Women carry portraits commemorating Koreans who were made sex slaves by the Japanese during World War II. Seoul. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)
On June 9, outside of Seoul, 91-year-old Bae Chun-hui took her last gasp of air at the House of Sharing, a communal home established for former “comfort women” in South Korea to live out their remaining years in peace.
Bae was kidnapped at the age of 19 and taken to Manchuria, where she was forced into sexual slavery until the end of the Second World War.
Not only did Bae die without achieving justice. In her final days, she also witnessed Japan’s shameful efforts to wash its hands of war crimes that its military committed against an estimated 200,000 women and girls from throughout Asia during the Pacific wars of the 1930s and ’40s.
Bae was among the Korean women who spoke out after the former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun broke her silence in 1991 and publicly recounted her abduction and sexual torture by Japanese soldiers. In her testimony, Kim painfully recalled: “A commissioned officer took me to the next room which was partitioned off by a cloth. Even though I did not want to go he dragged me into the room. I resisted but he tore off all of my clothes and in the end he took my virginity. That night, the officer raped me twice.”
Kim lifted the floodgates for other Korean women to come forward. Burmese, Chinese, Japanese, Filipina, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Pacific Islander women verified that their experiences were not isolated, but were the outcome of a systematic, well-organized government program to establish “comfort stations” for Japanese soldiers throughout Asia and the Pacific.
The Japanese government has vigorously resisted calls to repent for its actions. But a growing global movement is ensuring that if Japan won’t hold itself to account for its grievous crimes against these women, then history will.
In 1991, three Korean comfort women filed a lawsuit in Tokyo demanding an official apology from the Japanese government, to which Japan responded that there was no proof verifying their stories. These women, many of whom had lived their entire lives in shame and in isolation from their families, had risked everything to challenge the state’s official narrative.
They were finally vindicated when Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi scoured the Japanese Defense Ministry’s library and uncovered documents bearing the personal seals of Imperial Army officers that outlined the military’s direct management of the so-called comfort stations.
The groundswell of testimonies and official historical evidence forced the Japanese government to respond. In 1993, following an official review, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged his government’s role in organizing military brothels and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery—an admission that became known as the Kono Statement. “Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities,” he said. Women and girls “were recruited against their own will” and “lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.”
The statement hinted at a pending formal apology and reparations for the former comfort women who had risked so much to come forward. “We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them,” it promised, “and take them to heart as lessons of history.”
In 1995, however, the Japanese government endorsed the Asian Women’s Fund, a private effort that collected money from ordinary citizens to compensate comfort women. Many of the women refused the money, which did not come from the government and was not accompanied by any formal apology.
Fast forward to 2014.
Not only has Japan failed to compensate the surviving comfort women, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has led a nationalist campaign to adamantly deny Japan’s shameful criminal past, has revised history textbooks that previously contained information about Japan’s military sex slaves and is also threatening to revise the Kono Statement.
The issue is playing out on the international stage. The South Korean government is demanding that Japan formally apologize, as it promised in 1993, and directly give reparations to Korean survivors. But the Japanese government claims that reparations for colonial and wartime atrocities were resolved in a treaty signed between Japan and South Korea in 1965, complaining that Seoul “moves the goalposts” for domestic reasons.
In March 2014, a key aide to Abe suggested that the Abe administration would water down the Kono Statement “if new findings emerge.” The Abe government alleges that the Kono Statement was issued under pressure from South Korea and that more research was needed on the testimonies of sixteen South Korean comfort women interviewed in the Japanese study that helped produce the statement. A revised statement would almost certainly dilute Japan’s culpability or challenge the veracity of the comfort women, most of whom have since passed away.
Abe is in denial of the growing, indisputable evidence documenting Japan’s direct management of the brothels. Since 1993, Professor Yoshimi and other historians have compiled 529 documents—30 percent of them from the Japanese Defense Ministry—containing proof that the Japanese military and government trafficked girls and women from Asia into sexual slavery.
According to Japanese historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a large body of information has been gathered by the Japanese government, UN inquiries, researchers and NGOs, and is substantiated by testimonies from comfort women, brokers, military records and postwar memoirs by Japanese soldiers. “This information,” Suzuki concludes, “unequivocally documents the existence of a vast network of ‘comfort stations’ throughout the empire and including the front lines of battle.”
Monuments to the Truth
In 1992, on the eve of the Kono Statement, there were 237 living South Korean comfort women registered with the government. Today there are just fifty-four survivors, with an average age of 88.
As the number of survivors dwindles, activists have taken to installing more permanent memorials to preserve their history. Since 1992, at noon on every Wednesday, irrespective of rain or snow, Korean comfort women and their supporters have stood across the street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul, calling upon the Japanese government for justice and reparations.
On December 14, 2011, to commemorate the 1,000th protest, they installed Pyeonghwa-bi, or the Peace Monument—a golden bronze statue of a barefoot teenaged girl sitting in a chair with her hands gently resting on her lap. On her left shoulder rests a small bird symbolizing the innocence of the young girls and women forced into sexual slavery.
The following year, in July 2012, the Korean-American community organized to have a comfort woman statue installed in the Central Park of Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. Despite tremendous opposition from the Japanese-American community and the Japanese consulate, the Glendale City Council voted in favor of erecting the memorial in tribute to the comfort women. “Despite the pressure that we had not to install this monument,” said Glendale City Councilwoman Laura Friedman, “I know that the city is doing the right thing. We stand on the side of history, we stand with the truth and we stand with the Korean population.”
And just last month, in a suburb outside Washington, DC, a comfort woman memorial was erected behind government buildings adjacent to a 9/11 memorial in Fairfax, Virginia.
