by Allison Jasso
During World War II, 30,000 to 400,000 women and young girls were conscripted as comfort women, or sex slaves for the Japanese Empire. In the 1990s, hundreds of former comfort women began to tell their stories. Disputes over how to address this history, if at all, are altering not only the lives of survivors, but also geopolitical relations. So let’s uncover the history of the comfort women system, how the international community has responded, and implications. These survivors suffered in shame and silence for decades. The least we can do is share their stories.
Most comfort women were from Korea, China, and the Philippines, places the Japanese Empire had occupied or colonized. Once “employed,” women were raped by Japanese soldiers up to 60 times a day and were rarely given days off. Women would be tortured or killed for any resistance. They were forced to live in rooms just big enough for a bed, the same rooms they were routinely raped in, and were forbidden from contacting the outside world.
By early 1945 many Japanese troops were anticipating invasions by Allied forces and eventual defeat. Most comfort women were abandoned and left to fend for themselves. Mass graves recently unearthed suggest some were killed en masse to shut down facilities. Following the end of World War II, the Japanese military attempted to destroy as much evidence of sexual slavery as possible and survivors remained silent.
During the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (1946–48), the comfort women system was never publicly addressed despite a report from the US office of war released a year earlier, known as Report №49, confirming the existence of comfort women. While the Allied forces were aware of comfort stations, no legal action was taken against Japan to avoid further angering the Japanese military. It wasn’t until 1991 that the first woman, Kim Haksun, came forward and exposed the truth.
After Kim Haksun bravely shared her story, hundreds of other former comfort women across South Korea and other Asian Pacific nations shared theirs as well. While the Japanese government vehemently denied their stories, the survivors continued to push for a formal apology. Their work to educate the public through protests and public interviews led to the South Korean Supreme Court demanding Japan compensate all victims of forced wartime labor last July. Japan refused, igniting a trade war between the two nations.
Japan’s refusal to apologize to the comfort women is partially rooted in culture. Japanese culture defines an apology as an admission of committing a disgraceful action, bringing dishonor upon the individual and their entire family. If the government were to apologize, Japanese citizens could see it as the ultimate disgrace upon their nation.
During the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, while charges of torture and enslavement were brought up by the Allies, wartimerape and sexual slavery were not even mentioned. Not surprising, as the International Criminal Court did not define wartimerape as a war crime until 1998. Wartimerape is incorrectly labled as a consequence of war, rather than a war tactic in and of itself. It is an intentional and systematic tactic to dismantle cultures and reinforce oppression of women and children. A tactic we’ve taken so long to demonize because of its effectiveness.
The history of the Comfort Women System, and how the international community responded, reveals implications for the traumas of war. These women remind us trauma and healing must never be defined by anyone but those who have survived. The Japanese government hopes this controversy follows survivors to their grave, so it’s our duty to ensure this history is never erased again.
The blog posts in Forward. Together. are intended to foster an inclusive community of empathy and curiosity at Doane University by providing a glimpse into various individual identities and worldviews. These are community members’ unique stories and should not be presumed to be the experience of all who share the same identity.