Justice for Comfort Women
“Comfort Women” is a euphemistic phrase used to describe around 200,000 women and girls (actual numbers vary according to each source, although some claim the numbers might have been as high as 400,000) who were coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army in occupied territories before and during WWII (1931-1945). This was the largest institutionalized system of sexual slavery in the twentieth century. Girls as young as 10 years old and women from at least 13 countries were taken, including: Korea, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Okinawa, East Timor, Guam, and Australia.
The Japanese Imperial Army first started with early recruitment during the Russo and Sino Japanese Wars (1894 - 1895 and 1904 - 1905), but it wasn’t until the Nanjing Massacre in 1937, where the “comfort woman system” became fully operational, as testimonies and reports told how women and girls were raped and systemically prostituted in Japanese “comfort stations.” The justification for this system was apparently to prevent soldiers from gang-raping women in occupied Manchuria (Fukushima, 2010, p. 761). Soon, the military enacted forced "recruitment" and kidnappings across Japanese colonies. Girls and women were either directly taken by the Japanese, or by local governments and police departments who were ordered to provide women for them. They were also tricked with false promises of jobs (working in factories or hospitals) and instead, “found themselves trapped in a system of normalized sexual violence, or, rather, institutionalized rape” (p. 759).
These so-called “Comfort Women” were mostly teenagers, between the ages of 13-16. They were trafficked to comfort stations located all over occupied Japanese territory, oftentimes far from their homes, and trafficked from location to location. They were raped by some accounts up to 50 times daily, and when they resisted, the girls and women were starved, beaten, tortured, killed, and many ended up committing suicide. If they became pregnant, abortions were forced and some became infertile because of the daily systematic abuse and torture or due to STDs. It’s estimated that only 10 - 35% survived, particularly after Japan’s defeat in 1945 when many of the girls and women were killed by soldiers in an attempt to destroy evidence of the “comfort women” system (Fukushima, 2010, p. 761; Qiu, et al, 2013, p. 71 and p.74). The few who escaped or survived were abandoned in foreign countries, far from their homes. Many did not return home due to shame or for fear of being rejected by their families. They lived for decades in secrecy and suffered alone in silence, until 1991 when survivors began to share their testimonies publicly and confronted the Japanese government, demanding reparations and a formal apology. Three decades later, those demands have not been met.
Breaking the Silence and Justice for “Comfort Women” Movement
Decades of silence and denial followed the war, but during the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese activists, journalists, and feminists started to bring attention to this history. In 1991, former "comfort woman" Kim Hak-soon broke the silence and was the first to publicly testify to her experience, then others followed suit. The Japanese government denied any military and state involvement in creating a sex slavery system. Kim testified,
For fifty years, I have had a heavy, painful feeling, but kept thinking in my heart about telling my experience some day. . . As I try to speak now, my heart pounds against my chest, because what happened in the past was something extremely unconscionable . . . Why does [the Japanese government] tell such a lie [to deny its knowledge of comfort women system]? Actually, I was made into a comfort woman, and I’m here alive (Nozaki 2005).
In 1992, Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi discovered direct evidence of the Japanese military’s role in overseeing “comfort stations” despite the government's absolute silence about wartime atrocities committed during Japanese occupation in various parts of Asia. The continued denial is a struggle this movement faces, but the justice for “Comfort Women” movement remains “one of the most visible global initiatives to break the silence surrounding wartime atrocities and sexual violence” (Fukushima, 2010, p. 760). The movement to reveal the “dirty” secret of war and the use of rape as a weapon is an international human rights issue. The call for redress and reconciliation exposed the systemic role of the military in organized rape and torture, and Asian Americans in this movement have made important connections to the hypersexualization of Asian women and men, impacts of colonialism, western expansion being linked to violence, racism, and sexism, redress for war crimes, and the effects of sexual violence against women (pp. 759-760).
The movement uplifted testimonies of the brave “grandmothers,” highlighting the important role of testimonies by everyday persons in the field of Ethnic Studies and understanding the history of marginalized racial groups. Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of Utah, Annie Fukushima, wrote that,
Testimonials by surviving comfort women have shifted the paradigm of what counts as truth in Asian American history because the movement is defined by the voices of the comfort women, who suggest that there is a need to tell stories from the "ground up" and to hear the words of those who directly experience struggle. Testimonies convey that there are no words that can easily describe what the women went through. Such testimonies have proved valuable to the work of historians. Testimonies also proved critical for conveying to the Asian American movement what the comfort women experienced (2010, p. 760).
