CONTENT WARNING: this article contains references to sex slavery and other issues that may upset some readers

On August 14th 1991 — 46 years after the end of World War II — the world learned of ‘comfort women’. In a moving testimony, Kim Hak-Sun was the first survivor to publicly tell the story of her enslavement: how, aged seventeen, she was abducted by Japanese soldiers, sent by truck to a military unit, and imprisoned for 4 months as a sex slave.

This August 14th, students and residents of Oxford celebrated the International Memorial Day for Japanese Military ‘Comfort Women’ with a screening of The Apology, a film that follows survivors in their fight for justice. We traced the stories of three “grandmothers”– Grandma Gil in South Korea, Grandma Cao in China, and Grandma Adela in the Philippines – as they grapple with failing health, past trauma, and their quest to obtain a formal apology from the Japanese government.

As early as 1932, after hostilities between Japan and China began, women in Japanese-occupied territories were kidnapped, coerced and deceived into joining “comfort stations” that provided on-site prostitutes for the Japanese army. By 1945, the sexual slavery system held more than 200,000 girls and women captive in at least 125 stations. It was highly institutionalised: the Japanese administration meticulously recorded its details, viewing sex as another amenity to buttress troops’ morale, and to prevent scandals like the Rape of Nanking from reoccurring.

These women came from Korea, the Philippines, China, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, Taiwan, and more. ‘Serving’ 10 to 60 soldiers per day, they were subjected to untold levels of sexual violence, harassment, torture and other atrocities. Even the end of the war in 1945 brought them no relief: many were killed by the Japanese troops, who feared the women would be an embarrassment were they to be found by the advancing American troops. Others were abandoned to fend for themselves, with no money or way to return to their families.

Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”. How do we explain the years of silence that these women endured? Grandma Adela hid the truth from her husband “because he would be ashamed of (me)”, spending time at a comfort women rehabilitation home under the guise of a volunteer. Grandma Cao’s adopted daughter never knew: “(My mother) didn’t want to tell me, so I didn’t ask.”

Their silence was a product of social shame, the pressures of reintegration, and the patriarchal communities they lived in. Tomasa Salinog, another Filipina survivor, declined all marriage proposals because she could not bear to have sexual contact with a man again; one of her suitors responded: “you must prefer sleeping with hundreds of Japanese men.” Nan Erpu, a survivor from the rural Shanxi province, suffered serious medical problems following her enslavement and endured repeated public humiliation during the Cultural Revolution. She committed suicide in 1967. A fear of being re-victimised – of not being believed, or of being shamed and blamed as a co-conspirator with the Japanese – led thousands of survivors to keep mum.  

Their silence was a result of our wilful political blindness. Sexual slavery was not recognised as a crime during the post-war reconciliation period: in 1946, the IMTFE (International Military Tribunal for the Far East) failed to prosecute commanders on the grounds of sexual violence and mass rape. Our legal procedures are ill-equipped to deal with such tragedies; because they suffer from PTSD, survivors are often unable to recall the details of their rape to be used as evidence. Moreover, the very act of testimony is a process of re-living and re-traumatisation.

National actors have also colluded to keep a lid on things; to support Japan’s post-war recovery, the USA pressured its Asian allies not to seek war-related compensation from Japan in exchange for American economic assistance, and loans from Japan’s Official Development Assistance program. In the 1990s, Japan’s revisionist history movement – supported by far-right LDP politicians occupying key cabinet positions – proliferated textbooks that eliminated mention of wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army. This sickening collusion of international politics and national agendas to perpetuate survivors’ suffering was the true disgrace. Our legal and political institutions have failed these women to an astonishing degree.

Kim Hak-Sun’s 1991 testimony sparked off a movement. Survivors – known in Korea as halmoni, or ‘grandmothers’ – have since insisted on their right to accuse, to tell, and to be heard. In what is now the longest running weekly protest rally in world history, the Wednesday Demonstrations occur every Wednesday at noon in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Halmoni and their supporters demand a full reckoning of the numerous Japanese state and military institutions that abused women and repressed or misrepresented their stories. They have been campaigning for 27 years.

Attempts at amends have been made, but they have been insufficient. The Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) was established by Japan in 1995, collecting donations from private individuals to compensate survivors. Yet the voluntary nature of such donations was an affront to the survivors’ real legal rights to redress. The AWF’s narrative added insult to injury: in their story of “comfort women”, it is the war, and not the Japanese military or individual soldiers, that caused their suffering. Public calls for donations began with: “The war caused enormous horror and ravaged the people of Japan and of many other nations…particularly brutal was the act of forcing women to serve the Japanese armed forces as ‘comfort women’ (The Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1995)”. By according agency to “the war” instead of the perpetrators who raped, tortured and maimed women, the AWF erases – and excuses – the precise individuals that survivors are demanding accountability from. 

In 2015, Japan and South Korea entered into a supposedly conclusive agreement. Including a 1bn yen fund for the 45 surviving victims and an apology from Shinzo Abe, it was hailed by the political elite as a “final and irreversible resolution”. Yet the way it was reached was highly problematic – negotiations took place in secret and excluded the voices of the victims. Moreover, the description of the fund as a measure to help the women, rather than a direct government compensation, seems like a familiar sleight of hand in evading responsibility.

We must not shelve this issue in the crusty corners of our libraries. Grandma Kim Bok-Dong, captured when she was 14 and abused for 8 years, passed away in January this year. As the number of survivors dwindle, the emotional fervour and political salience of their cause may fade too. How we redress these wounds will have implications on contemporary problems of sexual violence in armed conflict, slavery, the #MeToo movement, and other strands of feminist and postcolonial discourse. The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military and Sexual Slavery by Japan works extensively with transnational solidarity movements, and has included the military rapes in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Sub-Saharan countries in its submissions at the UN Commission on Human Rights. Women still experience these atrocities daily in our live conflict zones of Syria and the Islamic State.

Moreover, while South Korea is the locus of organisation for political engagement, we must not forget “comfort women” in other areas of the Asia-Pacific. This is an unfortunate fact about postcolonial activism: differences in race, nationality, language and class create a hierarchy in human rights issues, relegating the voices of the most vulnerable to the margins of discourse. It is precisely those who suffer most that we do not hear about: they have died from the pain long ago.

To sign a petition by the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, go here (navigate to the ‘English’ menu tab).

To watch The Apology, find it on Amazon here.

To learn more about the issue, access our compiled list of resources here.

The Screening of “The Apology” (2016) in Hertford College was organised by Woohee Kim and Ming Zee Tee, supported by The Uncomfortable Oxford Project, Race and Resistance, and TORCH – The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.