‘Comfort Women’: A Woman’s Burden Finding Justice After Wartime Sexual Violence
Written by: Rachel Linda Camara
Edited by: Abigail Goh
Illustrations by: Davida Eyam-Ozung
Designed by: Catharina Schultz
TRIGGER WARNING: Discussions of sexual violence – rape, violence, assault. To disclaim, the topic of sexual violence deals with sensitive issues of women's realities. This piece does not want to reproduce systems of violence in analysing sexual violence in the context of war. (WWII – Japan, ‘Comfort Women’).
The unfortunate truth behind war is that while men predominantly fight in honour of their country, women are often left to fight to defend their rights and have been set up to lose an (in)visible war.
Women face a continuous war whereby they are repeatedly blamed for the crimes inflicted upon them, only to be ignored by their home country’s judicial system. Rape has only recently been recognised by international justice systems as a crime against humanity due to the release of centuries kept secrets of the war horrors. International justice systems have a responsibility to not only connect collective consciousness about the past but have the opportunity to shape contemporary memory contestation. However, there has been a continuous struggle for global justice.
Who are these systems working to protect?
Legal and political responses to victims of sexual violence after times of conflict differ in bringing about justice, especially within cultural and political boundaries. One continuous problem around rape, especially within the legal system, is that the voices that need to be heard the most, are in fact the ones who are heard the least. The victims should be the centre of concern.
Are the victim's rights honoured? And who is prohibiting justice?
Reconciliation/transitional justice is a long-term non-judicial mechanism most commonly occurred after conflict. Involving not only the prosecution of one individual injustice of another but provides closure for society as a whole. It allows for the creation of an accurate historical record, that women are so often left out of, bringing accountability. Forgiveness is important for victims who demand accountability from their society to fully understand women's victimisation, not only within the war-context but at the root of the system. No matter what context, war/peacetime, home/abroad, public/private, a man’s inhumanity to a woman is ignored.
Rape is both hyper-visible and invisible, it is a fact that women are raped during armed conflicts in large numbers as part of genocide but individual cases are absent in records of conviction. Rape needs to be taken more seriously within ALL contexts. One prominent but often forgotten case is that of the Korean ‘Comfort Women’. Around 200,000 women were kidnapped from their villages or falsely conscripted by officials offering jobs, only to find themselves in military brothels, sexually serving Japanese Imperial troops during WWII. ‘Comfort women’, used in quotation marks, is a euphemism for the sexual exploitation of mainly young Korean women, but a lesser number of Indonesian, Japanese, Singaporean/Malayan, Chinese and Filipina women also fell victim to this war crime. ‘Comfort stations’ were created to ‘comfort’ homesick Japanese soldiers which eventually became licenced sexual slavery actively regulated by the state of Japan. Girls as young as 12 were forced to have sexual intercourse up to 30 times a day with several soldiers, living in horrible conditions and subjected to torture, beating, burning and stabbing; some dying of venereal diseases, drug overdose or suicide. In a Comfort Woman animation called “Her Story,’’ one survivor named “Chung, Seo-Woon” just 15 at the time, explained how she tried to commit suicide to escape from the horrible reality:
“They were handing out malaria pills. I gathered 40 of them; two, three pills at a time from a medical officer because he was Korean. I swallowed all 40 at once. But, even dying, I couldn’t even kill myself. I woke up 3 days later. People told me I was bleeding everywhere through my mouth and ears.”
Although Japanese surrender ended in 1945, these women’s trauma lived on, with only 10% estimated survival. The Korean comfort women fought their own war within the context of war.
Japanese soldiers saw themselves in two ways:
Holding themselves over their colonial subject, combined with gender hierarchy within East Asian culture, left Korean women to receive the most severe treatment (intersections of race, gender and colonialism). This mentality somehow justified their violent sexual acts under the name of the ‘military effort’ (propaganda), where sex brothels were “subordination of women to the state and the emperor”. Japanese military authorities did not discourage this inhumane treatment of Korean sexual slaves because of the same prejudices. Many women were dehumanised, treated like property or even animals. This patriarchal view shows that rape goes beyond sexual satisfaction or gender hierarchy and has been used as a tool of terror to assert power.
