Exhibition portrays Okinawa’s wartime sex slaves

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

A Tokyo museum is presenting a detailed view of wartime sex slavery in Okinawa through pictures, testimonies of residents and other documentary evidence, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan from U.S. control.

In a yearlong exhibition through next June, the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace shows there were at least 145 “comfort stations” in the islands, at which women not only from Japan but also from Korea and Taiwan were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.

The exhibition, “Comfort Stations in Okinawa and Sexual Violence by U.S. Forces,” also introduces testimonies from 300 Okinawa women who were sexually assaulted by U.S. military personnel in the postwar era, although they are believed to be just the tip of the iceberg.

“We hope to show that women have faced sexual violence by military forces in Okinawa in wartime as well as even in the postwar period,” said Mina Watanabe, secretary general of the museum known as WAM.

“We expect visitors to the exhibition to be aware this has resulted in Japan’s creation of comfort stations and its policy of forcing the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan on Okinawa,” she said.

The findings presented on more than 30 panels at the exhibition are based mainly on decades of research by historians, activists and journalists, who examined documents compiled by the Japanese military and municipalities of Okinawa while collecting testimonies of those who lived near the comfort stations and witnessed the exploitation of women, the organizers said.

Comfort stations in Okinawa were set up mainly by seizing private houses, factories, hospitals or hotels with the main aim of preventing Japanese soldiers, who were engaging in urgent military projects, such as airport construction, from assaulting local women, according to the exhibition materials.

A panel quotes a history book compiled by the municipal government of Yomitan: “There were four Korean comfort women. On holidays, soldiers stood in line (in front of a comfort station) from daytime, leading the village residents to turn their eyes away from them.”

A Haebaru resident remembers a girl aged around 13, who served as a nanny in the daytime and as a “comfort woman” in the evening, saying, “She sometimes innocently showed me money that she received from soldiers,” another panel indicates.

Comfort stations were built even in remote islands, with Tokashiki Island, now a major diving spot, having seven Korean comfort women aged 16 to 30.

Among them was Bae Bong Gi, who was taken to the island from Korea in 1944, and forced to provide sex under the Japanese name, “Akiko.”

She remained in Okinawa even after the end of the war and engaged in marginal work. Suffering headaches and nerve pain in old age, she died in 1991 at the age of 77 without returning home. Another of the seven on Tokashiki, meanwhile, died in a U.S. attack at the end of the war.

While Bae talked about her life in interviews before her death, “many women remained unable to come out,” Watanabe said.

The exhibition is also being held in Okinawa through mid-July, and the organizers plan to send it around the prefecture, according to Watanabe.

WAM was established in August 2005 as the only museum in Japan to show materials on wartime sexual violence against women.