This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
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 WWII. 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 that which survivors tell — harrowing stories 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 and sexual release, but that they are entitled, 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."
"If the historical truth is not told, the same thing could happen again."
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 — be 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 grownup 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 English language book that tells the stories of the Chinese women who were forced into sexual slavery during WWII. 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 life-long 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.
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 were 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 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 and retraumatizing for the survivors and they continue to experience shame, embarrassment, and discrimination. After the war ended, many of them, Qiu tells me, were seen as immoral or as "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 nation-wide 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 nation's 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 counter narrative 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.
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