Quiet outrage: Japan silences its comfort women once again

A Chinese girl from one of the Japanese Army’s ‘comfort battalions’ sits on a stretcher on 8 August 1945 at a camp in Rangoon.

The last days of 2015 saw Japan making reparations for their cruel enslavement of thousands of women, mostly Korean, during the Second World War. These women, were dubbed the jugun ianfu, or ‘comfort women’, a euphemism for women who were, in fact, sex slaves. Ironically, this underground, institutionalised sex slavery was intended to ‘reduce’ the massive number of rapes already being committed by the Japanese which had led to civilian protests and riots. The reparations equal roughly £5.6 m., but 70 years after the war’s end, most former comfort women are no longer alive and have likely had to manage their PTSD and trauma on their own. The sum is also more than Japan originally wanted to pay, which shows a lack of remorse or desire to make true reparations for the horrors these women suffered. It is important to remember that the crimes are not newly discovered. In 1996, the United Nations collected stories from women who survived their slavery, yet no official apology was made during these twenty years since, and much less the fifty years prior to the report.

Chong Ok-sun, who told her story in the UN report, exposes just how horrifically the women were treated. Yet Ok-sun was not even a grown woman, she was a child of thirteen (many were as young as nine or ten) who was kidnapped while trying to fetch water at a local well for her parents. She was taken by the Japanese police and raped violently. When she cried, the police chief punched her and she lost all sight in her left eye. Then Ok-sun was taken to a Japanese barracks where she and 400 other Korean women ‘had to serve over 5,000 Japanese soldiers as sex slaves every day – up to 40 men per day’. Any protestation brought unconscionable punishment: one girl, before her beheading, was rolled over a board with nails poking out until the nails were painted with blood and flesh, forty women were taken to a pool filled with snakes and then buried alive, genital mutilation or death was expected if a venereal disease was contracted, to name only a few of the examples given by Ok-sun. She was left for dead on the top of a mountain and later rescued by a man who lived nearby before returning to Korea, scarred and unable to bear children after five years of daily rape and torture.

Former comfort women rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, in August 2011.

In 1995, Karen Parker, a human rights lawyer, addressed the UN in a demand for reparations to be made to the women. She asserted that upwards of 200,000 women had been used as sex slaves by the Japanese military and were taken from every country Japan invaded during the war. More than half of these women died because of their treatment at the hands their enslavers and rapists. The lowest possible number of rapes across the span of the war, which could potentially be doubled according to Parker, would total at 125 million. An individual woman would have been raped, if she survived the war, around 7,500 times, another extremely conservative estimate. Parker demanded individual reparations be made to all the surviving victims and their families.

Yet even now, twenty years after Parker’s speech, no funds will directly reach the victims. Instead the money will be placed in a fund that will help pay for medical and social services for the women. While it may be argued that the reparations are symbolic in nature, surely symbolism alone does not make a big enough impact. South Korea was most likely prompted to accept the deal in order to improve its relationship with Japan for economic and trade reasons. But not only did South Korea neglect to inform the survivors that negotiations had begun with Japan, it also disregarded the general sense of betrayal felt by the women by agreeing to remove the memorial to the comfort women from outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. “Do you think we’ve been struggling like this for such a long time out of greed for that 1 Billion Won?” asked Kim Bokdong, a surviving comfort woman who was forced into sexual slavery at the age of 15. “What we are demanding is legal reparation. It means that Japan must admit that it committed crimes as a criminal state.” From Japan, there seems to be little desire to make a heartfelt apology. In fact, the nation ascertains that all legal issues have already been dealt with in a 1965 treaty. Furthermore, the deal made in 2015 was ‘vaguely worded’ which allowed Japan to escape from admitting whether it was making reparations for a moral or legal violation. For the conservatives in Japan, the deal seems to serve one purpose – not to apologise, but to end the discussion.

The deal that has been accepted was made by and for politicians, not the women. Yes, money has passed hands and the remaining women will be taken care of now, but there is little justice here and even less remorse. These women were treated barbarically, incessantly raped and tortured, and then ignored or silenced for seventy years. A deal has been made, but it certainly is not a historic one that symbolises true compensation. It is a deal made for political gain that will quiet the outrage of the victims once more.

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