How Tattoos Saved These Indonesian Women from Sexual Slavery in World War II
A local marriage tradition in the island of Timor helped these women escape becoming comfort women during Japanese occupation.
The traditional tattoos. All photos by author
Mariana Hoar remembers the fear of living under Japanese occupation—and the pain.
"When the Japanese came, we already tattooed ourselves so they would assume we had husbands," she told me, pointing to the faded, but still ornate lines under her sun-wrinkled skin. "This means we're married. It was so they would leave us alone... We were afraid."
Mariana tapped her skin with her fingertips, mimicking the movement of a traditional tattoo needle. "Needle, needle, needle. Blood."
"Did it hurt?" I asked.
"It hurt so bad," Mariana said.
Watch: The Women Who Used Tattoos to Save Themselves From Sexual Slavery
We were in Umatoos village, a modest community where old thatched-roof homes sit right next to modern buildings in the district of West Malaka on the Indonesian half of Timor Island. In a country full of remote places, Malaka is about as remote as it gets. The rural district borders the tiny nation of Timor Leste, a country of 1.25 million that was once part of Indonesia. Malaka is closer to Australia than the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, and we had crossed over from Batugade, in Timor Leste, to meet the women of Mariana's village.
The women of Malaka occupy a unique place in Indonesian history that today is all but forgotten. Back during World War II when Indonesia—and much of Southeast Asia—was under Japanese occupation, women like Mariana were able to resist the harsh realities of life under occupation with a wholly local marriage tradition. Women in Malaka culture used to tattoo themselves when they get married, inking webs of intricate designs under their skin to mark themselves as "taken."
"In big cities, tattoos symbolize delinquency—that someone is a thug—but here, tattoos are our legacy. It's a part of our culture that’s attached to a person," explained Daniel Bria Suri, a tribal leader. "This tradition is inherited, it depicts the philosophy of a tribe. Some symbolize the traditional houses. Some symbolize nature."
When Japanese troops arrived in Malaka, and brought with them a brutal campaign of forced sexual slavery known as jugun lanfu, or comfort women, Mariana and her friends went under the needle to mark themselves as married despite still being single. It saved them from the brothels of the Japanese Imperial Army and a system that pulled as few as 20,000 women and as much as 410,000 into a tragic and heartless wartime industry that still scars many Asian nations today.
"Tattoos became the ultimate weapon for women to face the Japanese soldiers," Daniel told me. "With tattoos on their bodies, the Japanese left them alone."
The practice of stealing women in occupied territories for sexual slavery was allegedly made standard practice in order to prevent another international incident like what had happened in 1937 when Japanese forces raped and massacred the people of Nanjing, China, while it as under siege. Newspapers worldwide carried stories of Japanese soldiers indiscriminately stabbing pregnant women in the womb, raping 20,000 others, and killing between 200,000 to 300,000 in a six-week-long wave of indiscriminate carnage.
So Japanese military leaders decided that allowing soldiers to take comfort women would prevent a future rampage, and the international condemnation that comes with it, relying on a cruel calculous that millions of quiet rapes were better than tens of thousands of very public ones.
Japanese forces were in control of Indonesia from March 1942 until September 1945, when the war ended. The occupation plays a complicated role in Indonesian history that's so intertwined with the nation's independence story that the stories are still quite hard to detangle. When Japanese soldiers first arrived in Indonesia, it was under Dutch colonial control. As the Dutch pulled out, the Japanese were first seen as liberators of an oppressed nation.
But then wartime realities set in. Some of the elderly still around today in cities like Jakarta are fond of saying that three years under the Japanese were worse than more than 300 under the Dutch. But the story is also far more complex than that. It was the Japanese who helped fan Indonesia's long-smoldering nationalist sentiment during those occupation years, even giving an early platform to the man who later became the country's founding father—Sukarno.
Later, Japanese investment helped a young Indonesia grow into what is today the 16 largest economy in the world and the largest in Southeast Asia. This complicated history has left entire periods of life under Japanese occupation whitewashed from the history books—including the comfort women issue. While countries across the region, like the Philippines, South Korea, and China, continue to grapple with the scars of such a deeply damaging policy, the Indonesian government has, for the most part, ignored the issue entirely, explained Winarta, a director at the Independent Legal Aid Institute (ILAI), which helped assist survivors and verify their stories as it prepared a lawsuit on their behalf demanding reparations that weren't picked up by the Indonesian government.
"Indonesia has always tried to cover up the history of the jugun ianfu,” Winarta said. “Indonesia doesn’t recognize that the jugun ianfu existed. But we proved that they did. We know about the economic and political situation during [Gen. Suharto's] New Order, and how much we depended on our economic relations with Japan. Maintaining relations with Japan has taken precedence over solving the jugun ianfu case that they fear may cause a rift."
In Malaka, the memory of what women like Mariana did is on the verge of dying out too. Today, only a few women who have the tattoos are still alive. Young women in Malaka no longer want to ink their skin to get married. Part of the reason why is the inevitable march toward modernization that's occurred in Indonesia since it gained independence. Indigenous cultures nationwide are slowly dying out, losing ground to a broader national identity that stream rolls over some of the ingrained traditions of local peoples.
"Kids today don’t want to get tattooed like these grandmas," Daniel told me. "They prefer to use a ring or a chain [to show they're married]."
But there's another, possibly larger, reason why tattoos are disappearing in Malaka today—the pain. Maria Theresia Hoar told me that the tattoos were something women had to endure, not enjoy, in order to uphold the village's traditions.
"It hurt," she told me. "Don't even ask. It hurt so bad, but I wanted to get married, so I had to endure."
"We loved each other," her friend Maria Bita added. "We wanted to get married. So we gave over our legs to be tattooed."
It's an idea we circle back on a lot here at VICE's Indonesia office—the concept that tradition is both something to be preserved and also something that carries a great cost. The same team I was with in Malaka have, in recent years, explored how a tradition of high bride prices is keeping women single, longer, in Sumba, how extravagant funeral ceremonies are driving indigenous peoples to find work outside their communities in Toraja, and how even circumcision festivals can place an undue financial burden on a family.
Time and time again, we're confronted with the reality of the kinds of sacrifice it takes to maintain a tradition that, by most accounts, seems to be slipping away. Is every tradition worth preserving? I honestly don't know. But after spending time with the women of Malaka, I can't help but notice how often the pressure and weight of maintaining tradition falls on the shoulders of women.
Today, the women of Malaka no longer tattoo themselves. But they also aren't in danger of being kidnapped and forced to work in a brothel. As we prepared to leave the village, the words of Dominga Kehi, a young woman who decided not to get tattooed, stuck in my head.
"They were so strong, enduring the pain while getting their whole bodies tattooed," Dominga told me. "They bled a lot. Back then, our grandmas understood that the tattoos were a way to resist the Japanese. But today, people found less painful ways to show that they’re taken."
Is there a better juxtaposition than that? I started this story with Mariana's memories of the pain because it was something that stuck out in so many of the women's minds. That's because back then, in the old days, the arguably darker days, women like Mariana were saddled with a tradition—and a day-to-day reality that hurt.
And today, in a country without invading armies and military brothels, a country with democracy and smartphones, that kind of pain is no longer something women just have to accept. It's not like we live in a painless world today, but we do live in a country where, at least for most of us, what hurts the most doesn't draw blood.