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Korean comfort women. Ms. Park Young-Shim (center) poses with her comfort woman friends in North Korean region during the Pacific War. A man with the rifle appears to be Japanese soldier.

Women Made to be Comfort Women 

The phrase “comfort women” is a controversial term that refers to approximately 200,000 women who were recruited as prostitutes by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Many of the young women were forced into servitude and exploited as sex slaves throughout Asia, becoming victims of the largest case of human trafficking in the 20th century.

During World War II, the Japanese established military brothels in the countries they occupied. The women in these “comfort stations” were forced into sexual slavery and moved around the region as Japanese aggression increased. Known as “comfort women,” their story is an often-understated tragedy of the war that continues to strike debate.

There were advertisements found in wartime newspapers; a failed attempt at attracting volunteers into prostitution. Instead, young women as young as 11-years-old were kidnapped and forced into service where they faced rape, torture and extreme violence at military camps known as “comfort stations.”

Most were teenagers… and were raped by between 10 to 100 soldiers a day at military rape camps.

The Japanese government denied that they ran any such system until 1991 when a brave woman named Kim Hak-Soon came out and revealed the Japanese atrocities to the world. Japanese Governor General’s Office in Seoul incinerated all related documents before the closing of WWII.

A 1994 report shows that there are still hundreds of former sex slaves alive. Most of them are women of Asian countries occupied by Japan before and during the Pacific War. Among them are 160 South Koreans, 131 North Koreans, 100 Filipinos, 50 Taiwanese, 8 Indonesians, and two Malays. These numbers are only for those who revealed their real name.

There are much more victims living out there who do not want to identify their tragic past. Even after Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, many of the Korean victims chose to live in the Asian country where they were forced to serve sex to Japanese soldiers.

Chinese and Malayan girls forcibly taken from Penang by the Japanese to work as ‘comfort girls’ for the troops.

Late Kim Hak-Soon: The former comfort woman was born in Pyeongyang in 1924 and moved to Manchuria, where she was, at the age of 16, forced to become the sex slave for the Japanese soldiers. “My life was over when I was 16 years old”, she cried in an interview. “I tried to run away several times from the military brothel” In 1991 she took the courage to tell the world that she used to be the comfort woman. She and others staged protests regularly in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, demanding an official apology from the Japanese government. She died a lonely death in Dec. 15, 1997, donating her entire fortune of 17 million won to the needy.

In every large-scale armed conflict, women are victims of sexual violence. In most cases this is kept quiet – by victims, perpetrators and government leaders. The taboo is persistent.  ‘Comfort women’, women forced to perform sexual acts for the Japanese armed forces during World War II. Young girls then, they are old women now. Shame, stigma and feelings of guilt have made them maintain silence about their wartime experiences for decades.

Regulated sex in military brothels was advocated as an effective means “to boost the spirit of the troops, keep law and order and prevent rape and venereal disease,” a 1938 directive of the Japanese Department of War shows. In the occupied territories, the Japanese armed forces instigated the establishment of thousands of military brothels, in which an estimated 50,000 – 200,000 comfort women were forced to serve the three million Japanese troops.

Even after more than six decades, many women still try to keep their wartime history a secret for their family and immediate surroundings. That doesn’t always work. In certain places, everyone knows who the “Japanese hand-me-downs” are. Even in their eighties, some women still face abusive sneers. As much as they would like to erase the traces of their wartime history, they drag it along all their lives: The humiliation and pain, their childless existence, the failed marriages.

From 1932 until the end of the war in 1945, comfort women were held in brothels called “comfort stations” that were established to enhance the morale of Japanese soldiers and ostensibly to reduce random sexual assaults. Although some of the women may have participated voluntarily, the great many of them were often lured by false promises of employment or were abducted and sent against their will to comfort stations, which existed in all Japanese-occupied areas, including China and Burma (Myanmar). Comfort stations were also maintained within Japan and Korea. The women typically lived in harsh conditions, where they were subjected to continual rapes and were beaten or murdered if they resisted.

