by Deborah Jeong
Trigger Warning: Rape
The term “comfort” has a very warm connotation. It evokes a sense of content and kindness, making it almost cruelly ironic that the Asian women used by the Japanese Imperial Empire as sex slaves were referred to as “comfort women.” It is unfortunate that the use of the euphemism was fully intended and realized by the Japanese during World War II when as many as 200,000 to 410,000 Asian girls were forced into military brothels. In recent times, a large degree of attention has been gathered internationally around Korean comfort women due to the ongoing legal struggle with Japan, as these girls were abducted across all parts of Asia when colonized by Japan. It was due to geographical proximity that women were taken primarily from Korea, China, and the Philippines. However, the pattern was repeated in Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya, Taiwan, the Dutch East Indies, and Portuguese Timor. While sexual slavery has been rampant across history–and increases to this day–the institution of comfort women remains the first and only case of a government-endorsed system of sexual slavery. While there is much progress that still needs to be made in our society against various blatantly cruel and misogynistic practices, as evident from the #MeToo Movement, the victims of the “comfort women” system are still awaiting an acknowledgment of their presence and hoping to get justice.
The Comfort Women system began as Japanese generals grew to fear the possibility of revolt from their troops, and attempted to soothe the disquiet by providing sexual slaves. Although what came to be known as the “comfort women corps” did initially begin with voluntary prostitutes from Japan, it soon became apparent that Japan would be unable to provide as many girls as were “needed,” so the Imperial power turned towards colonized Korea, as well as occupied parts of China. Many of the girls forced into slavery were kidnapped, but an even greater number were tricked or threatened into accepting “jobs” or were offered opportunities for higher education by false advertisers employed by the Imperial military. Once these women had the misfortune of falling into the dungeons of the military brothels, they were held in captivity until their death. One Korean survivor, Kim Hak-sun, recalled in a 1991 interview about how “she was raped 30-40 times a day, everyday of the year during her time as a ‘comfort woman.’” Everything from the testimonies of the survivors speaks of severe objectification, as evident in the “comfort women corps” being referred to as “units of war supplies.”
For years, the survivors were too ashamed to speak up. In Confucian cultures, it is considered the utmost dishonor for a girl to be “defiled” in such a way. Hence, the women were often blamed for being victims of sexual misconduct, and it was only after 1991 when the Republic of Korea (South Korea) overthrew its dictatorship and turned towards democracy that women began to speak out. Kim Hak-sun was the first woman to publicly come forward with her story and file a class-action suit against the Japanese government. The audacious step that she took of sharing her testimony inspired dozens of women across Asia to join her in coming forward with their own stories. This pressure from woman activists forced Japan to set up the Asian Women’s Fund, a government-established but privately funded organization, to provide compensation for victims of Japanese imperialism in 1993. A number of former Comfort Women were provided with a signed apology from the prime minister, but many Korean survivors rejected the apology and compensation as the funds had come from private donations, and thus, were not seen as official compensation from the Japanese government.
In the past few weeks, the controversy around the issue of “comfort women” has received greater international attention due to the death of a survivor. The deceased, Kim Bok-Dong, was among the “first comfort women to speak out about her experiences in 1993 when she traveled…to testify at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights.” Kim had been actively involved in the protest at the Japanese embassy in Seoul, where protesters had “demanded apologies and compensation from the Japanese government” every Wednesday for nearly thirty years. Her death, at age 92, seems to have once more propelled this issue to the forefront of public attention as the Republic of Korea and the Korean Forum of California (a Comfort Woman advocacy group) voiced their grief at the loss of such an influential activist. Even to her dying breath, she is reported to have urged the peace community (the activists), to continue pursuing Japan for apology and reparation.
As tragic as the Comfort Women issue is, it is seen today as a part of history and has become another casualty of the Second World War. From the perspective of the Japanese government, this issue should have been already buried in the past. However, there has been a growing movement among the international community to raise awareness about this tragedy and its lack of adequate resolution. In particular, the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition has been advocating and urging UNESCO to accept the documents detailing the “Comfort Women” Corps as a part of the Memory of the World Register. This coalition, in cooperation with the overarching rise of feminism in Asia hopes to educate the world on the atrocities that were committed during the Second World War. Furthermore, as more and more women refuse to be quieted by former patriarchal standards, and as the #MeToo Movement continues to take flight in Northeast Asia despite its traditional Confucian ideals, the Comfort Women movement may be revitalized as extra motivation in the struggle against gender inequality.