Surviving "Comfort Women" and activists have demanded a formal apology from the Japanese government, and sued for compensation. Some statements and apologies have been given by individual members of the Japanese government, such as when Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi officially apologized to South Korea (Nozaki 2005). But, there’s yet to be an official apology directed toward all the women of various nationalities, nor major policy changing statements. There's been minimal education about "comfort women" in school textbooks in Japan. Private funds were set in 1994 to compensate survivors, but many "comfort women" activists rejected it, citing it wasn't official since money came from private donations. More recently, there have been efforts by the conservative Japanese government and revisionist organizations to interrupt memorialization efforts in the U.S., largely denying the government's involvement or claiming that "Comfort Women" were highly paid prostitutes. As of 2022, the Japanese government continues to publicly deny any involvement, including one of their most boisterous deniers, former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe (who was assassinated on July 8, 2022).
The 2015 “Agreement” between Japan and South Korea
The so-called 2015 “Agreement” between Japan and South Korea was only an oral “agreement,” never written, and has been rejected by “Comfort Women” survivors and their supporters. The discussed fund to support “Comfort Women” was conditional, Japan demanding that South Korea stop criticizing them and remove the "comfort women" memorial in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, and consider the matter a "final and irreversible resolution." This “agreement” has also faced criticism for excluding surviving “Comfort Women,” including those from 12 other nations, for negating coercion and legal responsibility by the Japanese government, and because this so-called compensation would not be paid directly to survivors.
Surviving “comfort women” filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government and in January 2021, they won the case, but the Japanese government ignored the ruling. In another verdict in April of that same year, the court granted sovereign immunity to Japan and the “comfort women” victim’s lawsuit was ended. Regardless, both trials acknowledged the survivors’ claims about the Japanese military’s role in coerced sex slavery (Hosaka, 2021).
Fighting for Justice from the U.S.
Activists in the United States also fought for justice for our "grandmothers," pressuring political representatives to take action. In 2007, Representative Mike Honda sponsored House Resolution 121 which expressed that the government of Japan "should formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces' coercion of young women into sexual slavery."
In 2015, San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to approve a “Comfort Women” memorial to be built, becoming the first major city in the United States to have such a memorial. In addition, four more “Comfort Women” memorials exist in the U.S.: Glendale, CA, Virginia, Michigan, and New Jersey. In 2016, the California Board of Education approved the inclusion of "comfort women" in 10th grade world history curriculum. Both efforts have been supported by various human rights, feminist, and Asian American organizations, such as the "Comfort Women" Justice Coalition (CWJC), self-described as “a grassroots, multi-ethnic and multi-national group of individuals and organizations” ("Comfort Women" Justice Coalition). Author, Kay Fischer, is a member of Eclipse Rising, one of the partner organizations that participated in this coalition and in the campaign to bring about the memorial.
Prompted by the Abe administration’s “massive global PR campaign to ‘correct’ the world’s understanding of Japan’s history….‘Comfort Women’ denialism has come stateside, hitting home for Asians and Asian Americans across the diaspora” (Kim Lee, 2016). Revisionists have claimed, without evidence, that memorials prompt hate crimes towards the Japanese community, and often completely deny that such a system ever existed, asserting that “Comfort Women” were “highly paid prostitutes,” accusing these women to be liars, or disputing the number of women and children affected by this sex slavery system. American professor of Japanese Legal Studies, Harvard, Mark Ramseyer repeated such assertions in 2021, stating that Korean “comfort women” “chose prostitution.” Opponents went as far as attempting to sue the city of Glendale, CA to demand the removal of their memorial, but the lawsuit was dismissed in 2016 (Constante, 2017). Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw claimed that Glendale erected a memorial that takes a stand against human rights violations which is well within the rights and responsibilities of local governments.
In 2018, the mayor of Osaka, Japan, Hirofumi Yoshimura, severed sister-city ties with San Francisco, attempting to force the mayor, London Breed, to take down the memorial, Column of Strength (Ingber, 2018). The San Francisco-Osaka Sister City Association responded that the sister-city relationship is not between the two city governments, but instead a partnership between the two cities’ civic organizations, nonprofits, and businesses. On the one-year anniversary of the memorial’s unveiling in San Francisco, September 22, 2018, delegates from two Japanese organizations, the Kansai Network to Resolve the Comfort Women Issue and the Forum from the Improvement of Osaka, visited and participated in the ceremony. Pang Chung Ja of the Kansai Network, stated, "Even if the mayor of Osaka proceeds with the termination, I feel that our relationship with the people of San Francisco has only deepened these past few years and only continues to grow stronger….Let us work together to solve this issue" (Hirai, 2018). Hisaye Ogawa with the Osaka delegation mentioned that they came to seek an apology from their own Japanese government.
Miho Kim Lee of Eclipse Rising and the CWJC, who was instrumental in coordinating visits by the two delegations from Japan, wrote that teaching “Comfort Women” history and erecting memorials serve the long-term purpose of remembrance, but is also in and of itself a “subversive act of resistance.” She continued, “...let us fight for the right to remember our beautiful and enduring legacy of suffering, courage, survival and joy, which serves as a reservoir of strength to inform our cultural identities and visions for the world” (Kim Lee, 2016).