The Japanese government had an interest in keeping soldiers healthy and wanted sexual services under controlled conditions, and the women were regularly tested for sexually transmitted diseases and infections. According to several reports—notably, a study sponsored by the United Nations that was published in 1996—many of the comfort women were executed at the end of World War II. The women who survived often suffered physical maladies (including sterility), psychological illnesses, and rejection from their families and communities. Many survivors in foreign countries were simply abandoned by the Japanese at the end of the war and lacked the income and means of communication to return to their homes.

Execution. Some girls were raped before they were even old enough to menstruate. Those who resisted were executed immediately.

Comfort women, also called military comfort women, Comfort women were women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories before and during World War II.

The name “comfort women” is a translation of the Japanese ianfu a euphemism for “prostitute(s)”.Estimates vary as to how many women were involved, with numbers ranging from as low as 20,000 (by Japanese historian Ikuhiko Hata to as high as 360,000 to 410,000 (by a Chinese scholar); the exact numbers are still being researched and debated. Most of the women were from occupied countries, including Korea, China, and the Philippines. Women were used for military “comfort stations” from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan (then a Japanese dependency), Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies), East Timor (then Portuguese Timor), and other Japanese-occupied territories. Stations were located in Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, then Malaya, Thailand, Burma, New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, and French Indochina. A smaller number of women of European origin were also involved from the Netherlands and Australia.

According to testimonies, young women were abducted from their homes in countries under Imperial Japanese rule. In many cases, women were also lured with promises of work in factories or restaurants; once recruited, they were incarcerated in comfort stations both inside their nations and abroad.

In 2014, Lee Ok-Seonspoke about how she was forced to spend three years in a Japanese military brothel in China. Lee kept her dark secret to herself for nearly 60 years.

Lee Ok-Seon spent three years in a Japanese military brothel in China against her will during WW II. Nearly 70 years after the surrender of Japan, she visited Germany to make her story known.

Bravely, she talks about that tragic day when she was abducted off the street in the southeastern city of Busan by a group of men. It was late afternoon – sometime between 5 and 6 pm, and Lee Ok-Seon was 14 years old when she was thrown into a car and trafficked to a brothel, a so-called “comfort station,” in China for the Japanese military where she was raped every day until the end of the war. At that moment, she had no idea that she would never see her family again nor step foot in her home country for nearly six decades. She had no idea what torture awaited her.

In 2014, the then 86-year-old woman does not give specific details as to what she experienced there. She summarises it in one sentence: “It was not a place for human beings. It was a slaughter house.” After she says that, her voice sounds harder. Those three years shaped the rest of her life. “When the war was over, others were set free, but not me.”

“We were often beaten, threatened, and attacked with knives,” Lee Ok-Seon remembers. “We were 11, 12, 13 or 14 years old and we didn’t believe anyone would save us from that hell.” During her time there, she explains, she was completely isolated from the outside world and trusted no one. It was a state of constant despair. “Many girls committed suicide. They drowned or hung themselves.” At one point she also thought this was her only alternative. But she couldn’t do it. “It is easy to say, ‘I’d rather be dead.’ It is so much more difficult to actually do it. That is a big step.”

Lee Ok-Seon decided to live and ended up surviving the war. After the Japanese capitulation in late summer of 1945, the owner of the brothel disappeared. The women were suddenly free again, but also confused and disoriented. “I didn’t know where I should go. I had no money. I was homeless and had to sleep on the streets.”

She didn’t know how to get back to Korea or if she really wanted to go back – the shame she felt was overwhelming. “I decided I would rather spend the rest of my days in China. How could I have gone home? It was written on my face that I was a comfort woman. I could have never looked my mother in the eyes again.”

