'Comfort Women' in long fight for justice

July 31, 1996

By Reihana Mohideen

It was in 1991 that the stories of the so-called "comfort women" began to attract international attention. In 1991 a former "comfort woman" from Korea, Kim Hak Sun, broke her 40-year silence. She took the Japanese government to court and demanded compensation for its war crimes.

Activists around this issue argue that the term "comfort woman" is an attempt by the government to whitewash the Japanese military's practice of "sexual slavery" during its war of colonisation in Asia.

The setting up of "comfort stations" became an integral part of Japanese military operations from the late '30s. Military reports of the period openly state that soldiers were accompanied by groups of "comfort women" who "virtually form a part of the logistics division" (military report on the 1938 campaign in Wuhan, China). The travel of these women in the war zones was controlled and administered by the military, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the police.

The military set up detailed rules regarding the use of "comfort stations". Notification of these rules was made through internal bulletins. The information in the bulletins included the allocation of units to stations, the time allocations and fees based on rank (regular soldiers could use them only during the day and senior officers in the evenings) and the distribution of coupons (which had the room number and the name of the woman on it) assigning a particular woman to every soldier.

The military distributed condoms and ran regular medical checkups for the women. Those who were sick were referred to as infectious "defectives". Those who required simple treatment were looked after; others were abandoned or shot. Many "comfort women" died of illnesses, on the battlefield or killed by Japanese soldiers.

The women were restricted to special zones. They had one day off every month. Their hours of work began at nine in the morning, and closing times were unspecified (but the rules stated that "overnight access was available"). The women were given "professional" names which were tattooed on their arms.

Military reports also indicate that the women had to serve brutally large numbers of soldiers daily. According to one report "There is a shortage of comfort women ... thus they could only satisfy sexual desires. An instruction is expected that more comfort women be provided so that they can provide mental comfort as well." The report also refers to dissatisfaction amongst soldiers because "demands were so high .... [and] not all the customers were served". Pregnancies were unavoidable, and according to the women, they gave birth several times. The children were either killed or abandoned.

According to military reports, one of the reasons for setting up these stations was to alleviate anti-Japanese sentiment resulting from large numbers of incidents of rape of the civilian population. According to a 1938 report filed by the chief of staff of the North China Regional Army, "The rise of anti-Japanese sentiment has reached an unexpectedly serious level through the ... cases of rape committed by Japanese soldiers". It called on the military to "urgently provide sexual comfort facilities". Other reasons were to control any dissatisfaction of the soldiers, who were subjected to extremely harsh military discipline, and to prevent loss of troop strength through venereal disease.

The military was able to set up its own system easily because it was based on the well-organised system of state-licensed prostitution that existed in Japan at the time. All the military did was to give assistance to private agencies which already had plenty of "experience" running this system.

The overwhelming majority of women in these stations were victims of Japan's colonial aggression. According to Japanese ruling-class ideology at the time, "enemy women" were booty given as a "reward" by the emperor.

Some 200,000 women were dragooned into "comfort stations". Most were coerced or abducted. An estimated 80% were Koreans. According to the government, Koreans (and local women who did not know Japanese) were recruited in order to prevent leakage of information, the lowering of morale of the troops if they saw Japanese women in such circumstances and the "degradation" of Japanese people in relation to the colonised population, and also to decrease the birth rate of the Korean people.

Under Japan's colonial rule (which began with the annexation of Korea in 1910), the government took harsh measures to promote assimilation and the virtual elimination of the Korean identity. The "comfort women" system was entrenched in this discrimination against the Korean people (aspects of which continue in Japan to this day).

Evidence of "comfort stations" has been found in China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, British-colonised Borneo, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, New Guinea and Okinawa.

Hiromi Yamazaki is from the Campaign to Realise Redress for victims in Asia and the Pacific (CRR) in Japan. The CRR is supporting Song Siin Do, a former "comfort woman" and a Korean resident in Japan, who has taken the Japanese government to court for compensation.

Yamazaki explained that after Kim Hak Sun (from Korea) spoke out about her case in 1991, several other women gained confidence and decided to come out in public with their own stories. "One of the main reasons that Kim Hak Sun broke her silence is the development of the women's movement in Korea. Before this, the women could not speak of their experiences because they would be treated as pariahs. But the women's movement grew very strong in Korea with the development of democratic rights in that country. So they were able to start the campaign."

There had been other Korean women who had come out in the '70s in Okinawa and in Thailand. But at that time, the lawyers refused to take the Okinawan woman's case against the government. "But when Kim Hak Sun came out, the situation had changed. In 1990 the Korean women's organisations issued a joint request to the Japanese government to conduct a study on the issue, and demanded an apology and compensation. It is well known that the Japanese government made a false reply in the national Diet, ascribing responsibilities to private agents, a denial which only served to fuel the protest movement in Korea."

