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The forgotten history of Japan’s ‘comfort women’

Tens of thousands of women from China, Korea and other occupied countries were forced to become sex slaves for the imperial Japanese army between 1932 and 1946.

Although military brothels have existed in the Japanese military since 1932, their prevalence dramatically increased after the horrific events of December 13th 1937 in Nanking, the capital of Nationalist China at the time. On this day, a six-week massacre of civilians and soldiers at the hands of Japanese troops began that left Nanking all but destroyed and between 20,000-80,000 women sexually assaulted and raped, hence why this incident is often referred to as the ‘Rape of Nanking’.

In the aftermath of this attack, with estimates of between 200,000-300,000 dead and the city devastated, news of the assault appalled the world. Word had spread of the mass-rapes, the murder of innocent civilians- including children and the elderly- and of Japanese soldiers pillaging and taking part in ‘killing contests’ as they made their way across China towards Nanking. This alarmed Emperor Hirohito of Japan, who was concerned about the impacts of this backlash on Japans' image. Instead of addressing the culture that fostered this behaviour within the Japanese army, he instead came up with another solution. As legal historian Carmen M. Agibay notes, Emperor Hirohito ordered the army to expand its military brothels in an effort to prevent events like the Rapes of Nanking from repeating, reduce the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and ensure there was always a group of prostitutes to satisfy the soldiers sexual ‘needs’, especially as World War 2 began.

The process of expanding these brothels and ‘recruiting’ women was synonymous to kidnap, trickery or coercion. Women were kidnapped off the street or from their homes, persuaded to come willingly with false promises of nursing jobs or bought from their families as indentured servants. Once taken, women were moved from station to station, with no idea of where they were going and when, or if, they might dream of returning home.

One woman spoke out about her experience of ‘recruitment’ into these such brothels. Her name is Lee Ok-seon, and she was only 14 years old at the time, living in a town called Busan in what is now Korea. Lee was running an errand for her parents when a group of men in uniforms burst out of a car, attacked her, loaded her into a vehicle and drove her to a so-called ‘comfort station’. Lee never saw her parents again.

Photo of Lee below with a picture of her younger self:

Another former ‘comfort woman’, Kim Bok-dong, was also taken at the age of 14 under the guise that she was needed to work in a factory. The first time she was raped, she was beaten up beforehand so that she could not protest. Afterwards, upon seeing the bloody bedsheets and feeling understandably overwhelmed, her and two other girls convinced a cleaner to buy them the strongest bottle of alcohol they could find so the girls could attempt to drink themselves to death. The girls were found, however, and their stomachs pumped. The next day they were put back to work.

Recounting later, Kim detailed how weekends were particular bad, working for 6-9 hours each day, seeing as many as 50 men a day, leaving her unable to stand or walk afterwards.

Another victim, Maria Rosa Henson, recalled, “There was no rest… they had sex with me every minute.”.

While Kim Bok-dong was eventually returned home in 1947, unsure of how long she’d been gone and unable to articulate the horrors she’d experienced to her family, most women weren’t so 'lucky'. Even after World War 2 ended, the stations remained open, with victims having sex with American troops too until American General Douglas MacArthur widely shut down the system in 1946. But as we see with these issues most of the time, sadly this doesn’t mean all of them were shut down, and it certainly didn’t mean every woman was able to return home, at least not as the woman she was when taken.

The UN’s Global Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Human Rights released estimates in 1993 that 90% of these women had died by the end of World War 2. The issue with these figures, however, is that Japanese officials destroyed many documents after the war ended in an attempt to forget its distasteful past, so the numbers are based on historians’ efforts to piece together the history of this system from a wide expanse of documents and sources. When the issue was brought up in Japan it was always denied by officials who insisted the stations had never existed.

Many women who survived the stations died afterwards from sexually transmitted diseases, complications from injuries received from the brutal Japanese soldiers or by committing suicide. Others returned home but were outcast by their communities due to the fact that they were now ‘unmarriable’ and traumatised. The denial of what they had experienced by the government only worsened the aftermath for these strong, brave women.

It wasn’t until the 1980s until women started to come forward and talk about what had happened to them, especially in 1987 when the Republic of South Korea became a liberal democracy, allowing women to speak up more publicly. The issue exploded into an international dispute between South Korea and Japan when South Korea condemned Japans renunciation of the events, forcing the Japanese government to finally recognise the atrocities in 1993. Almost 83 years after the comfort stations were set up, Japan finally announced reparations of around 1billion Yen / £5.6million to any of the surviving ‘comfort women’ in 2015.

But for the women left, like Kim Bok-dong, this isn’t what they want. Kim, who spent the rest of her life campaigning for fellow victims of forced sexual exploitation from all around the world and for children affected by conflict, was only ever fighting for a full admission of guilt, as officials still maintain that most women in the stations wanted to be there for many years after.

In 2016, Kim said, “We won’t accept even if Japan gives 10 billion Yen. It’s not about money. They’re still saying we went there because we wanted to”. Kim sadly passed away in 2019 before she got to see this wish fulfilled, but leaves behind her legacy, for example the scholarship she started for children in conflict regions with her own money, and ‘The Butterfly Fund’ charity she set up in 2014 for fellow victims of sexual violence in armed conflicts around the world.

Another survivor, 92-year-old Lee Yong-soo, has also been vocal about her desire for an apology from the Japanese government. Speaking to the Washington Post in 2015, she said, “I never wanted to give comfort to those men [despite what some officials may say]… I don’t want to hate or hold a grudge, but I can never forgive what happened to me.”

Kim Hong-Ji - REUTERS - Students hold up portraits of deceased former South Korean 'comfort women' during a weekly protest outside the Japanese embassy is Seoul

For further insights into the tremendous miscarriages of justices against these incredible strong, brave and courageous women, there is a documentary film by Tiffany Hsiung about three former ‘comfort women’ called The Apology produced by Anita Lee for the National Film Board of Canada.

We all need to DO MORE to protect vulnerable people worldwide from horrors like this, and respect and empathise with what happened to them rather than deny it. These women deserved so much more.

Join the #MOREmovement on our Instragram @moresocials or by joining our mailing list here on the site.

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