On September 20, the Japanese photo magazine DAYS JAPAN will run a portrait of ‘Comfort Woman’ Wainem on its October cover, and 6 more inside pages about this subject. Wainem is an Indonesian woman who during WW2 was dragged from her home and forced to serve as (unpaid) prostitute for the Japanese military for two-and-a-half years. She and the others in the DAYS JAPAN publication were portrayed by Dutch photographer Jan Banning and interviewed by Dutch journalist Hilde Janssen for their books (and exhibition) Comfort Women and Schaamte en onschuld.
The publication will almost certainly lead to controversy in Japan. The subject of Comfort Women continues to be an embarrassment to Japan and an obstacle in its regional foreign relations, as Japanese officials deny that up to 200,000 ‘Comfort Women’ were pressed into wartime sexual slavery in military brothels in the countries that Japan occupied during WW2.
On July 24, 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee, composed of independent experts, (not for the first time) called on Japan to apologize to these women. But the next day, Tokyo rejected this UN call to accept the blame. A strong section of the political right, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, continues to claim that the brothels were staffed by professional prostitutes. These right-wingers assert that there was no evidence to corroborate the comfort women’s testimony on sexual slavery.
Proof that ‘Comfort Women’ were being forced to serve as sex slaves has been piling up for many years. In 1993, Japan started an investigation after which the then chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, acknowledged that the Japanese military had been “directly or indirectly involved in the establishment and management of ‘comfort stations’” and that young women from China, Korea and Southeast Asia “in many cases were recruited against their will.”
The present government, however, wants to review this Kono statement. The recently appointed ultra-nationalist Minister Sanae Takaichi of Internal Affairs & Communication stated that she wants ‘to dispel false information reported worldwide that will continue to undermine the honor of the country and its people into the future.’
In this atmosphere of revisionism, Japan’s second biggest national (liberal) newspaper Asahi Shimbun came under attack, these last few weeks, because of a publication on comfort women dating back to 1982. In this article, a Japanese war witness, Seji Yoshida, confessed that he had ‘hunted up some 200 young Korean women on Seju island.’ In the 1990s, this confession turned out to be false. But only recently, in September 2014, the Asahi Shimbun came under heavy pressure from ‘revisionists’ to apologize for this 1982 article. Their negligence, the revisionists claim, has seriously affected Japanese dignity and honor. At the same time, they suggest that the forced prostitution story is untrue and that the Kono Statement should now be reviewed. Both the Asahi Shimbun and the UN deny this claim: there are many other testimonies and pieces of evidence of the existence of this form of state-organized forced prostitution.
In the light of these developments, The DAYS JAPAN magazine publication is a remarkable and brave act.
For the english version of DAYS JAPAN’s text, see all the way at the end of this post.
Photo Book Troostmeisjes/Comfort Women,
Schaamte en onschuld
Omdat wij mooi waren / Because we were beautiful
http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001478078 and more in Japan News
http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/650062.html (reaction of Asahi Shimbun)
http://shisaku.blogspot.nl/2014/08/after-asahi-shimbun-retractions.html (with several links)
Breaking the silence
‘Comfort women’ they are called. These veiled words can’t take away the pain and shame of the systematic sexual violence by the Japanese occupiers during the Second World War. The taboo is persistent, even seven decades onward. Many remain silent. Some women had the strength to conquer their shame and look the world in the eye.
In every large-scale conflict women are victims of sexual violence. For the Japanese government the mass rape of Nanking in 1937 was an impetus to introduce the so-called comfort women system. Regulated sex in military brothels was advocated as an effective means ‘to boost the spirits of the troops, keep law and order and prevent rape and venereal disease,’ according to a 1938 directive of the Japanese Department of War. In the following 8 years the Japanese armed forces instigated the establishment of thousands of military brothels in the occupied territories, in which an estimated 50.000-200.000 comfort women were forced to serve the three million Japanese troops, among them some 20.000 women in Indonesia.
For the Japanese occupying forces the comfort women system was a sheer pragmatic policy, but the women tell a very different story. For them it was a nightmare. They were kidnapped, threatened, snatched from the streets by force or lured by false promises, dragged from their homes or summoned through village chiefs and then systematically raped in military brothels, but also in barracks, factory warehouses, railroad wagons, and tent camps. Many of them were underage, some only 11, 12, 13 years old.
The stories of the women here portrayed by Jan Banning and interviewed by me, all underline the use of force. They also indicate that the military brothels were hardly effective in maintaining law and order or military discipline, let alone prevent rape. On the contrary. Since nowhere near all Japanese troops had access to regular military brothels, military brass and soldiers felt justified in arranging for the own ‘comfort women’. Some commanders set up an informal brothel. Others, by force or threat, claimed local women as their concubines and allowed their troops, too, to have live-ins. In addition, barracks and tent camps typically had women who worked as forced labourers and with whom the troops could have their ways without repercussions. Sometimes soldiers would hit up rural hamlets in a military truck to pick up girls to serve as sexual slaves for one or more days.
As the war ended, most women tried to keep their wartime experience a secret for their family and immediate surroundings, just like the perpetrators and government leaders kept quiet. This conspiracy of silence benefits the guilty. Only a few of the Japanese brass and soldiers were convicted after the war by the Netherlands Temporary Court-Martial in the former Dutch East Indies (i.e. Indonesia), because under Dutch law forced prostitution was prosecuted as a war crime. Although the Dutch court cases mostly concerned Dutch victims, some also involved local victims of forced prostitutions, e.g. in the Emplawas case (see Dominggas & Antonetha). The bulk of perpetrators in Indonesia and elsewhere got off. And in none of the negotiations about reparations in the 1950s and 1960s were comfort women discussed.
Only in the early 1990s, after a testimony of a former Korean comfort woman, and documented evidence found by a Japanese historian, an international advocacy movement emerged. This resulted in the so-called Kono statement by Japan, acknowledging that ‘the then military was, directly and indirectly involved in the establishment and management of comfort stations,’ and that ‘in many cases, women were recruited against their own will’. However, till today, the Japanese government has ignored international resolutions to apologize and to accept historical responsibility for the forced wartime prostitution.
Given the lack of historical research on Indonesian comfort women by both the Netherlands and Indonesia, Jan Banning and I started to record women’s personal wartime experiences in portraits and writing. Finding the women wasn’t easy. Many women had already died when we started our project* in 2007, while elderly survivors hardly felt the need to stir up painful memories again. It took us more then two years, travelling across Indonesia, where in total we interviewed some fifty women. As much as they would like to erase the traces of their wartime history, they drag it along all their lives: The stigmatisation, humiliation and pain, their childless existence, the failed marriages. Seeking acknowledgement, they found the courage to share the suppressed past and break the vicious circle of silence.
* The Comfort Women project resulted in a photo exhibition and the publication of two books, i.e. the photo book ‘Comfort Women/Troostmeisjes’ by Jan Banning and a Dutch language textbook ‘Schaamte en Onschuld’ (Shame & Innocence) by Hilde Janssen. The filmmaker Frank van Osch ‘made a documentary film of Banning and Janssen’s project called ’Because we were beautiful’.