Jan Ruff O’Herne, a 90-year-old Dutch woman who spent her childhood in Indonesia, is a survivor of one of the quieter atrocities of World War II.
“The first night we didn’t know what we were there for. We thought that perhaps we would work there. We were so scared ... The next night we realized we were in a brothel for the sexual pleasure of the Japanese officers ... We were dragged back and it started again. To think that this is going to happen every night. I can never describe the fear every day when it starts to get dark. Fear, all over your body. There is nothing you can do about it,” says O’Herne on film.
Her interview is part of an art exhibition titled Comfort Women Wanted, which is currently on display at Bopiliao Old Street (剝皮寮歷史街區) and outdoor venues across Taipei.
Created by Korean-born, New York-based Lee Chang-jin, Comfort Women Wanted is a five-year art project that aims to bring to light the lesser-known story of an estimated 200,000 comfort women — a euphemism for prostitutes enslaved to service members of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.
In 2007, O’Herne and other victims went to the US House of Representatives, requesting that the US demand the Japanese government’s acknowledgment of the sexual enslavement of comfort women. Lee had observed the proceedings with surprise.
“One of the women said they used to get raped by 50 soldiers a day. It was very shocking for me to hear, and I thought I should find out what really happened,” Lee says.
O’Herne’s story and that of many others are exposed in Comfort Women Wanted.
The large-scale exhibition includes two video installations that bear the images and voices of a former Japanese soldier and six surviving comfort women. One victim is Chen Lien-hua (陳蓮花) from Taiwan, who at age of 19 was lured into prostitution by the false promise of a job abroad that could help support her poor family.
According to the information compiled by the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation (婦女救援基金會), which has worked with survivors in Taiwan since 1992, women were sometimes directly recruited to be comfort women, but were more often the victims of deception or coercion.
“They were usually tricked and lied to, believing that they were to work as nursing assistants overseas. Some were recruited by the district offices. You couldn’t say no to the recruitment. It was mandatory,” says Kang Shu-hua (康淑華), executive director of the foundation, which organized the Comfort Women Wanted exhibition.
In Taiwan, over 2,000 women are believed to have become involuntary participants in the comfort woman system during the war.
Most of those enslaved came from Korea, as well as other Japanese-occupied territories including China, Indonesia and the Philippines. Though there are no definitive records, the common belief is that more than 200,000 women in total were forced into sexual slavery and that as many as 70 percent of them didn’t survive the ordeal.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the survivors began to come forth. Gradually, a global human rights action took shape, with victims calling for legal reparations and a formal apology from the Japanese government, which has yet to unequivocally acknowledge that forced prostitution occurred.
Largely forgotten, this dark chapter of World War II resurfaced on the front page of the New York Times in 2007 when the House of Representatives was handling Resolution 121 — a call on Japan to apologize to comfort women.