledge only her experiences could provide. They also provide me with the sense that I am not alone in having a mother scarred by a senseless war.

      Thank you so much for your comments. They are priceless.


    2. Your words echo mine as well. I've just discovered your blog, but your story mirrors mine in many ways.

      We are the daughters of the scarred, but I believe it makes us richer. Our tapestries are made of strong fibers.