National / History

Exhibition sheds light on plight of wartime 'comfort women' in Burma

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

An exhibition on sexual violence committed by the Japanese military in wartime Burma has begun at a Tokyo museum as part of efforts to document the experiences of female victims.

Documented in a series of panels at the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, or WAM, former “comfort women” have given testimonies of life at Japanese military brothels, or “comfort stations.”

The exhibition also includes pictures of the victims and facilities that were used as brothels in what is now known as Myanmar.

Since its launch in 2005, WAM, which is Japan’s only museum focused on wartime sexual violence against women, has organized several exhibitions about the comfort women of Korea, East Timor, the Philippines as well as what is now Indonesia.

“This time, we have decided to focus on Burma, where many women were involved not only in sexual slavery but also in harsh battles between Japan and the Allied forces,” said Mina Watanabe, the museum’s secretary-general.

According to information presented at the exhibition, Japan started establishing comfort stations in Burma along its invasion routes soon after it took control of the then-capital Rangoon, currently Yangon, in 1942.

While it has been confirmed that comfort stations were set up in more than 60 areas, it remains unclear how many were operated and how many women and girls were forced into sexual servitude as some brothels were transplanted in step with movements of Japanese troops.

Among the victims featured in the exhibit is Moon Ok-ju, who was taken away from Daegu, in what is now South Korea, by the Japanese military police in 1940 at the age of 16. She was forced into comfort stations in Manchuria, China, and eventually in Mandalay and other places in Burma before returning home in 1946.

While her desperate sexual exploitation led to her taking up drinking and smoking, Moon managed to save some money, mostly from tips she received by performing songs during Japanese soldiers’ banquets.

“Her life represented a struggle of living through terrible hardship,” Watanabe said.

Moon stepped forward in 1991 at the urging of an acquaintance who said it is a historically important fact that she was forced to serve as a comfort woman. Moon also joined a damages suit against the Japanese government before her death in 1996 at age 72.

Another woman, Sin Hyon-sun, was brought to a comfort station in New Guinea from Busan and then to one in Rangoon.

“A comfort station in Rangoon was located in the center of the city, and there were around 80 women from Korea, Taiwan and Japan,” according to a panel carrying Sin’s testimony. The victims were required to go through medical checkups, apparently for sexually transmitted diseases, at a military hospital every Monday.

The yearlong exhibition that lasts through the end of next June also presents notes written by former Japanese soldiers deployed to Burma, showing their shocking indifference to the victims’ fate.

A former officer noted, “The comfort women may have suffered sexual diseases, but they looked beautiful as angels and many officers found comfort in them, allowing them to forget their dismal life for a moment.”

When the Imperial Japanese Army was eventually exposed to crushing attacks from Allied forces, comfort women were forced to retreat alongside the defeated Japanese soldiers.

Historical documents, eyewitness testimony and notes from Japanese soldiers indicate local Burmese women were also forced into the comfort stations. However, “no Myanmar women have come forward ever to claim damages,” WAM’s Watanabe said, indicating the need for further research into their fates.

On the comfort women issue, Japan and South Korea agreed in December to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the long-standing dispute, with Japan contributing ¥1 billion to a new South Korean fund to support former comfort women, acknowledging responsibility for their suffering.

The deal, however, has been questioned, with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urging Tokyo and Seoul in March to heed the voices of the victims.

“It is fundamentally important that the relevant authorities reach out to these courageous and dignified women. Ultimately only they can judge whether they have received genuine redress,” he said.

Some Japanese lawmakers, on the other hand, claimed Japan should not release the money to the fund unless a statue of a girl symbolizing the comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul is removed.

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