Overcoming stigma placed on rape victims proves to be one of the biggest obstacles in finding solutions. Sexual double standards within Korean patriarchal ideology helped prevent the former comfort women from speaking out and returning to a ‘normal life’. The severity and rampancy of the Japanese Imperial Army meant that for many women, their future as a forced sex worker was inevitable; they simply had the misfortune of being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poverty within Korea made women more vulnerable to mobilisation to military brothels. Young women with low-income family backgrounds thought they were going to work and make money to send back home. When returning home, the victims were silenced due to cultural taboos, unable to speak out and shunned by society, leaving their family homes, never finding a job and/marrying.
Denial and Silence
Matters of initial prosecution were in the hands of the West, dealing with Asia-Pacific War Crimes in the Tokyo Trial Tribunal of 1946. In actuality, the crimes were not even mentioned. The only reference to rape was the Rape of Nanjing, arguably just as important, yet, ignores other circumstances of not only ‘comfort women’ but also the rape of approximately 100 Mapanique women in the Philippines. Rape was not classified under any category of crime and therefore forgotten; affecting how we view and process it today. What the Tokyo Trial did achieve was identifying the root failure of the current justice mechanisms.
Japan has slowly acknowledged its past while maintaining its current political identity of being a peaceful nation after global disapproval of its WW2 atrocities. Abe Shinzō, the current prime minister of Japan, publicly declared that there is no evidence of Japan’s military involvement in military brothels. This is after the Chief Cabinet Secretary released a public apology, to the victims and established an Asian Women’s Fund providing monetary compensation.
For Japan to provide reconciliation justice, they need to come to terms with their past and not just pay off their victims. The problem with compensation is do the women that have the opportunity to receive money acquire the same amount, or does it depend on how severe the crime was? If so, what exactly are they basing the amount on?
How much money is indicative of such crimes?
Reconciliation needs to work as a top-down and bottom-up process through both a societal and governmental level of acceptance. Recently, more information about these issues is being released. People are speaking out, including the South Korean government, making it harder for Japan to continue denying. Currently, Japan’s only efforts are publicly apologising (not responsibility), visiting shrines, setting up organisations to maintain their ‘face’ and pay reparations. Ethically, is this right? Japan needs to accept this in order to forgive and heal. In contrast, Germany has made greater strides in acknowledging, accepting and teaching their criminal past by including Nazis in their education system.
Japan’s nationalistic behaviour only prohibits any drive for justice. There seems to be a harmful pattern when addressing sexual violence in armed conflicts and in times of peace of men vs women. Men committing the crimes, men are blaming women, men ignoring the victim’s suffering, men creating laws, men creating boundaries and men not prosecuting other men. Women's experiences are not treated the same as men’s, an additional intersection being Asian patriarchal values. In order for advancement towards victim redress and justness there ought to be a new dynamic and approach composed of men AND women. But, there is a paradox in justice – the community and system accepts the warrant of justice but there are no actions put in place to create a safer space and meet the needs of victims. If Japan were to fully commit, it would need to create a path towards an equal future of women AND men.
Japan’s current context is one of gender inequality which is reflected in how they digest the ‘Comfort Women’. Restorative justice is highly politicised, connected to history, intervening nations and creating myths and twisting them to suit their own political agenda. The craze of power has overshadowed the needs of victims and is instead an instrumental for the Japanese government to control national memory. The question is who will make Japan pay and what has to happen for Japan to loosen their grip on their national image?
The Fight Today
Every week, since Jan 8th 1992, Korean protesters have demanded an apology from Japan, being the longest demonstration for a single cause in world history. Despite Japan’s past apologies many believe that it was not sincere. With Japan continually denying the existence of ‘comfort women’, and leaving out this crucial history from their education system, they deeply “misjudged how ingrained the issue is in South Korean society”. With knowledge comes the ability to learn, and not make the same mistakes again. This is why it is important to keep fighting. Keep fighting for justice for those who are no longer here. Keep fighting for justice for those who have survived. Keep fighting for accountability. Keep fighting for future generations of women.
The fight and search for women’s justice is not over and still massively contested, leaving women in vulnerable positions. Survivors today can benefit collectively, providing an open space to understand their experiences, built in numbers to fight. There are many survivors from across Asia, often left out of the narrative – The Battle for Singapore 2021, is a recently recorded webinar, discussing the experience of Singaporean comfort women during the Malayan occupation. One way to honour and remember these victims with the justice they deserve is to listen and acknowledge their past and their truth through their stories.