Fifty-five years after the end of World War II, survivors of Japan's military sexual slavery system -- the so-called "comfort women" system -- have eventually begun to speak out about their trauma and demand justice.
The war ended, yet the suffering of the victims of Japan's military sexual violence has never come to an end. For decades of silence, they have struggled to cope with the physical and emotional consequences of their enslavement: disease, debilitating injuries, sterility, and psychological trauma.
Having been a comfort woman, or a sexual slave is such a stigma that few of the survivors at the end of their enslavement lived a normal life after returning from services at comfort stations.
They had difficulty getting married or in frequent cases divorces were inevitable once their husbands got to know about their past. The inhuman treatment at the comfort stations also led to many of them becoming sterile.
The women, also have constant feelings of shame, regarding themselves as "dirty" and "stained" for having been a sexual slave.
Most of them chose to keep their traumatic experiences to themselves, fearing they would face rejection and isolation in their own societies.
But for the courage of the former Korean comfort woman Kim Hak-sun in speaking up first in 1991, hundreds of other survivors would not have come forward to expose the history untold for several decades.
By stepping forward to press their own claims for redress, the survivors have redefined their own role in public perceptions of the war (from prostitutes to survivors of sexual slavery).
More importantly, by redefining their own role, the survivors have been able to stop blaming themselves for the horrendous past, and have become able to realize it is the perpetrators who should feel ashamed.
A story of all
"I lost my life. I was regarded as a dirty woman. I had no means of supporting myself and I suffered terribly. The next generation of Japanese people must know that their parents did such bad things," said Teng Kao Pao-chu, a Taiwanese survivor of Japan's military sexual slavery.
As a 17-year-old, Teng Kao Pao-chu was conscripted to be a comfort woman in 1938.
She knew that, unlike most of the conscripted girls with her, she would become a comfort woman before she was sent to the comfort station in Guangdong, China.
However, she could not resist the order from the local authorities under control of Japan as those who did suffered horrible consequences, she knew too well.
First she was sent provide sex "services" to Japanese soldiers in Guangdong, then she was transported to Hong Kong, Singapore, and finally settled in Burma with the Japanese army.
Confined in a small "comfort center" in the mountains of Burma, every day she worked from 9:00am. to 5:00pm. During that time she had to have sexual intercourse with at least five or six Japanese soldiers.
She saw her fellow women get pregnant but still being forced to work until six or seven month into their time. Only during menstruation could the women be spared from the work.
To prevent spread of sexually transmitted diseases, condoms were distributed to them for their clients' use. Once a week, the army doctor would carry out health checks on the comfort women to ensure they were not infected with venereal disease.
In the remote mountains of Burma, she had no way to escape but could only hope that by any chance she would be set free.
Nine years after, she finally went back to Taiwan and stayed with her sister. But she could never live a normal life after her experiences.
She could not have children because her sexual organs were damaged through the years of being a comfort woman. Once she tried to kill herself by taking 16 sleeping pills, but was eventually saved.
At the age of 41, she married a widower, hoping to live a secure life thereafter.
She was not happy with her husband, but she felt a woman with a history like hers did not have the right to choose.
Now 79 years old, she no longer wants to be silent and has filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in Japan's courts along with other two Taiwanese former comfort women.
Among the comfort women, there were those willing women and girls who were already prostitutes before their recruitment by the Japanese military -- but they were mainly young girls from impoverished families, who were lured with offers of well-paid work such as maids, entertainers, cleaners, or cooks, as well as those who were rounded up by force.
Teng Kao Pao-chu's story is not unique. It is rather a story similar to those of other survivors. Involuntary recruitment, inhuman treatment, and long-lasting feelings of stigma characterize their stories and underline the sexist nature of the enslavement.
In 1932, the first military comfort station was established in Shanghai, China, after Japanese invasion. The institutionalization of the comfort system was the Japanese government's response to the outrage generated by the massacres, rapes, and pillage of Nanking, known as the "rape of Nanking."
Procuring and securing women for these stations was an integral part of Japanese military's strategy during the Asia-Pacific war, admittedly intended to deter open rape in occupied territory, limit anti-Japanese resistance among the local population, avoid international disgrace and protect the Japanese soldiers from venereal disease. Young girls between the age of 14 and 18 from Japan's colonial or occupied territories were recruited by means of coercion, deception, or abduction.
In contrast to the recruitment of a small number of Japanese licensed prostitutes, the recruitment of other Asian women underlines Japanese discrimination against the colonies and occupied land.
Above all, feminist supporters of the survivors condemn the attitude that views women as sex objects and the thinking that comfort stations are a necessary evil.
They maintain gender bias is deeply rooted in establishment of the military sexual slavery system.
The system was built up based on a simplistic rationale that institutionalized sexual violence against the comfort women could curb unauthorized sexual violence against civilians.
In fact, some Japanese military leaders even condoned rape, believing it improved troops' morale. While ignoring the nature of rape, the military believed it was inevitable for the soldiers to rape if their male sexual energy were not periodically released in sexual intercourse with women.
"In battlefields, there are always rape. When we entered the enemy zones, the commander would tell us you could do whatever you want. That means, you could rape," said Yoshio Suzuki, a Japanese veteran who served the army during Japanese invasion in China.
Yoshio admitted he did rape during the time and said that, for the soldiers, the comfort women system was an inevitable substitute for open rape.
In other words, the nature of sexual violence does not change but was only practised in a different way.
"During the battle, which lasted about 50 days, I did not see any women at all. I knew as a result of (being without access to women), men's mental conditions end up declining, and that's when I realized once again the necessity of special comfort stations," described an former officer in the 11th Army Signal Corps of Japan.
"This desire is the same as hunger or the need to urinate, and soldiers merely thought of comfort stations as practically the same as latrines," he said.
Consent no defense
Over the last decade, the movement for survivors of the comfort women system has accumulated significant support from the international community and from Japan itself.
Nevertheless, an anti-apology movement also gains strength in Japan, which refutes human rights initiatives for the former comfort women.
As they argue, the comfort women system is like licensed prostitution and the women voluntarily worked to earn money from Japanese military.
The argument that consent lends legitimacy to the system has in essence confused the core issue of sexual enslavement.
Patricia Viseur-Sellers, legal advisor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, argued consent is no defense for crimes committed by the Japanese military when she filed a symbolic indictment on behalf of the survivors at the people's tribunal on Japanese sexual violence in Tokyo December.
"No one can agree to be a slave, as we all know slavery is not allowed," she said. "It is beyond reasonable doubt that these women were enslaved. And as a result even with the consent of the victims, the Japanese military and government cannot be exempted (from liabilities)," she said.
Yoshiaki Yoshimi, professor of modern Japanese history at Chuo University in Tokyo, who has been a leading figure to document Japanese war crimes, also rejected the consent theory and insisted all women enslaved in comfort stations, including Japanese women who had previously worked as prostitutes, were victims of human rights violations.
"No matter how they were brought to the comfort stations, once there, they lived in a miserable state characterized by continual rape, confinement, and physical abuse," Yoshimi said.
"No human beings should be subject to such inhuman conditions. And the means by which they were first recruited has no bearing at all on that fact and does not absolve the Japanese military and government from responsibility," he said.
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