Wartime sex slaves still emerging in China, but some will take secret to the grave
Surviving ‘comfort women’ and their children pledge to continue fight for apology and compensation for suffering at hands of Japanese military
In the 12 months leading up to Wednesday’s 80th anniversary of the start of the Nanking massacre, a researcher in the city discovered two previously unknown Chinese survivors of forced sexual slavery organised by the Japanese military.
Liu Guangjian, from the Memorial Hall for Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders, has been researching the “comfort women” issue for the two-year-old, government-run Comfort Women Museum in Nanjing.
He said there were only 15 Chinese survivors left, the last of the comfort women who had testified publicly in China. He visited seven in Hainan last year, but two had since died.
Liu said two new survivors had come forward in the past year to testify of their suffering in Japanese military brothels.
“One was from Hunan, another one was in Zhejiang,” he said. “The women didn’t even know they were comfort women. When these women shared their suffering with the others, people passed on their stories to the researchers. After identification by specialists, they were confirmed as comfort women.”
One survivor who testified 36 years ago, He Yuelian, still has traumatic flashbacks so intense she will scream “Get out! Get out!” day or night – 74 years after her terrifying ordeal in a Japanese military brothel.
In 1943, He, now 89, was 15 when Japanese soldiers invaded her village in Wuxiang county in Shanxi province. Two soldiers raped her. The soldiers ransacked her village and tortured and killed several men. They rounded up He and six girls and forced them to serve as sex slaves in a military brothel.
“I was bleeding [from the rapes] but that did not stop the raping and torture from the Japanese soldiers,” she said, her leathery face contorted in an angry scowl.
The Japanese military used the euphemism comfort women to describe the girls and women rounded up or trafficked from all over the Asia-Pacific and forced into prostitution to comfort soldiers in military brothels called comfort stations. There were more than 1,000 comfort stations in China alone, mostly on the front lines of war. Scholars say up to 400,000 girls and women were trafficked in the highly organised military sexual slavery system.
The Japanese military set up the first comfort women stations in Shanghai in 1931 and went on to establish military brothels across China and East and Southeast Asia during the second world war.
Due to He’s constant bleeding, she was sent home after new Chinese girls were forced into the comfort station. But she was captured again and forced to serve in another military brothel for two months.
She was raped continuously. Someone from her village spotted her one day and informed her family, which then gathered enough money to buy her back from the Japanese soldiers. After returning to her village, she remained depressed and in ill health. At 18, she married but due to the repeated rapes, she was unable to become pregnant.
“I suffered deeply. It cost me everything,” she said. “I was pure, not aware of sex. It was a never-ending nightmare.”
He said she would never stop fighting for an apology and compensation for her suffering at the hands of the Japanese soldiers.
“I remember all the devilish injustice the Japanese army committed against us,” she said. “Shouldn’t the Japanese government accept its unshirkable responsibility in committing these brutal acts? We were regular women but became handicapped. Because of this, we are waiting for the clearing of this debt by the Japanese people.”
After the war, her younger sister had pity on He, who was depressed about her infertility, and gave her baby daughter to He and her husband to raise. “I survived because of my adopted daughter and the special love between us,” He said. “Taking care of her kept me going.”
He and her husband grew corn and grains and took on odd jobs to put food on the table for their daughter, Cheng Aixian.
“My mother did every kind of tough farming work,” Cheng said. “She dug in the river, planted trees. She needed to survive. They were so poor.”
In 1981, when she was 53, He testified publicly together with another woman from her village who had been forced into prostitution. She later joined a lawsuit to sue Japan for compensation and an apology for the severe pain she endured.
Why did she wait 38 years from the time she was forced into sex slavery before going public? “I was too ashamed to talk about it,” she said, adding that she suffered because of her long silence.
She said there were other former comfort women sex slaves who would take their secret to the grave.
Liu, the researcher in Nanjing, said the Japanese military’s comfort women system was “extremely inhumane and brought cruel destruction to the women”.
“It was also a double trauma [physical and psychological] especially for the comfort woman survivors, because they also had to deal with the judgment from their families, friends and neighbours after the war,” Liu said. “Living in a conservative culture and environment, [the survivors] had to live with immense pressure and trauma.”
He’s son-in-law, Bai Zengfa, said her trauma was “very intense”.
“Every time she thinks about her experiences with the soldiers, she’ll scream ‘Get out!’ Sometimes she doesn’t know she’s screaming,” he said.
