Chinese ‘comfort women’: accounts of Japan’s wartime sex slaves remembered in newly translated book
US scholar hopes her book, which features the harrowing testimony of 12 survivors of the Japanese military’s wartime ‘comfort stations’, will help educate people so that what happened then can never happen to anyone again
The “comfort women” – the many thousands of women who served as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the second world war – are a hugely emotive topic. A statue of two of them – one Chinese and one Korean – erected near the Japanese consulate in Hong Kong’s Central district this summer nearly caused a diplomatic row, and tensions escalated in September when a similar life-size statue was put on display in Causeway Bay.
There is a vast body of scholarly work and documented evidence of Korean “comfort women” – work started by Korean and Japanese researchers and feminist scholars in the early 1990s – but until a few years ago there was no book in English on the Chinese women who were forced to service Japanese soldiers.
When Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves was released in 2013, it was the first English publication that documented the atrocities of the Japanese Imperial Army in China. It details how between 200,000 and 400,000 women and girls were forced into sexual slavery in military “comfort stations” during the war years.
Written by Peipei Qiu, a professor of Chinese and Japanese at Vassar College in New York, with the support of two Chinese scholars, Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei, the book gives historical accounts of 12 comfort station survivors and is supported by witness testimonies, archival records and investigations. Earlier this month, Hong Kong University Press released a Chinese translation of the book and Professor Qiu was in Hong Kong for the launch.
“In the book I use the term comfort women in quotation marks on the first reference to communicate that this is a term which is not acceptable, not only to the survivors, but also the researchers,” Qiu says.
The “comfort women” system began after the Japanese army invaded Manchuria in Northeast Asia in 1932. The system of abuse escalated after the 1937 Nanking massacre in the Chinese city now known as Nanjing, and continued throughout the second world war.
In most cases, the women were taken from their homes and forced to work as sex slaves. Those who resisted the repeated rapes were beaten or killed, and those who attempted to escape were punished with anything from torture to decapitation.
Qiu shared the story of Liu Mianhuan, who was 15 years old when Japanese soldiers abducted her in front of her mother. Qiu’s voice shook as she recounted how Liu had told her how she was raped by at least five or six soldiers every day and then the military commander at night.
“She [Liu Mianhuan] recounted during our interview: ‘The torture made my private parts infected and my entire body swollen. The pain in my lower body was excruciating to the point that I could neither sit nor stand. Since I could not walk, when I needed to go to the latrine I had to crawl on the ground.’ What a living hell’,” Qiu says.
The experiences of the “comfort women” vary: some were abducted and others were deceived; some were raped several times a day and others as many as 60 times; and some were detained for days or weeks and others for years.
“The unspeakable atrocities under the comfort women system were a crime against humanity,” Qiu says.
The Japanese Army did not have special prisons for female prisoners of war. Qiu shares an account from a Japanese soldier who said that female POWs were sent to the frontline barracks where they were confined as “comfort women”. As no contraceptive measures were taken, some of the women became pregnant.
“This Japanese soldier said that the [pregnant] women were taken out and used for bayonet practice and that the baby and the woman were killed together. He said no one knows how many women were killed that way, [but it] must be tens of thousands,” Qiu says.
Comfort stations were set up in many areas, including mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, the Philippines, British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, Thailand, French Indochina, Burma, and Japan. “In Hong Kong there were some British nurses who were raped and confined as ‘comfort women’,” Qiu says.
So why did the stories of Chinese “comfort women” remain unknown for so long? Qiu suggests that after the war, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East stopped short of holding the leaders of the Japanese military and government responsible for the military comfort stations.
Qiu says some scholars suspect racial prejudice, as most of the victims of enforced sexual slavery were not white; some white women in Southeast Asia, such as Dutch descendants in the East Indies, did become “comfort women”. She notes that others have suggested patriarchal rules of gender are so deeply ingrained in the military of all nations that there is a general insensitivity to women’s rights.
Tokyo says that no documentary evidence has been found to prove the direct involvement of the Japanese government or the military of forcing women into comfort stations.
“Outside of government circles, Japanese conservative writers and nationalist activists have argued that ‘comfort women’ were professional prostitutes in wartime brothels run by private agencies and that neither the state nor the military were involved,” Qiu says.
She says the point of remembering the “comfort women” today is not to disgrace the people of Japan; she compares it to remembering the victims of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. “When we are doing that, we are not disgracing Germany or America, right?” she says.
Instead she hopes that by recognising the suffering of the “comfort women”, people will begin to understand the reality of the wartime comfort stations and enable those affected to come to terms with the trauma of the past.
Time is running out for the surviving “comfort women”. All 12 of the women featured in the book have since died; most were in their late 80s or 90s. Qiu says there are nine known Chinese “comfort women” survivors, of whom four are on Hainan Island. Following her Hong Kong presentation, Qiu went on to Hainan to meet the four, who are now all in their 90s.
“The worst fear of the survivors is that their painful experience will be forgotten. So what we need to do – and I hope my book will help in some small part – is to help educate our people for generations to remember what happened in the past and to make sure that type of atrocity will not happen again. Not to anyone,” she says.