The Korean women's movement's ability to critique the sexual repression that women faced in society laid the basis for a campaign on the issue of the "comfort women". According to Yun Chung Ok of the Korean Council on the Matter of Comfort Women, "We must locate those who live abroad, refusing to come home out of shame, and we must help them live with confidence for the rest of their lives. In order to accomplish this, we need to completely change the social conceptions of women's sexuality."

According to Yamazaki, there are lawsuits filed by three Korean women (one of these living in Japan), Filipino women, Dutch women and women from China. "In the Philippines there are around 116 survivors [that the campaign knows of], in Korea around 150 survivors. In China we know of some 10 women, some Chinese and others Korean. Many of the survivors in Japan are silent. The Dutch women were in Indonesia during the war.

"The cases are on behalf of individual women. And because the cases are hard, we have to be sure that the women have clear evidence. Because some women think that the legal system in Japan is difficult, they want to take it to the UN courts."

As for the response of the respective national governments? According to Yamazaki, "Most of them say they support the campaign, but this is only verbal support.

"The Korean and Taiwanese governments give financial support to the survivors. But the Philippines government does not provide any assistance. So we need to find ways of supporting the [Filipino] women. The Chinese government didn't say anything about this issue during the Beijing women's conference. In fact, some of the activists around this issue were arrested and forced out of Beijing.

"In Indonesia the government doesn't allow anything to be done about the issue. We know that there are some 20,000 women survivors in Indonesia, but they can't do anything because of the dictatorship. There are also two or three women in Malaysia. But it's hard to function there due to the restriction of democratic rights."

A major legal obstacle is the prewar code in which the state of Japan unilaterally declared that it would be absolved of the crimes of its wars of colonisation. The government has also declared that while it has "feelings of apology and remorse", compensation is out of the question because it was dealt with in several treaties Japan signed after its defeat in the second world war.

However, to ward off pressure and criticism, the government set up the Asian Peace and Friendship Fund for Women, commonly known as the Asian Women's Fund. Yamazaki and other campaign activists are opposed to the fund. They point out that the basis of the fund is the refusal of the government to grant individual compensation to the women.

The fund consists of two projects. One is a "civil fund" which collects donations from the public, with the government having only the responsibility of administering the fund and handing out sums of money to the former "comfort women". Yamazaki points out that the purpose of this is to "erase state responsibility".

The other project is to allocate official development assistance (ODA, notorious for being used by the government to get favoured market access in south-east Asia) to women's non-government organisations. According to Yamazaki, the purpose of these projects "is to silence victims by donations and to silence women's human rights NGOs with ODA funds".

Recently the fund was engulfed by scandal when documents were discovered showing that its chairperson was one of the government officials responsible for destroying the files on the "comfort women" at the end of the war. Several top Japanese state officials and politicians are suspected of having set up "comfort stations". Former prime minister Nakasone in his autobiography admits to having done so.

Yamazaki was particularly critical of the role of the former Japan Socialist Party (now renamed the Social Democratic Party of Japan). "They were involved in this movement. But after going into the coalition government, they backtracked. They created the Asian Women's Fund. The LDP [Liberal Democratic Party, the main capitalist party in government] didn't want to do anything. But the Social Democrats said that they should do something and set up the fund and appointed its chairperson."

Yamazaki believes that it's important to step up the campaign in the next few months. August 15 (the date of the Japanese defeat in the second world war) is the deadline for the Asian Women's Funds recommendations. Activists are expecting the fund to start making financial offers of compensation to the women in July. These offers are aimed at placating the women, with the hope that the campaign will die down.

Many of the women who have come out in public are over 70 years of age and live in poverty. It's very likely that some will accept the offer. But, according to Yamazaki, many other will not. The campaign is trying to provide financial support to the women so that they will not be forced into accepting the money and stop pursuing their overall aims — the Japanese government accepting full responsibility for its crimes against the women and compensating them accordingly.

Another immediate focus is to win international support for the recommendations of the "Coomaraswamy report" — by the UN commissioned special rapporteur on violence against women. The Japanese government has refused to endorse the report, in particular its addendum, which looks at the issue of "comfort women".

While the campaign in Japan acknowledges that the damage suffered by the women cannot be "converted" into monetary amounts, the Japanese woman plaintiff is demanding 120 million yen compensation from the courts. This is based on the pensions paid to the families of Japanese war criminals.

The campaign also has a draft letter of apology which it insists the prime minister send to the women for, as the letter states, "the psychological as well as physical pain that the State of Japan inflicted during and after the war".

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