In 1981, the year she publicly testified that she had been a comfort woman, He also told her daughter, then 15, about her wartime trauma. Cheng said she sensed at the time that her mother’s health was frail.
“I felt sad and angry,” she said. “Her health is very poor due to the lifelong effects of sex slavery. Her pain is our pain. Even now I feel angry. I want justice.”
Bai and Cheng said they had vowed to keep fighting for justice for He after “she leaves this world”.
“We have to tell the world,” Cheng said. “I will insist on chasing justice for my mother. I won’t stop. The Japanese must apologise directly to my mother and all the elderly comfort women.”
Seven years ago, He met some Japanese people for the first time since her enslavement at the comfort station. A Japanese Christian reconciliation team called Healing River-Rainbow Bridge made several trips to visit survivors and their families and apologised for their treatment at the hands of the Japanese military.
Tomoko Hasegawa, one of the leaders of Healing River-Rainbow Bridge, said she was inspired after hearing a former Japanese soldier speak of his support for Wan Aihua, the first Chinese comfort women to go public about her experiences as a sex slave in Japanese military brothels.
Hasegawa said she hoped the team’s reconciliation work would help reveal the historical truth and bring healing to the survivors of military sex slavery, their children and future generations in China, Japan and Korea. She said that although younger Chinese had not experienced the war, they “still hate the Japanese”.
He, Cheng and Bai said the apologies had changed their view of ordinary Japanese people.
“We cried because we were touched by the apologies from the Japanese Christians ... before we felt hatred [for the Japanese] for the trauma done to our mother,” Cheng said. “The feelings are so complex. I really hated the Japanese soldiers and what they did. But we don’t hate the Japanese people any more.”
In 1982, Zhang Shuangbing, 54, met an older woman in his village who told him she had been forced into being a comfort woman in Japanese military brothels. He was disturbed by her constant weeping. He met other women with the same experiences and volunteered to help them, making medical appointments for them and applying for medical subsidies from the government on their behalf.
He eventually resigned from his teaching job when the work of helping the traumatised women consumed his schedule.
Every month, he delivers a monthly stipend to the women. He said he had also helped survivors participate in 16 lawsuits in Japan since 1992 calling on the Japanese government to sincerely apologise. The last one was in 2007. But all the lawsuits failed to get the women the apology and compensation they demanded.
“The compensation amount that we asked for in 1992 was US$120,000 per woman,” Zhang said. “Until now, 25 years have already passed. The Japanese government is still neglecting the sorrow and pain of the comfort women survivors and this shows their inhumanity.”
He said they were now demanding compensation of US$1 million per survivor, and the fight would continue even after the last one died.
“I’ll keep appealing and fighting for comfort women until I die,” he said. “I really feel bad about the comfort women survivors as they pass away one by one. I feel sad.
“The Japanese recruited these women to be comfort women sex slaves. This is a fact. I believe one day the Japanese government will apologise. I have hope in this.”
The apology from the Japanese government that would satisfy him would be directly given to the survivors but also in a “public way through media and television channels”, he said.
He said that if the Japanese government did not apologise in a way that helped the women, generations of Chinese people would continue to have anger and unforgiveness in their hearts for Japanese military war crimes and human rights violations before and during the second world war.
“I definitely have intense hatred for them because I’ve heard so many stories of suffering comfort women,” Zhang said.
Bryan Druzin, law professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “Unlike Germany, Japan has never fully come to terms with its past. It is yet to explicitly acknowledge the tens of thousands of comfort women who were raped by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army before and during the second world war.”
Yoon Mee-hyang, co-chairwoman of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, said the 33 remaining survivors in South Korea – out of 237 who registered with the government – including some who were enslaved in China, wanted recognition of the Japanese government’s legal responsibility for sexual slavery under the Japanese military, and a formal apology.
“Unless past histories across Korea, China, and Japan are properly cleared, it will be difficult to form a future-oriented relationship between China and Japan,” she said. “The Japanese government’s recognition of past crimes and the fulfilment of its responsibilities will take some time, but I think it will eventually happen.”
In a speech two years ago, marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reaffirmed the “heartfelt apology for its actions during the war” offered by his predecessors but stopped short of directly mentioning the plight of comfort women and the Nanking massacre.
China says Japanese soldiers killed more than 300,000 people in the six-week massacre, which started on December 13, 1937, the day the Japanese captured the city, now known as Nanjing.
The Japanese government says it issued a sufficient apology through a statement in 1993 by then chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono that acknowledged the Japanese authorities’ role in coercing the women.