Lee Ok-Seon met a man of Korean descent, married him and took care of his children. “I felt it was my duty to take care of these children, whose mother had died. I wasn’t able to have any children of my own.” As a result of sexually transmitted diseases, such as Syphilis, contracted in the brothel, she became so sick that she nearly died. To increase her chances of survival, doctors removed her uterus. She lived in the city of Yanji, kept to herself and tried to get back on her feet – all on her own. She spent decades like this. Her husband treated her well, she laughs, “otherwise I wouldn’t have put up with him for so long.”

Lee Ok-Seon now lives in South Korea. In 2000, after the death of her husband, she felt the urge to go back to her country of origin and make her story public. She has since lived near Seoul in the so-called “House of Sharing,” which provides assisted living for former sex slaves. It was there that she received psychological care for the first time. And she finally received a new passport.

Researching her past, she learned that her parents had died but that her youngest brother was still alive. He helped her in the beginning but after a while, the relationship deteriorated. It was exactly what Lee Ok-Seon had feared: too embarrassed to be the brother of a former “comfort woman,” he wanted nothing to do with her.

Many comfort women lived a similar life after the brothels, keeping to themselves and keeping quiet about the horrors they experienced – mostly out of fear of being labeled an outcast. Apparently talking about forced prostitution is an absolute taboo. There was no support in society for these women. It took decades after the end of the war to get people talking about comfort women in Asia.

It wasn’t until the year 1991 that the first former “comfort woman” went public with her story. She encouraged and inspired 250 other women to finally talk about their experiences as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the war and demand recognition and an apology from the Japanese government.

It was not only women from the Korean Peninsula, which was under Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, who were forced into prostitution; there were also women from China, Malaysia and the Philippines, to name a few. The brothels, which were set up throughout the entire area under Japanese occupation, were meant to keep up morale among Japanese soldiers and avoid the rape of local women. For the mostly underage women forced to work there, on the other hand, it was a daily sacrifice. Many of them did not survive the torment; an estimated two-thirds of them died before the end of the war.

Lola Rosa at home, March 1996. Maria Rosa Luna Henson. (“Grandma Rosa”) (1927–1997) was the first Filipina who made public her story as a comfort woman (military sex slave) for the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War.

Maria Rosa L. Henson was born in Pasay City on 5 December 1927. She was the extramarital daughter of a big landowner and his housemaid. When she was 14 years old, the Pacific War broke out and the Philippines were occupied by the Japanese. In February 1942 she was first raped by Japanese soldiers. While she went to fetch firewood with her uncles and neighbours for her family, she was caught and raped by three Japanese, one of whom seemed to be an officer… After two weeks she was again raped by the same Japanese officer while fetching firewood.

Maria Rosa Luna Henson died of a heart attack at the Pasay City hospital on the rain-swept night of August 18, 1997. She was 69. Mrs Henson burst into the national consciousness in 1992, when she broke half-a-century’s silence to talk about her ordeal as a “comfort woman” in a World War II rape camp. Her example inspired other women to come out with their own stories, belying earlier claims that the Japanese forces did not set up “comfort stations” in the Philippines as they did in Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia.

In her account of her daily routine, she said soldiers had lined up outside a small building to wait for their turns with one of a half dozen imprisoned women or teenage girls.

”My work began, and I lay down as one by one the soldiers raped me,” Mrs Henson wrote. ”Every day, anywhere from 12 to over 20 soldiers assaulted me. There were times when there were as many as 30. They came to the garrison in truckloads.

”I lay on the bed with my knees up and my feet on the mat as if I were giving birth. Whenever the soldiers did not feel satisfied they vented their anger on me. When the soldiers raped me, I felt like a pig. I was angry all the time.”

