By Tia A. Giove
In discussing the wide breadth of women’s history, many events become unearthed that deserve significant historical recognition. One area from the 20th century that has been greatly overlooked, despite occurring as a result of one of the most historical focused and revisited events, is the comfort women of the Japanese Empire during WWII.
The exploitation of ‘comfort women’, was an issue of Imperial order over both race and gender in an exercise of cultural hegemony. It is estimated that between 20,000 to 410,000 women between 1932 until the end of the war were abducted and unwittingly coerced into a state organised system of military sexual slavery. Procured as a wartime commodity in order to prevent the spread of venereal diseases and serve the supposed biological necessities of Japanese soldiers, the comfort women were subjected to horrific sexual violence and inhumane living conditions. One doctor from a ‘comfort station’ described the facility as a; “hygienic public toilet[s],” to which this derogatory comparison indicates the women as inhuman receptacles to serve the military. Women and girls were subject to multiple rapes daily and regularly beaten, with many dying from their injuries or taking their own lives. In 1993, the UN’s Global Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Human Rights estimated that at the end of WWII, 90 percent of the comfort women had died. Exploited by the Imperial control imparted by the metropole, the women subjected to this atrocity hailed from the Japanese occupied countries and colonies including the Philippines, China, Australia, the Netherlands, and most primarily Korea. Despite the organisations profound impact, the tale of the comfort women is often largely unknown in the wider global public sphere, and is part of the reason why it still draws massive controversy over 70 years later.
Figure 1 – Footage from 1944 shows “comfort women” in Songshan, Yunnan province, after its liberation from Japanese troops
The agenda behind the violence inflicted upon the many women and girls throughout the war was induced by a nationalistic atmosphere and misogynistic mindset that was the key participle for the Japanese empire, and how this is unpacked is still stagnant today when examining the issue of the comfort women. Nearing Japan’s surrender in September 1945, attempts to cover up the atrocities took place seeing further mass executions and destroying evidence by the Japanese military and government. It was not until the 1993 Kōno Statement released by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yōhei Kōno was landmark in concluding that the Japanese Imperial Army was responsible for the comfort women. However in 2007, then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempted to dissociate the Japanese Imperial Army from the involvement of the acquisition of the women. Abe denied direct coercion by military personnel or officials; ‘Testimony to the effect that there had been a hunt for comfort women is a complete fabrication’. It is this attitude that has spurred remaining survivors and others to advance towards more significant accountability and the international recognition of crimes of sexual violence.
Figure 2 – Former comfort women, in yellow, at an anti-Japan rally in Seoul
In spite of the attempts of denial and to ‘forget’ about the women, many later came forward to share their stories. Beginning in the 1980s after liberalisation of South Korea, the comfort women’s ordeal became public discussion, seeing more and more give their testimonies. Despite the Japanese government’s intentions of reparations to the few survivors in 2015, the issue remains divided as the country balked at Korea’s demand for a strong apology – cementing intense foreign relations that are contemporary as they are historical. It is an unfortunate truth that systematic sexual violence in war is a continuing issue that has continued to permeate within conflicts across the globe, as seen for example in the Yugoslav Wars, Bosnian War, Rwandan genocide, and many more. Therefore it is essential that full acknowledgement and essential justice be brought forward for the remaining and deceased girls and women, as a step to further address the underpinning societal discrimination against women and moral obligation to prevent future abhorrent violence.
https://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/na/kr/page4e_000364.html – Announcement by Foreign Ministers of Japan and the Republic of Korea at the Joint Press Occasion
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/12/world/asia/japan-south-korea-comfort-women.html – Japan Balks at Calls for New Apology to South Korea Over ‘Comfort Women’
‘Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the result of the study on the issue of “comfort women”’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 4/08/1993 Available online: https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9308.html [Accessed: 14/11/2019]
N. Rumiko, ‘Forcible mobilization- What survivor testimonies tell us’ in N. Rumiko & K. Puja & O. Akane (eds.) Denying the Comfort Women: The Japanese State’s Assault on Historical Truth (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018) Introduction
M. W. Ashford & Y. Huet-Vaughn ‘The Impact of War on Women’, in B. S. Levy & V. W. Sidel (eds.) War and Public Health, (Washington D.C.: American Public Health Association, 2000), p. 190