SEOUL – A damaging personal experience with sexual assault has led one young Japanese woman to examine her country’s past.
The woman, who uses the pseudonym Kaori Miyake, now draws on her own hurt together with what she has learned about the experiences of so-called comfort women — women and girls forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II — in the hope of driving change.
Miyake still suffers after the horror of being repeatedly sexually assaulted by a male teacher when she was a teenager. Now a 22-year-old college student, she was shocked when she read testimonials in a class at her private Tokyo school from former comfort women from the Korean Peninsula, who were forced into Japanese wartime military brothels. The stories drove her to learn more, so she decided to join a five-day Japanese university student tour earlier this year to Seoul to educate herself on the comfort women issue from the victims’ perspective.
“I found the same heartache and outcry there that I feel myself,” Miyake said in a recent interview.
Now, with the Me Too movement against sexual harassment and assault gaining momentum, she has pledged to do what she can to bring about a world in which women no longer suffer sexual violence.
Though the comfort women issue has been a long-standing point of emotional and political friction between Japan and South Korea, Miyake said what hurts more than anything is watching the situation deteriorate as the number of remaining survivors declines. “It is only viewed in politics as a ‘thorn’ in the side, and not seen as a human rights issue,” Miyake said.
By participating in the tour, Miyake said she wanted to learn what elderly victims hope to achieve in their ongoing campaign for redress from the Japanese government.
Around 20 women and men between the ages of 19 and 25 took part in the tour, which was organized by a foundation set up by Japanese university professors last June.
Miyake and the other students were able to meet with Gil Won-ok, 89, a former comfort woman who was forced at the age of 13 to provide sex in a military brothel in China.
Gil was among many of the former comfort women who broke their silence in the 1990s and demanded a formal apology and compensation from the Japanese government. While seeking a resolution, Gil has played a leading role in supporting women around the world who are also victims of wartime sexual violence. “I tried my best but I wasn’t able to bring about a world without sexual violence. I want you all to achieve a good world and live life to the fullest,” Gil said while clasping Miyake’s hand.
In a panel discussion with South Korean university students, Miyake said, “There is a tendency in Japanese society not to resolutely confront sexual violence.”
She also gave as an example the courage needed by women who are sexually assaulted to come forward, referencing journalist Shiori Ito, who accused television journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi of raping her while she was unconscious — only to be labeled “a liar.”
“I feel like the atmosphere in society in which sexual victims are forced into silence overlaps with the attitude toward the comfort women issue,” Miyake said.
In South Korea the Me Too movement has seen the ruin of a number of influential politicians, much like the powerful men in Japan seeing similar ramifications for their actions. Even so, there is still a severe backlash toward women who fight against sexual violence in Korean society. “We have to keep raising our voices to be heard,” said a 25-year-old South Korean female university student who campaigns to raise public awareness about the comfort women issue.
“What sexual victims hope for is that the same incident doesn’t happen to someone else,” said Miyake. “When a perpetrator shows remorse and indicates that he is willing to strive to stop such acts from reoccurring, the victim feels relieved. Isn’t that where the real resolution to the comfort women issue lies?”
Based on her own experience, Miyake intends to study how to create a society that can prevent sexual violence against women — not only in war zones, but at home, too.
“I want to stand by victims and become a person who confronts sexual violence head-on,” Miyake said.