There was about 220 thousand wartime rape survivors in China in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Pacific War (1941-1945) to 2014. Today, only 14 of them are thought to remain in China and most of them are in their 80s or 90s. In South Korea, only 14 of the 240 registered survivors of Japan’s wartime brothels are still alive, nearly half the number who were alive just three years ago. The decreasing number of witnesses to human atrocities means the gradual forgetfulness of their painful stories. The Second World War ended in 1945 for most people in the world, however, these survivors suffered the unfinished pain of WWII for the rest of their life. This article intends to not only tell people the history that happened but also help people embrace these women as individuals rather than historical figures.
Who are the “comfort women”
‘Comfort women’ is the English translation of the Japanese term “ianfu”, which means “ a woman who gives ease and consolation”. But in fact, it referred to the ‘military prostitute’ who accompanied the Japanese army to provide sexual service to its officers and soldiers in the wars that the country was involved in, and in WWII in particular.
During WWII, the Japanese also established some ”comfort stations” , which is actually military brothels in the countries they occupied. However, many women were cajoled or coerced into the “comfort station” by some people who worked for the Japanese army. They are the victims of sexual violence.
Many of the women were from Korea, China, and the Philippines. They were either scammed on the grounds of offering jobs or trafficked by Japanese armies from the cities they occupied. These women were detained next to military barracks, sometimes in walled camps. They were repeatedly raped, beaten, and tortured, which leave them not only with lifetime physical damage , such as sexually transmitted diseases and damaged reproductive systems but also with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although there is no official record, most historians estimated the number of “comfort women” is at least 50,000.
What they face after the war
“Though the war is over, the pain of them never finished”
The belated apologies and compensation
In 1991,Kim Hak-sun, a Korean ‘comfort woman’ came forward and sued the Japanese government for the mistreatment she suffered during WWII. Kim is the first Korean woman who disclosed her experience during WWII and her lawsuit set up an example for other women who have the same experience to follow suit. In the face of following lawsuits brought by ‘comfort women’ from various countries and historical evidence provided by researchers, Japanese government leaders offered apologies on various occasions and set up Asian Women’s Fund to make compensation. However, the official apologies and compensation from the Japanese Government were only given to a few “comfort women” in South Korea and were forced to terminate because of the growing nationalist sentiment within the Japanese Government and the limited reach of the Asian Women’s Fund. Also, the victim countries, such as South Korea and China did not recognize the importance of reconciliation till the late 20th century, which missed the best time to fight for formal reconciliation efforts.
Most “comfort women’ therefore, lived a life of economic distress and waited to be heard for their whole lives. Till now, a total of five legal cases brought by “comfort women” in China. However, none of them won nor they received compensation. Few remaining survivors in Philippines, most in their 80s and 90s, are still demanding to be heard and waiting for justice.
The lifetime trauma
“These women were left with physical and psychological scars after the war”
After WWII, the culture of victim countries was still heavily influenced by patriarchal Confucianism, leaving the victims back to a “shaming society” without support or encouragement to help them heal from the trauma. Most of the survivors did not tell about their experience in the war and hid their pain in shame till the end of their lives. They were pressured into silence and faced discrimination from their families and communities, who blamed the young women for what had been done to them. The discrimination and prejudice against even “comfort women” continue today. In a report conducted by CCTV, which is the national broadcaster of China, on the dismantlement of the comfort station in Shanghai, some adults and middle school students expressed the view that the comfort stations should be demolished because of the history of sexual abuse suffered by “comfort women” is disgraceful.
In addition to the great mental pressure they bear as sexual violence survivors, most of them also suffered from irreversible damage to their bodies. Some of them lost their hearing because of constant violence and some of them were unable to bear children because of the great physical damage to their bodies. The physical and psychological damage remained with them as permanent scars after the war. Many of them found it difficult to reintegrate into the community and were never able to return to their normal lives.
Loss of identity
The recognition of these victims, however, remained politically contentious. Because of the damage to the historical records and growing revisionism in Japan, Holocaust-like denialism continues to attack this history and labels the “comfort women" as “liars” or “money grabbers”. The issue of “comfort women” has also been used as a political leverage in the relations between South Korea and Japan, which did not help the victims win either justice or compensation, and deepening the misconceptions about this group. Most people now view them as more like historical evidence, which could be used to blame for the past-wrongs, rather than normal individuals, who need care and protection from society and family.
The stories of the “comfort women” feel distant to us now and fewer of them are still alive to talk about their stories as well as their ongoing struggles. And ”soon they will all be gone - while the voices of denial grow louder and stronger”.
"Lest my story be lost in oblivion"
After the war, there was either no political and legal recognition of their identity or enough compensation for their pain. The social prejudice and discrimination against them also caused second harm to them. Therefore, the pain of the war never finished but continued in different ways on these former “comfort women”. However, they should not bear the shame of their painful memories in the post-conflict community. They should be remembered, not as part of historical evidence to continue the hatred and blame, rather, they should be recognized and remembered as individuals who need to be healed and reintegrated into society. Just as many “comfort women” said in their last moments of lives: "Lest my story be lost in oblivion". Their stories and their pain should be remembered.
Cho, M. (2020). Victim Silencing, Sexual Violence Culture, Social Healing: Inherited Collective Trauma of World War II South Korean Military “Comfort Women”.
Politics of memory in Korea and China: Remembering the comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre
Wang, Q. Edward. "The study of “comfort women”: Revealing a hidden past—introduction." Chinese Studies in History 53, no. 1 (2020): 1-5.
S.Korea's few surviving 'comfort women' face life's end as political fight rages on | Reuters
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Ziti is a second year International Relations student at War Studies Department King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.