“I was forced to stay at the hospital which they have made as a garrison. I met six women in the garrison after two or three days in the place. The Japanese soldiers were forcing me to have sex with several of their colleagues. Sometimes 12 soldiers would force me to have sex with them and then they would allow me to rest for a while, then about 12 soldiers would have sex with me again.
There was no rest, they had sex with me every minute. That’s why we were very tired. They would allow you to rest only when all of them have already finished. Maybe, because we were seven women in the garrison, there were a fewer number of soldiers for each one of us.
But then, due to my tender age, it was a painful experience for me. I stayed for three months in that place after which I was brought to a rice mill also here in Angeles. It was nighttime when we were fetched to be transferred. When I arrived in the rice mill, the same experience happened to us. Sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the evening… not only 20 times. At times, we would be brought to some quarters or houses of the Japanese. I remembered the Pamintuan Historical House. We were brought there several times. You cannot say no as they will definitely kill you. During the mornings, you have a guard. You are free to roam around the garrison, but you cannot get out. I could not even talk to my fellow women two of whom I believed were Chinese. The others I thought were also from Pampanga. But then, we were not allowed to talk to each other.”

Maria Rosa Luna Henson was born on December 5, 1927. She grew up in poverty in Pampanga with her single mother, Julia. Born the illegitimate child of Don Pepe, a wealthy landowner, Henson saw her father sporadically throughout her childhood. After World War II started, Henson became a member of the Hukbalahap, a Filipino people’s army resisting Japanese invaders. In April 1943 while with her comrades, Henson was taken by Japanese soldiers and led the local Japanese headquarters where she was forced to be a “comfort woman.” In August 1943, Henson and the other girls were transferred to a larger building where the routine continued. In January 1944, Hukbalahap guerrillas attacked the building and freed Henson. After nine months of being a comfort woman, Henson greatly suffered psychologically and physically. She eventually married a young soldier named Domingo and had three children: Rosario (August 1947), Rosalinda (September 1949), and Jesus (December 1951). Domingo was killed in November 1953. Starting in 1957, Henson worked in a cigarette factory for thirty-four years.

She did not go mad only through faith and the sheer effort of will, she said. She also vowed to remember. To her dying day, Lola Rosa had a prodigious memory for dates and events. She once said that for her, remembering was the best revenge.

In 1992, when Henson was 65, she decided it was time to tell the world about her experience during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during the war. Until 1992, only two people had known of her secret: her late mother and her dead husband. After coming out publicly with her story at a press conference in September 1992, Lola Rosa decided to write about her war-time experience in the book, Comfort Woman: A Slave of Destiny.

In Comfort Woman: A Slave of Destiny, Lola Rosa provided a straightforward voice to the erstwhile silent and invisible existence of Filipino comfort women. Fifty Filipino women soon followed Rosa’s example as they decided to reveal themselves and their personal stories for the first time—not only to the world but to their families as well. Other victims, including those from Korea and China, joined the Filipino women to file a class action lawsuit against the Japanese government in December 1993. Together, they demanded justice in the form of a formal apology from the Japanese government; the inclusion of all the war-time atrocities committed by the Japanese into Japan’s school history books; and monetary reparations to compensate for all the abuses and violence committed against the women.

However, the Japanese government denied legal responsibility and refused to pay the victims. Later, responding to the growing pressure of continued protests and appeals by the survivors and their supporters, Japan finally set up the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) in 1995 to collect money from private Japanese citizens, and offered them to the victims as “atonement payments.” Henson died of a heart attack in August 1997, a year after she decided to accept 320 million yen ($26,667) monetary reparations from the AWF.

Lola Rosa was buried in the saya with autumn-leaf design that she had made herself and wore to her book-launching last year at the historic Fort Santiago. “Autumn leaves, like me,” she said then, with the quiet, self-deprecating humour of a woman who had survived so much so bravely, so triumphantly.

Kimiko Kaneda (South Korea)

Kimiko Kaneda was born in Tokyo on 22 October 1921. Her father was a Korean and her mother was a Japanese. Just after her birth, she was taken over to the relatives of her father in Korea. Her father became a priest but he was arrested because of his disrespect toward Japanese shrines. When she was 16 years old, she went to Seoul for better employment on the recommendation of her friend who worked as a housemaid for a Japanese family. Led by a Japanese, she was put on a train to go from Seoul to Tianjin, China, then from Tianjin via Peitan to Zaoqiang. There she was forced to be a comfort woman for the Japanese military. She was named Kimiko Kaneda. Later she moved to Shijiazhuang. Her life during childhood was difficult and solitary. Out of a wish to forget her real pains, she became an opium addict and in 1945 was allowed to return to Korea. After the war, she had to go through an operation in which she lost her womb. In January 1997 Harmoni Kimiko Kaneda became one of the first recipients of the atonement project of the AWF in South Korea. She passed away on 27 January 2005.

