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Sunday, May 26, 2013
It’s been 20 years that so-called “comfort women,” abducted and forced into prostitution by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, have spoken out about this atrocity. Yet Osaka’s mayor, Toru Hashimoto, has offered his explanation that soldiers at war need “rest,” which women provide (“Comfort women were necessary, mayor says,” The Roanoke Times, May 15).
In 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sang the same refrain. However, where 80 percent of the estimated 200,000 enslaved women were Korean, Abe said then that his cabinet would stand by the apology rendered to South Korea in 1993. But is an apology enough?
Around 400 “comfort stations” in Japanese-occupied nations provided women for sex along with “standard supplies” to soldiers. A racist institutional policy “justified” forcing East and Southeast Asian (non-Japanese) women to provide sex, on demand, in the interests of an efficient fighting force that could then be protected from STDs, and from possible intelligence breaches should soldiers seek sex in a civilian population. Few “comfort women” survive today, having died of the consequences of being raped up to 30 times a day, and of STDs, according to research that has unearthed the scope of this other Holocaust. Only the Dutch (among the Allies) prosecuted Japanese officers for the 35 Dutch women who had been enslaved.
The Comfort Women Project and scholars and activists globally (including from Japan) today have evidence at hand. “Rape Is” (2002) provides documentary evidence of surviving comfort women’s testimonials — as they weep copiously — of being deceived into prostitution in Japanese “comfort stations” during World War II. Photographs and film footage show Japanese soldiers standing in line for sex at a “station.”
Maria Rosa Henson, in her memoir “Comfort Woman,” describes in graphic detail her abduction at 14 in 1943 in Japan-occupied Philippines, and her daily multiple rapes. Henson inserts stark sketches of what she witnessed. She tells us of an aftermath in which we would, today, recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 1991, South Korea, supported by North Korea, filed a class action suit against Japan. The Koreans wanted a public apology, full disclosure of atrocities, a memorial for the victims and compensation for human rights violations. They also wanted the history of this atrocity to be taught to Japanese children. In 1993, a cabinet minister, Yohei Kono, apologized to South Korea and admitted culpability, but was unsupported by the Japanese parliament. The only compensation offered was from a fund paid for by private donations. South Korea demanded official government compensation. Hashimoto’s assertions suggest that this issue continues to be unresolved as of today — the women, to him, merely served a larger purpose.
A sizable opus gives voice to the Jewish Holocaust, as it should, despite those who deny that 12 million (including gypsies, homosexuals and “non-Aryans”) died in the Nazi death camps. Who gives voice to this other Holocaust of mostly Asian women, many of whom did not come forward with their stories for a half-century (including Henson) because they were ashamed? Why have history books in the West been silent?
What are the implications for such silence — by active policy — for women in other wars? In the mid-1990s, some 20,000 women were raped — in the heart of Europe — when Yugoslavia splintered along ethnic and religious lines. Doctors Without Borders reported 500 rapes in the month of July 2011 alone in the Congo. I wrote of rape in the ongoing Syrian war (“Syrian forces rape with impunity,” The Roanoke Times, Nov. 26, 2012).
The film “The Invisible War” documents the shocking numbers of sexual assaults in the U.S. military, and the painful consequences for survivors, including the end of a career. In the act itself, and in its aftermath, rape does not go away. There are a lot of women — in war and in peace — who could do with some “rest” and comfort themselves. Ignorant and sexist politicians — anywhere — and the policies they implement, and then justify, do nothing to change a climate hostile to women.
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