“The comfort women issue is one of the earlier examples of mass performed human trafficking organized by a military and government,” says Jung-shil Lee, an art history professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and vice president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women. “We wanted to honor their endurance and bravery—especially under a Confucianist society—because many women wanted to kill themselves from the shame.”
The memorial, a granite stone, includes language from US House Resolution 121, a nonbinding statement organized by Representative Mike Honda (D-CA) urging Japan to apologize for forcing women into sexual slavery. “For the women still alive, and for the countless who have passed, official recognition and acknowledgment is the only way to bring proper closure to this terrible chapter of World War II history,” Honda said in a statement. As comfort women die one by one, Lee adds, the story will be forgotten. “The purpose of the memorial is to remember” and to provide “a starting point for public awareness for future generations.”
In response to vocal protests from Japanese groups, Japanese government officials and Japanese residents in Fairfax, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairwoman Sharon Bulova countered that the memorial made a symbolic stand against human trafficking happening in Fairfax. And in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post, Siyoung Choi wrote from Seoul: “Korean Americans are the largest minority group in Fairfax County (where I lived from 2002 to 2005). They may have had a particular interest in erecting the memorial. However, it is for every peace-loving soul who cherishes the intrinsic values of humanity. Such is the case with the Holocaust memorials and museum that are scattered widely throughout the United States.”
In addition to Glendale and Fairfax, New Jersey also is home to a plaque honoring the comfort women survivors.
Bringing Women Together
In recent weeks, activism on behalf of comfort women has ramped up.
From May 31 to June 3, survivors and their families and supporters gathered in Tokyo from Korea, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Timor-Leste, Indonesia and the Netherlands for the 12th Asian Solidarity Conference on the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery. Its resolution concluded: “The Japanese Government now has the duty to respond immediately to the voices calling for justice for the aging survivors, as well as voices from the international community calling for Japan to take legal responsibility through an apology and compensation for the victims.”
This month in Geneva, 87-year-old former comfort woman Gil Won-Ok—affectionately known as “Grandma Gil”—delivered 1.3 million signatures urging the Secretariat of the UN Human Rights Council to act on behalf of the hundreds of surviving comfort women throughout the Asia-Pacific. And on June 13, Beijing announced that UNESCO’s World Memory program had accepted China’s documentation of comfort women and the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.
The comfort women issue has played a significant role in bringing women together across the Asia-Pacific to ensure justice for the survivors and to challenge the further militarization of their countries and region. “Through the action for justice for the ‘comfort women’ survivors, the women in victimized countries and women in Japan have worked together,” Mina Watanabe of the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM) in Tokyo wrote in an e-mail. “At the same time, if we can make the Japanese government accountable for the grave human rights violations of women in the past, it would become a big precedent to make any government accountable for past sexual crimes in conflict, even after half a century.”
In Within Every Woman, a forthcoming film by Canadian filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung, the lives of three comfort women from South Korea, the Philippines and China are woven together. In the trailer, Hsiung travels with Grandma Gil to Tokyo to deliver 680,000 petitions gathered worldwide to the Japanese Parliament. As Grandma Gil and another Korean comfort woman in a wheelchair approach the government building, Japanese men—old and young—curse and shout at the elderly women, “Go home Korean whore! Don’t you feel ashamed! Get out old bitch! You’re just prostitutes!”
Hsiung also had the rare chance to document the meeting of North and South Korean women this spring in Shenyang, China, to discuss how they could strengthen efforts to work together for comfort women justice. It was particularly emotional for Grandma Gil, who could hardly summon enough strength to deliver her testimony, because she was born and raised in North Korea but was unable to go home after the war due to the country’s division.
With geopolitical tensions on the rise throughout East Asia, many activists now hope that the US government will pressure its allies to make peace over their historical grievances. “Politically the United States is now playing a bigger role between Japan and South Korean relations,” says Hsiung. “It takes a US president to intervene for Japan to possibly respond to South Korean demands regarding the ‘comfort woman’ issue.”
On his trip to Asia in April, President Obama said in Seoul: “I think that any of us who look back on the history of what happened to the comfort women here in South Korea, for example, have to recognize that this was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights. Those women were violated in ways that, even in the midst of war, was shocking. And they deserve to be heard; they deserve to be respected; and there should be an accurate and clear account of what happened.”
In a recent letter to President Obama, US Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mark Begich (D-AK) urge him to help resolve the issue. They affirmed the president’s statement that the comfort women deserved “to be heard and respected” and that this issue was critical to improving trilateral relations with Japan and South Korea.
“The survivors’ longstanding efforts have kept the issue alive and put the issue in the international concern,” WAM’s Watanabe writes, but “the role of the U.S. is very important.” Watanabe credited US pressure with Shinzo Abe’s preservation—thus far, at least—of the Kono Statement, but said she hoped that Washington would do more. Since the Japanese government does not listen to the governments of South Korea or China, Watanabe says, “it was regrettable that the US did not push the government to make a formal apology when Obama visited Japan.” She said that seventeen foreign embassy staff participated in the 12th Asian Solidarity Conference, including two ambassadors from Africa, but that neither US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy nor any of the US embassy staff accepted invitations to attend.
Despite Abe’s shameful efforts to deny Japan’s criminal past, he will not be able to shut down a global movement that is uniting to secure justice for comfort women. Steadily and persistently, surviving comfort women are telling their story to millions of people around the world before they die. Their allies are documenting this tragic history through film, by erecting memorials in cities around the world and having their records preserved by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program, placing their testimonies alongside the Magna Carta and the diary of Anne Frank.
With or without an apology, comfort women are having their truth recorded around the world. “All of us are over 80 and 90 years old,” says Grandma Gil. “After we’re all dead and gone, the Japanese think it’s all going to end, but it won’t.”
Christine Ahn is an FPIF columnist, an Advisory Board member and cofounder of the Korea Policy Institute.