Testimony of  Kimiko Kaneda

When I was 14 years old, my father was arrested by police because he did not visit Japanese shrines. I was busy caring for my younger brothers and keeping the house, and had no idea of going to school.

My father could speak Japanese well and told a lie that from now on he was going to visit Japanese shrines with his followers. Liberated, he went home. He cured the burn on his leg which the police inflicted. Then the police came to arrest him again. It was 4 o’clock in the morning. Father was praying in the church. I sprang up and ran to the church.

“Daddy, run away. The police are here again.” At that time around the church was surrounded by rice fields and vegetable fields. Close by was a Japanese village. He stopped praying and fled through the Japanese village. He went through Taegu and arrived at Sengju to see his aunt, who hid him from police.

At 4 o’clock in the morning, we took a ride on a train. It stopped for two hours at Shanhaiguan at which point myself and Yoshiko attempted to escape. But the exits were blocked by military police. We were much too scared to escape from the train. We spent one night in the train and on the second day arrived at Tianjin at 11 o’clock. When we got off the train at Tianjin, fully armed soldiers were waiting for us with a truck, a coach and a jeep. We were put on the coach and taken to Peitan.

In Peitan we got off the coach and entered a house, in which a number of women and girls were crowded. Near the house, there was a garrison of a Japanese regiment, which was always patrolling for enemies. On that day we were divided into groups of ten and I was sent with other girls to Zaoqiang. There, in a city surrounded by walls, was a unit of the Japanese army stationed. We were taken to the dining room of the unit and made to sit on the floor.

How did I feel? I felt as if we were taken here to be killed. I could not but weep. No one talked. All were weeping. That night we slept there and in the morning we were put in those rooms. Soldiers came to my room, but I resisted with all my might. The first soldier wasn’t drunk and when he tried to rip my clothes off, I shouted “No!” and he left. The second soldier was drunk. He waved a knife at me and threatened to kill me if I didn’t do what he said. But I didn’t care if I died, and in the end, he stabbed me. Here ( She pointed her chest).

He was taken away by the military police and I was taken to the infirmary. My clothes were soaked with blood. I was treated in the infirmary for twenty days. I was sent back to my room. A soldier who had just returned from the fighting came in. Thanks to the treatment my wound was much improved, but I had a plaster on my chest.

Despite that the soldier attacked me, and when I wouldn’t do what he said, he seized my wrists and threw me out of the room. My wrists were broken, and they are still very weak. Here was broken…. There’s no bone here. I was kicked by a soldier here. It took the skin right off… you could see the bone.

When the soldiers came back from the battlefields, as many as 20 men would come to my room from early morning. That’s why I had to have a hysterectomy (in my twenties). They rounded up little girls still in school. Their genitals were still underdeveloped, so they became torn and infected. There was no medicine except something to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and Mercurochrome. They got sick, their sores became septic, but there was no treatment.

The soldiers made Chinese labourers lay straw in the trenches and the girls were put in there. There was no bedding… underneath was earth. There was no electricity at that time, only oil lamps, but they weren’t even given a lamp. They cried in the dark “Mummy, it hurts! Mummy, I’m hungry!” We wanted to go and give them our leftover food, but there were a lot of sick and disturbed people in the trenches. Some of them had TB. I was scared they might pull me into the trenches, and I didn’t want to go there. I could have gone if I had a lamp.

When someone died the girls got scared and began to cry. Then everyone in the trenches was poisoned and they closed up the trench. They dug another trench next to it.

