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‘Comfort women’ issue far from closed

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls, is putting the “comfort women’s” crusade for reparations in its spotlight for 2006. As part of the activities, in the summer of 2006 the Global Campaign will include celebrity benefit performances of “The Vagina Monologues” in Seoul and Tokyo, with the voices of comfort women in a monologue written by playwright and V-Day founder Eve Ensler. The organization’s goal is to draw international attention and support to what many consider one of the most serious crimes against women in the 20th century.

Japan’s continuing refusal to reach an agreement with the former “comfort women” has been sharply criticized by Amnesty International. In a report issued at the end of 2005 titled “Still Waiting After 60 Years: Justice for Survivors of Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery System,” this organization calls on the Japanese government to accept full responsibility for crimes committed against women condemned to sexual slavery by their Japanese recruiters. These so-called comfort women were recruited from several countries, mainly Korea, during World War II, and forced to serve as sexual slaves for the Japanese soldiers.

Among the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 women recruited from different countries, 80 to 90 percent were from Korea. Girls as young as 11 were forced to serve between 5 and 40 soldiers a day, and almost 100 soldiers on weekends. Those who resisted were often beaten, burned or wounded. During the Japanese retreat many were left to starve or were executed to eliminate any trace of the atrocities they were subjected to by the Japanese military.

For many years after the end of World War II, the government of Japan had insisted that the “comfort stations” were in fact private brothels that had been administered by private citizens. Only in 1993 did the government admit that the Japanese military had been “directly or indirectly” involved in establishment and operation of “comfort stations” and in transportation of the women. The Japanese government also said that private citizens, at the request of the military, had been mainly involved in recruitment of the women.

The first Korean former comfort woman to tell her story was Bae Bong Ki, in 1980. After her, Kim Hak Soon, who died in 1997, related in 1991 how she was abducted by Japanese soldiers when she was 17 years old, and forced to carry ammunition by day and serve as a prostitute by night. Her testimony sparked several other testimonies by women who were obliged to work as sexual slaves in military comfort stations. Evidence of such stations has already been found in the Koreas, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, New Guinea and Okinawa.

Illustrative of the ordeal comfort women went through is the testimony of Chung Seo Woon in the book titled “Making More Waves” (Beacon Press, Boston, 1997). Chung was an only child born in Korea to the family of a wealthy landowner. Because of his activities against colonial rule, her father was sent to prison and badly tortured. When she was 16 she was allowed to visit her father. The same Japanese official who allowed her to see her father came later to her house. He told her that if she went to work in Japan for two years her father would be released. Despite strong objections from her mother, she agreed to do so.

Chung was placed on a ship with many other girls and women. She was hopeful that at the end of the two years her father would be released from prison, as she had been told by the officer. After being taken to Japan, the women were sent to several other countries and a group of them left in each country. After reaching Jakarta, the group that included the young Chung was taken to a hospital where she was sterilized.

The group was then taken to Semarang, a costal city in Indonesia, and placed on a row of barracks. From then on they were obliged to perform sexual intercourse every day with dozens of soldiers and officers. In the process, she was forced to become an opium addict. Chung attempted to commit suicide, by swallowing malaria pills.

Two of her friends reported her to the authorities, she was revived, and, she remarks, “It was then that I made up my mind to survive and tell my story, what Japan did to us.” When the war ended and she returned home, she found her house deserted. From neighbors who came to help her she learned that her father had died while in prison. Her mother, humiliated by the Japanese soldiers’ attempt to rape her, committed suicide.

Chung decided rid herself of the opium addiction. She managed this after eight months and she worked hard to regain her dignity as a human being. She was never able to attain a normal sex life, but found companionship and care from a physician who had had a nervous breakdown after serving in the Japanese Army.

In November of 1994, an International Commission of Jurists stated that, “It is indisputable that these women were forced, deceived, coerced and abducted to provide sexual services to the Japanese military . . . [Japan] violated customary norms of international law concerning war crimes, crimes against humanity, slavery and the trafficking in women and children . . . Japan should take full responsibility now, and make suitable restitution to the victims and their families.”

Still unresolved is a formal, clear and unambiguous apology to the victims of sexual abuse by Japanese soldiers, an adequate monetary compensation to the victims by the Japanese government, and the punishment of those involved.

In 1995, the Japanese government introduced the Asian Women’s Fund as a response to strong international criticism. However, the fund is widely perceived by the survivors as a way for the Japanese government not to fulfill its legal responsibilities toward those women. As Purna Sen, director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Program has stated, “The Japanese government must finally right the wrongs of over 60 years by providing full reparations to the survivors of this horrific system of sexual slavery.”

There is an important symbolic meaning related to the issue of monetary compensation. During her testimony at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, Chung declared, “I might be poor, but not that poor. I demand the compensation that is rightly due to me, even if I would burn the money after it is in my hand. It is not a matter of money but of principle. The Japanese have defiled my body but not my spirit. My spirit is strong, rich, and proud.”