TACOMA, Washington — During World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy coerced around 200,000 young women and girls into servitude. Under the Japanese military’s control, comfort women were ordered to serve multiple soldiers with sex every day. These women and girls were primarily Korean and Japanese, with the nonmajority originating from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. The term ‘comfort women’ is a euphemism that refers to victims of Japanese “sexual slavery” during WWII. The Japanese government, which long referred to comfort women as ‘prostitutes,’ has refused to recognize the crimes through legislation despite substantial evidence and has avoided legal punishment for its actions. Therefore, despite the significant time that has passed, little justice and retribution have been offered to these women.
The Comfort Station System and the Recruitment of Comfort Women
Comfort stations refer to the locations where the Japanese military held women for soldiers to rape. The Japanese military recruited women, oftentimes misleadingly, from areas like Korea and Taiwan. Most of these women were impoverished, uneducated and resided in rural areas. Recognizing this, the Japanese military capitalized on false-promise access to education and wage work to propel countless women into becoming sex slaves.
The Japanese military was further complicit in the raping and apprehension of women in defeated areas. It continued these acts and the sanctioned use of the system from 1938 to the conclusion of the war. Nearly all the comfort women were exploited and held in conditions of violence during this period; many were outright abducted. Japan long denied the nature of comfort stations, destroying or hiding an extensive amount of evidence until it was impossible to continue outright denial. In direct contrast to this stance, many argue that the military’s actions are tantamount to war crimes against the victims of the comfort women system.
What Happened to Them
Because of the lack of treatment, sexual torture, context of the war and illness, most comfort women died in comfort stations. For the few who survived, a feasible return to normalcy was rarely possible. Many languished in post-traumatic stress, depression and sustained an ample number of physical injuries and sexually transmitted diseases. Patriarchal views of virtue and righteousness also pressured a large proportion of the survivors to remain silent. This led to several survivors taking their own lives, leaving justice in jeopardy for comfort women for an extended period. For a long stretch of time, the government of Japan continued to refuse to admit to any wrongdoing.
The Kono Statement
In a 1993 statement, Cabinet Master Yohei Kono released what is regarded as the Japanese Government’s formal confirmation of their transgressions against the victimized women nearly five decades after World War II. The statement drew backlash from Japanese conservatives. Furthermore, based on the wording, it did not necessarily yield to full-on guilt, nor did it provide any compensation. Although the statement remains highly controversial, even insinuating South Korea might have helped draft the speech, it did, at the minimum, offer a general sense of accountability. At the same time, it also refuted any recognition that the Japanese military chiefly used coercion to maintain the system. Currently, the statement is referred to as a partial apology because it did not explain the significance of the crimes, recognize the comfort women and come as a statement from Japan’s Prime Minister.
The Asian Women Fund and the Murayama Statement
In 1994, however, Japan’s Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement concerning Japan’s cruelties during the 50th anniversary of World War II. He offered acknowledgement and apologies extended to the comfort women. At the same time, Japan sponsored several initiatives in response to the “emotional and physical” damages suffered by the comfort women in World War II. A fund was created to allocate millions of dollars and act as Japan’s reparation for its offenses against comfort women. The goal was to establish a continued apology for the events that took place. Additionally, it would allocate separate government funds to contemporary acts of violence against women.
The State of Victims Today
Victims of the comfort women system still search for justice from Japan despite overtures and provisional amends made. In addition, groups worldwide still fight for greater recognition of the comfort women system in Japan and across the globe. Currently, estimates leave fewer than 100 comfort women still alive, with some placing the figure near 50. All living survivors are comfortably into their later years. Notable survivors and advocacy groups, like the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, still seek justice on behalf of themselves and all the others coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese government. International calls for the same, from America, the Philippines, Canada and beyond, offer hope for those still waiting.
– James Van Bramer