Japan, your silence is deafening

by on 週一, 16 三月 2009 評論

I recalled watching for the first time the series of Eve Ensler’s celebrated theatre production known as The Vagina Monologues several years ago. Apart from being thoroughly entertained by the actresses’ witty antics, I was especially taken by the segment on the memoirs of a soft-spoken woman, forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation. She spoke about the horrors, experiences so tormenting that she has yet to overcome at an elderly age; she is one of the few women to have survived the ordeal till this day. 
 

Like many others in Asia during her time, she was what we now call a ‘Comfort Woman’ – a term that I personally find highly inappropriate. Her story and appeal, however short, brought tears of pity and anger amongst many in the theatre, and it certainly left an impression on me. I was bewildered as to why I wasn’t taught of it in school, a detail so crucial that could easily have fit into any of the chapters of my history textbook. An estimated 200, 000 women (predominantly Korean and Chinese), whom during their enslavement, endured torture, malnutrition, sexual abuse, under an institutionalised setting, to me, is war crime history at its foulest. I was instead, informed of it through a former Singaporean television sitcom on the Japanese Occupation.

 

"Historians estimate 200,000 women, from Korea, the Philippines, China, Indonesia and the Netherlands were pressed into wartime prostitution for millions of Japanese soldiers stationed throughout Asia. Some former comfort women said they were forced to service up to 50 soldiers in a day."

- VDAY, founded by Eve Ensler
(For more information, refer to www.vday.org)

 

 
 
A tragedy times 200,000

To me, the term ‘Comfort Women’ is a euphemism, a sugar-coated term that made reality easier to swallow. I’m afraid it may be too mild a term to reflect accurately on the situation of the women, whom, recruited through dissemblance or force by Japanese soldiers and locals alike, were exploited sexually and enslaved. Military sex slaves would be conceivably more accurate.

In Taiwan, a certain Ahma, aged 92 was forced into military prostitution at the young age of 17, sent to serve as a ‘prostitute’ on the island of Hainan. She was one of the very few to have spoken of her experience very early on. It was not until 1991 that a South Korean woman, Grandma Kim Hak Soon, became the first person to speak publicly about the existence of comfort women.

Sexism was not the only factor underlying the Comfort Women system, a system thought to boost military morale and deter open rape in occupied territory (which was in fact the same thing, only institutionalized), limit anti-Japanese resistance among the local population, avoid international disgrace and protect the Japanese soldiers from venereal disease. Racism played a large part too. For whatever reason, they were indoctrinated to see the Chinese and other Asian prisoners as sub-human and inferior, thus the numbers of Japanese ‘Comfort Women’ were of a significantly smaller number in contrast to women of other ethnicities. In the seminar held in Taiwan on ‘Comfort Women’, the lecturers mentioned a significant difference in the treatment between the Han Chinese and Taiwanese Aboriginals. Han Chinese women were either recruited by force or shipped to serve elsewhere in different Military brothels overseas, whereas aboriginal women were often kept as house and sex slaves locally.

 
Wrongs to be righted

In January 1992, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa admitted, after Professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi uncovered indisputable evidence, that the Japanese government was involved in the "comfort woman" business throughout the war (1931-1945.) Accordingly, in August of 1994, Japanese Prime Minister Tomichi Murayama set up the Asian Women’s Fund, which offered $18,200 in atonement money to each surviving "comfort woman." This fund however, is not from the Japanese government. The women feel that the Japanese government must officially assume responsibility for these acts and that to accept the privately raised money would make them prostitutes; not the victims of war that they are. Former "comfort women" continue to seek redress in the courts in Japan.

With the surviving victims, organisations and international parliaments, hot on their heels for an official apology, the Japanese government has yet to break their silence – a silence that would soon no longer be heard by the remaining ailing victims.What will not be reported, are the voices of the already-deceased women and what the Japanese perpetrators have recollected in their time. To look behind the scenes in War-time Asia and juxtapose the unreported realities with the personal stories of trauma and recovery told by the survivors will simply reduce the stories to a few simple facts, and an array of supposedly unfathomable war violence. I believe there are always more facts lurking behind the shadows of the Japanese society, and it will be up to their descendants to acknowledge their atrocities and compensate accordingly.


Note:
A name worth knowing: Yoshiaki Yoshimi
Professor of modern Japanese history at Chuo University in Tokyo. Yoshimi is a founder member of the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan’s war responsibility. Following the discovery of incriminating Imperial Army documents by a Japanese historian in 1992, the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office acknowledged "moral, but not legal" responsibility for the comfort women. The government of Japan still refuses to make an official apology and provide proper compensation. It continues to deny legal responsibility for the system. Some of the surviving victims tried suing the government in Japan seeking an official apology and reparations but to no avail.

Alice Lin (林炳秀)

Alice is a Taiwanese-born journalism major who spent most of her childhood in Windhoek, Namibia. Having left home at a young age for boarding school, she has since then lived in Singapore, New Zealand and France. She worked briefly as a translator for a Paris-based NGO and recently returned from a work placement in Morocco, where she freelanced for local papers El Watan and Morocco Today. She is now studying in France.


Alice worked as the English editor of eRenlai from December 2008 to June 2009.

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