Why are cities like Busan, Seoul, Manila and several South Asian countries so scared of Japan? Why did the Philippines government bend down to Japan’s pressure to take down the monument built in memory of the comfort women of the country who were sex slaves to Japanese soldiers during World War II? Why did the South Korean foreign minister criticize the placement of the new comfort woman statue in Busan and called in “inappropriate that attracted anger within the country but drew cheers from Tokyo?
In January 2017, in a special article in The Japan Times (February 4, 2017) Jeff Kingston reports that Japan withdrew its ambassador to South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced Seoul for not abiding by the 2015 bilateral agreement regarding the “comfort women” aimed at enabling both nations to overcome this shared trauma. It was “shared” in the sense that many Korean women were recruited into what was effectively a system of sex slaves or sexual slavery that makes some contemporary Japanese feel uncomfortable about a dark chapter in the nation’s past — one that revisionists are intent on whitewashing.
“German WWI troops raped women of each village conquered, to prove their dominance; in 1937, Japanese troops raped a staggering 20,000 women a day for three days in what became known as `The Rape of Nanking'; the Japanese also imprisoned up to 200,000 Korean, Chinese, and Filipino `comfort women' in rape camps; and Russian troops raped an estimated two million German women as they vanquished Nazi Germany,” writes Jack Hardy in Everything old is new again: the use of gender-based terrorism against women.
The present article is triggered by a news report in The Independent (April 29, 2018) that states “A statue honouring women who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II was quietly removed from a busy seaside promenade in Manila city angering women’s groups across the Philippines.” The bronze statue of a blindfolded Filipina unveiled alongside Manila Bay in December last year, will be returned once drainage work is complete. But this is understood to be in response to the angry protests against the removal and the protestors, mainly women, suspect that the Japanese Government pressurized the Philippines to take the monument down. The monument was built in memory of thousands of Filipinas who suffered abuses during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines between 1942 and 1945.
However, the report also states in no uncertain terms, “Japanese nationalists contend that these so-called ‘comfort women’ in wartime brothels were voluntary prostitutes, not sex slaves, and that Japan has been unfairly criticized for a practice they say is common in any country at war.” Really? Whenever in history has prostitution been ‘voluntary’? In many reports and analyses, the term “sex slaves” is also used to define comfort women. How can ‘sex slaves’ give voluntary ‘service’?
The Japanese government claims that in 1995, Japan (a) provided 2 million yen through a private fund ($18000) to each one of the 280 women in the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea, (b) funded nursing homes and medical assistance for Indonesian and Dutch sex slaves. The Japanese government had also claimed that it had paid ¥1 billion to a foundation in South Korea charged with distributing the funds to the few surviving Korean comfort women in the expectation the statue would be removed, but, till February 2017, it remains across the street from where the Japanese Embassy was then being rebuilt. A 100-year-old survivor returned the 100 million (¥9.8 million) she received in the settlement, saying she never consented to accept the money.
The underwritten clause within the terms of agreement between Japan and South Korea drawn on December 28, 2015 stated clearly that the financial settlement and “apology” is conditioned by South Korea removing the statue in memory of the comfort women built outside of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in 2011. The comfort women statue in Seoul was established as one of the most iconic symbols of the comfort women issue in South Korea, the removal would further complicate the already troubled bilateral relations. Former victims already raised questions about the agreement. Michel-Rolph Trouillot states: “collective apology of historical wrongs is inherently abortive as it never embodies those original actors who committed the wrongs and who suffered from them.
As public remorse is only possible by contemporary proxy, apologizers and apologizees who can never truly feel the pain of the past, hence fail to be relevant actors. PM Abe would certainly echo this.”
The real story goes back to before World War II so far as Korean women are concerned. On August 26, 1998, 12 elderly Korean women sat and waited on mats outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, just as they and others had done every Wednesday in rain, sun or snow for more than six years and 330 Wednesdays till then. These “grandmothers,” as the women are called even though some never bore children, and the thousands they represent, are the silent victims of World War II. They — and others similarly victimized — pledged to keep sitting there every Wednesday until the Japanese government apologized. The demonstration on Aug. 26 had special significance, because the grandmothers read aloud letters they had written to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Kim was to visit Japan Oct. 9 the same year, his first visit to that country since being elected president in December 1997. According to Korean press reports, Kim had said that the main agenda of his trip was to end disputes over Japan’s wartime past.
