I recently joined a tour in Seoul of the House of Sharing. This is a museum and home to the former Korean "Comfort Women". Comfort women is a euphemism translated from Korean to describe the women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War Two. They are not the only women to have been used for soldiers sexual gratification during wartime and probably won't be the last but their bravery and determination is unrivalled. They are referred to as the 'Halmoni' a Korean term of respect that means grandmother.
During the second world war, Japan invaded and occupied many countries in Asia-Pacific. One of their worst atrocities was the massacre in Nanjing (The Rape of Nanking) which saw the Japanese forces commit mass-murder, genocide and war rape during a six week period in December 1937. The troops literally went mad. There is controversy over the true number of casualties. Japanese war records were destroyed, and accusations of fabrication for propaganda purposes abound, but regardless, thousands of people were killed. Men, women and children were raped, tortured and their bodies brutally mutilated. This one horror from war still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the Chinese whose Anti-Japanese sentiment is stronger than anywhere in this region.
The Chinese Government has some responsibility to bear in this incident. With the advance of the Japanese army, the Nanjing government leaders fled, closing all but one of the gates surrounding the city. They issued a statement:
“All of those who have blood and breath in them, must feel that they wish to be broken as jade rather than remain whole as a tile.”
Hundreds of people were trapped and trampled to death trying to escape out of the only gate left open, before the Japanese had even reached the city. The brutalities of the rapes committed, on children as well as adults, and the mutilations performed on the bodies of the victims afterwards was horrific.
So the Japanese government decided, in order to avoid something so brutal and bloodthirsty occurring again, they would set up 'stations' where soldiers could release their sexual energy. These 'comfort stations' would need to be 'equipped' with women. The 'workers' in these places were seen as necessary supplies, and where could Japan find these supplies? The first station was established in Shanghai and Chinese prostitutes volunteered to work there, presumably having negotiated their fees. But demand for stations grew rapidly and there were not enough women volunteering to work, so after exhausting the local neighbourhood Japan looked to Korea, its colony at the time. 80 - 90 % of the 'comfort women' were taken from Korea. These women were kidnapped, forcefully taken, told they would be working in factories or sold by their family (with little or no other choice).
Since the first of the survivors came forward, the Japanese have denied, rebuffed and changed their story on whether this even happened at all, and to what extend they are to blame. Their first line of defence, is that these women went of their own accord. They were not forced and they made their own way to countries all over South-east Asia. To be honest, this claim is ludicrous. To have the audacity to suggest girls as young as 14, living in a time when public transportation was minimal at best and foreign travel the privilege of officials or military personal going into battle, that these girls could remove themselves from everything they knew in their small local communities and travel thousands of miles is farcicle and quite frankly offensive.
These women were taken to the stations, placed in a small wooden shack or room, mostly a curtain for privacy but sometimes with nothing at all and then repeatedly raped by soldiers from between 10 and 30 times a day. Very rarely they were provided with 'pay' in the form of military coupons or Japanese colonial currency that became worthless at the end of the war. The soldiers were supposed to wear the company issued condom, to prevent the spread of disease but many refused, were in too much of a hurry, or unconcerned about catching anything as they could die any day during battle. There was no resbite for the women regardless of menstruation.
Higher ranking officers would sometimes spend the night with the women. Anybody who tried to escape would be beaten, and often all the other women being held would be beaten as a deterrent too. They were forbidden to speak Korean, forced to speak in Japanese, or face a beating. If the women caught diseases they were sometimes send to the military medical unit, of which the doctors would often rape the women as well. Penicillin was not available at the time and therefore women who did receive treatment for diseases were given an early form of the drug (serum no. 606) but rarely given enough time for the medicine to take effect and recover from the illnesses.
At the end of the war, those who'd survived the ordeal were released, some managing to find a place on boats returning to their home countries, others ignored by the liberating forces and abandoned in foreign lands. They were obviously extremely traumatised by what they'd endured, and kept their anguish a secret. Some of them felt they couldn't marry, to the distress of their families. Any that did get married didn't tell their husbands what they'd been through in the war. The personal testimonies of this issue remained a secret until 1991.
Amid accusations of sexual slavery during WWII in 1990 a Japanese official publically denied government involvement in the recruitment of women for the comfort stations. The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan was formed in the aftermath of this statement. In 1991 Kim Hak-Soon Halmoni came forward publically with her testimony. The Japanese continued to deny its involvement. In 1992 Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a Japanese history professor found documentation proving the government organised and ran the 'comfort stations'. He'd found these documents in the Defence Agency Library of Tokyo. They were not top secret or hidden by the military or government. This prompted a Japanese investigation and forced them to admit at least the widespread existence of the stations.
After the investiagtion, the Japanese had to admit coercion, deception and the official involvement in the recruitment of the comfort women. They are yet to apologise to the women. The survivors have been protesting every Wednesday outside the Japanese Embassy since 1992. Last year they held their 1000th protest, with similar protests being held in other cities around the globe to mark this landmark and open people's eyes to this issue. A statue has been erected in front of the embassy in Seoul, a young girl in traditional Korean dress (Hanbok) staring at the building. The staff at the embassy have demanded it be removed but the Korean Government have refused. The current Korean President has been notoriously quiet on the issue, but recently made it the focus of his meeting with the current Japanese Prime Minister.
There are seven surviving Halmoni living at the House of Sharing. These brave women are an inspiration. I hope they are able to hear an apology from the Japanese government before any more pass away.
|Outside are statues of the survivors who have already passed away.|
|Women's future aspirations before the war|
|What the war did to these women.|
|All of those colourful dots are either officially recorded stations, unofficially recognised stations or stations identified by former 'comfort women'.|
|Models representing the weekly protests.|
|There were a few Dutch women who were initially drafted to the stations, but soon released. This woman came forward because she said as a European white women she would probably be taken more seriously and garner more attention than the Asian women.|
|The Halmoni were given lessons by an artist and painted their memories, fears and desires for revenge and apology.|