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Seventy Years Later, Japan Is Still Denying Systematic Sexual Slavery in WWII

During WWII, approximately 200,000 Chinese women and girls were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. Seventy years later, Japan still refuses to acknowledge their involvement. A newly released book featuring direct stories...

Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan's Sex Slaves tells the stories of the thousands of Chinese women and girls forced into sexual slavery during World War II. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The term "comfort women" masks the lived reality of the approximately 200,000 Chinese women and girls kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. (It is estimated that 400,000 women and girls from occupied countries such as Korea, China, and the Philippines were enslaved in total.) The term evokes a much more pleasant image than the survivors' stories do—harrowing tales of daily rape and torture, often ending in death or permanent injury. Many of these "women" were not women at all, but girls, pushed into the "comfort stations" as soon as they began menstruating.


The notion that men not only need access to women's bodies for sexual release but are entitled to them, particularly during wartime, was foundational to the existence of and justification for the comfort stations. According to researcher C. Sarah Soh, author of The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, the comfort women system was viewed as a way "to control the troops through regulated access to sex."

For 70 years, the Chinese "comfort women" have been erased from Japan's postwar narrative. It is only recently that the human-rights violations committed against these women and girls have broken through into public conversation.

Dr. Peipei Qiu, author of Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan's Sex Slaves, began to cry as I spoke with her over the phone. The stories are almost unbearable.

Qiu tells me that one of the survivors interviewed witnessed a woman and younger girl—just a teenager—buried alive. She watched as a soldier showered the teenager's body with dirt, stopping mid-task to laugh at her as she died.

Another survivor, Lei Guiying, was only nine when her hometown was occupied by Japanese soldiers. She witnessed the soldiers take the older girls—14 or 15 years old—away, sexually torture them, and leave them to die. Impoverished and begging on the streets, Guiying began working as a nanny and a maid in a comfort station in Tangshan. When she turned 13 and started menstruating, she was told: "Congratulations, you're a grown-up now," and sent off to a room where she was violently raped by a solider. She eventually managed to escape.


The book is the first in the English language that tells the stories of the Chinese women who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II. It includes the voices of 12 Chinese survivors who tell stories of being raped numerous times a day until they could no longer sit or walk. The women suffer from deep psychological trauma today, as well as headaches, memory loss, and other associated physical and medical problems. A number of the women have passed away since the book was published, still not having received compensation, acknowledgment, or justice.

Qiu points out that these accounts "expose the multiple social, political, and cultural forces that played a part in their lifelong suffering." This is to say that the abuses suffered by the comfort women is connected, not just to war, but to a life of extreme poverty, colonialism and racial discrimination, and a patriarchal culture that Soh says commodifies "women's sex labor."

That the Japanese government continues to deny involvement and erase these women's past from history only contributes to their experiences of lifelong trauma.

Image from Chinese Comfort Women

At the end of the war, the Japanese military deliberately destroyed war evidence, and conservatives, neo-nationalist activists, and government officials in Japan continue to claim that no war crimes were committed, saying recently that the US fabricated them.

It wasn't until the 1990s that this issue and these women's stories began to receive attention. In 1992, history professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki discovered war documents that proved the military was directly involved in forcing women into "comfort stations." This coincided with the comfort women's redress movement initiated by a number of scholars and feminist groups. Survivors began to come forward to testify about what happened to them during the war.


But opponents were not dissuaded from their efforts to bury the truth. Three hundred Japanese legislators signed a petition this year to have a statue dedicated to the comfort women in Glendale, California, removed. They claimed it spread "false propaganda." Proposals for another memorial statue in Australia have also been met with fierce opposition from Japan. Just last month, Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, denied that the Japanese government and military had any official involvement in the comfort stations, claiming the women were willing prostitutes, working in privately owned brothels.

Each retelling is painful for the survivors. They continue to experience shame, embarrassment, and discrimination. After the war ended, many of them, Qiu tells me, were seen as immoral or "bad women," as they had "served the other side." After escaping a comfort station, Lu Xiuzhen returned home to her village and told the interviewers: "Because I had been raped by the enemy, people in my village gossiped abut me, saying that I slept with Japanese soldiers… People in my village believed that a person defiled by Japanese soldiers would bring bad luck and could not produce anything good."

When we talk about war and the casualties of war, women are rarely discussed. Wartime stories are heroic battle tales, fought among men; or they commemorate the suffering and deaths of soldiers. Never do we hold nationwide days of remembrance for the women and girls who were brutalized and killed during wartime. Yet the tragedy and injustice of war makes women and girls its victim daily. The comfort women are symbolic of this erasure, and it is our responsibility to acknowledge and address the way in which women and girls are sacrificed by our nations' wars.

Qiu points out that that there is a racial element at play too: "The comfort women's stories were kept silent for so many years because the victims were Asian. When war crimes were prosecuted, with regard to political prisoners, for example, the focus was on white men."

Denial of these atrocities does damage not only to the victims of the comfort women system, but, Qiu says, "If the historical truth is not told, the same thing could happen again." Regardless of opponents' claims, Qiu says that survivor testimonies provide a powerful counternarrative to the Japanese government's denial. One that, despite the overwhelming pain experienced by the women with every retelling, can no longer be hidden from history.

If you happen to be in Canada later this month, Peipei Qiu will be speaking at the Vancouver Public Library on April 27.

Follow Meghan Murphy on Twitter.