Dennnis J. Coday pointed out that between 1937 and 1943, thousands of Korean women, 15 to 22 years old, were abducted between 1937 and 1943 to serve in Japanese army brothels, often very near battle lines. Some women have told of being forced to have intercourse with as many as 30 soldiers a day. Women in China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Indonesia suffered similar fates. In the years following the war, this part of history was largely ignored, if not covered up. In the late 1980s, women academics in Korea began releasing research and hosting academic conferences on Japanese atrocities against women during the colonial era. Public interest increased sharply when a Filipina, a former comfort woman, went public with her experience in 1990 in Manila.
Korean women’s groups and nongovernmental organizations formed the coalition Never Again: Justice for Military Comfort Women. They began demonstrating outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. In 1994, Kim Kak Soon became the first Korean to speak publicly about being a comfort woman. Since then, till August 1998, 160 Korean women came forward to tell their stories. Kim Kak Soon died in early 1998. Susana Yoon Soon Nyo, the secretary general of the Korean Catholic Women’s Community for a New World, one of the 76-member organizations of Never Again, explained why it took 50 years for these women to come forward.
“The victims could not show their faces, let alone speak out,” Yoon said. “When the war was on, they where abandoned by their families. And after the war they could not go home. Family shame was so deep. It was a personal pain.”
A resolution from the U.N. Sub commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities meeting in Geneva, “welcomed with great interest the final report by the special rapporteurs, Gay J. McDougall, on the systematic rape, sexual slavery and slavery-like practices during armed conflict, including internal armed conflicts.” The sub commission asked the United Nations to organize an expert meeting in 1999 to adopt guidelines for the effective prosecution of international crimes of sexual violence. Resentment against Japanese colonialism still runs deep in Korea.
When the Korean women speak about their lives since forced sex slavery, they use the word han. Han is translated as “a profound psychological suffering.” English speakers might call it ‘a festering wound on the soul.’ Kim Yun Shim was kidnapped by the Japanese at age 14. “I have lived my whole life trembling because of this suffering,” she wrote in her letter to President Kim. “Even now that my hair has turned white, when I remember my past, my whole body shakes, and my skin blushes red and my nerves are on fire.” As women without a family to call their own, they suffered 50 years of isolation and poverty. As more told their stories publicly, Buddhist monks opened a hostel for the women where now about a dozen live. They depended on support from the coalition, Never Again, until 1998 when newly-elected President Kim granted them government pensions.
Yee Yun Su, another comfort woman, was angry when she spoke; she was livid when she pointed out that to this day Japanese government officials deny the facts.
She referred to a Japanese cabinet minister who said in July that comfort women were volunteers. “They do not have any sense of guilt,” Yee Yun Su said. The two things these women demanded were: (a) an official apology and (b) monetary compensation, and that both should come from the Japanese government. Japanese individuals and groups have offered apologies and aid for the women, but these offers have always been rejected. “I cannot die this way without an apology from the Japanese government,” said Kim Yun Shim. “To release the han, the [Japanese] government must act,” explained Yoon. “We don’t want the money,” she said. “We want the apology so that the world will know this history.” Time however, is both a friend and an enemy. A ‘friend’ because it forced them to speak out, never mind that they did it fifty years after the event for the world to sit up in shock at the horror story that unfolded. But Time also turned into an ‘enemy’ by virtue of the fact that hardly a single of the 12 women who waited on their mats for hundreds of Wednesdays for the apology, are alive today to savour the apology.
Justice came in the shape of Death with dignity, a value Life had deprived them of.
Jeff Kingston in Do the memories of ‘comfort women’ matter? writes: “In terms of identity politics, the comfort women are symbolic of the traumas of Japanese colonialism and the trampling on Korean dignity, while in Japan, revisionists have tried to undo past government attempts to acknowledge and take responsibility for the comfort women system.
They have tried to discredit the 1993 Kono statement, in which the government acknowledged state responsibility for the coercive recruitment of women to provide sex for Japanese soldiers. They have also derided the Asia Women’s Fund, established by the Japanese government to provide funds for mitigating the health and welfare problems of surviving former comfort women.”
Kingston adds that the Kono statement also promised to teach young Japanese about this sordid system, and indeed, textbooks used in secondary schools during the 1990s did so. But in the 21st century, these textbooks have backed away from previous more forthright accounts, and educational guidelines issued by the then-Japanese government have forced all but one publisher to cut coverage of this controversy, and even that one had to issue a disclaimer noting that the testimony of a comfort woman cited in the book does not conform with official views on the matter.
Women are targets of armed conflict, political violence and terrorism. The stories come from different cultures and continents. In Rwanda, Algeria, Yugoslavia, And Afghanistan the stories of systematic attacks on women (and children, too) have alerted international authorities to a seeming new element of modern conflict.
But this is not about systematically designed rape of women. This is somewhat more brutal in that it is termed under the blatantly inhuman phrase “comfort women.”
Written byShoma A. Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time.