Hundreds of soldiers were killed or injured every day. They put out boards on the parade ground and erected tents over them. The dead were put in there. They laid out the injured there. The soldiers cried out in pain. We didnft give water to those who still had the will to live. We wiped their lips with a cloth soaked in alcohol and gave them an injection to make them sleep. We gave two injections to the seriously wounded. After the morphine shot, they would stop crying and sleep. When the morphine began to wear off they would grab at my clothes. They usually called me Kaneda Kimiko, but at those times they would call me Onesan (sister). “Onesan, please give me another shot!” I felt sorry for them, so I would inject them again, and they would sleep.

When they were dying, not one soldier said “Tenno Heika Banzai”. They would look at pictures of their mothers or their wives, and say, weeping, “Mother, I may die. If I die, let us meet again at Yasukuni Shrine”. I also wept at these scenes.

I thought Yasukuni Shrine must be a wonderful place. The soldiers said that they would go to ‘the place beneath the blossoms’ at Yasukuni. I went there, but there was nothing, only white pigeons. I sat down there, thinking without uttering voices. Soldiers said that they would go to ‘the place beneath the blossoms’ at Yasukuni, but now their spirits of enmity turned into the pigeons around me. My heart was broken. I bought bait for the pigeons at an automat. The pigeons came to my hands and picked at the bait.

A statue of a seated young Korean girl representing the ‘comfort women’ stands in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan, South Korea, in March. | KYODO.

In the busy South Korean port city of Busan, the young girl sits on a wooden chair, her fists balled in her lap.
She looks impassively forward, her expression unsmiling and determined. Her feet are bare, and on her shoulder sits a small bird.

The extent of Japanese wartime atrocities committed in Asia continues to be a contentious and politically charged issue. During the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, some of his nationalist supporters have attempted to downplay past Japanese war crimes in history textbooks and even suggested the “comfort women” volunteered to work as prostitutes and were not coerced.

For over 20 years, surviving “comfort women” and activist supporters in South Korea have conducted weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to demand an official public apology that specifically articulates the Japanese government’s responsibility for perpetrating these wartime atrocities, and they want official state compensation made to the victims.

A 2015 “comfort women” deal between former South Korean President Park Geun-hye Seoul and Prime Minister Abe had agreed to resolve all grievances, but both the “comfort women” and current President Moon Jae-in have rejected the carefully worded statement of apology by Abe and the $8 million Tokyo donation to a victims fund as too vague and insincere.

Memorials to those forced into sex slavery during the Second World War are not about disgracing Japan, but symbols acknowledging sufferings that must never be forgotten.

Students hold portraits of deceased former South Korean “comfort women” during a rally in front of Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea, December 30, 2015.

Historical Marker, Plaza Lawton, Liwasang Bonifacio, Manila.

To date, no one in Japan has been tried or held accountable for the militarised sexual enslavement of the “comfort women.”

In 2000, the NGO-led Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery held in Tokyo found that the crimes committed against the “comfort women” were “one of the greatest unacknowledged and unremedied injustices of the Second World War.” The judgment went on to say: “There are no museums, no graves for the unknown ‘comfort women,’ no education of future generations, and there have been no judgment days.”

Unfortunately, not much has changed since 2000. If anything, the agreement backtracks by supporting the Japanese government’s demand for the removal of the “comfort women’s” Peace Monument outside of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. For years the Japanese government has been trying to get the statue of the young Korean girl removed and to block the construction of other monuments in Korea and abroad.

“I don’t understand why they keep demanding the removal of the Peace Monument,” says former “comfort woman” Kim Bokdong. “We installed it in our own land. The Peace Monument is for our next generations to learn that we had such painful history in the past so that it would never recur.”

Japan may revise ′comfort women′ apology | Asia | DW | 25.02.2014

Former comfort woman tells uncomforting story Lee Ok-Seon spent ..

Former comfort woman tells uncomforting story | Asia | DW | 02.09.2013

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