by Yesenia Olmos
The euphemistic “comfort women” were a group of women and girls from 13 different Asian countries who were tricked into becoming sex slaves during WWII, conducted by the Japanese Imperial Army. These “comfort women” were used as tools by the Japanese army to raise the morale of the troops, maintaining discipline, preventing looting, rape, arson, and sexually transmitted diseases, which is what the “comfort stations” claimed they were doing. Ironically, the “comfort stations” were put in place to prevent the events that were concurrently happening. It is estimated that around 200,00 women were “comfort women”, however, 75% of them would die or mysteriously disappear after the war. Women were taken from China, Taiwan, Philippines, Burma, Indonesia (Dutch East Indies), and other neighboring countries. Many of the women would even “cut their hair short and dress like men” in order to combat being taken and forced to work as a “comfort woman”. In a way the Japanese were trying to emasculate men for different Asian countries, claiming they could not protect their women.
According to a letter written by Japanese-American US soldier Alex Yorichi, “A ‘comfort girl’ was nothing more than a prostitute or ‘professional camp follower”, this letter was stamped “SECRET”. It was also hard to communicate with the girls since many did not speak the same language and could not advocate for one another. The letter also revealed that the women “lived in luxury” which was not the case for many of the “comfort stations”. The Japanese military systematically imprisoned thousands of women in order to expand a utopian overseas empire.
Many of the women taken were from poor villages with promises of work and compensation. Unfortunately, little or no pay would be given to these women for their “service”. Each soldier was granted one ticket per day to enter the “comfort stations”. It was reported that “comfort women” were forced to have sex with as many as sixty men in a day, and were given little to no days off. Accordingly, it was considered dishonorable when a soldier had a sexually transmitted disease, therefore many tried to conceal it by allowing it to spread and infect many of the “comfort women”. By 1944, 12,487 men were infected. This shame would carry on over to the “comfort women”, who even after the war were afraid to speak up because of the shame and dishonor that surrounded being a “comfort women”. Many suffered ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’, unable to rehabilitate back into society. Many were also shamed by their families and for fear of revealing the truth they stayed quiet. Fortunately, the 21st century would be a time in which “comfort women” could begin to speak about the atrocities committed to them. The first “comfort women” to speak was in 1991, which initiated the ‘redress movement’. Korean activist and past “comfort woman,” Kim Hak-sun spoke out against the Japanese government, this then led to the hundreds of “comfort women” who later came forward testifying about the horrors of the “comfort stations”. The Japanese government however to this day does not acknowledge this ever happened, many Japanese students are not taught about this part of history, most of WWII is censored. However, since the “comfort women” have spoken out there have been many statues made around the world commemorating the “comfort women”. This just comes to show that history can be mended if there is will.
There are many issues of controversy surrounding the “comfort women”, the Japanese government to this day will not apologize for these atrocities committed almost a century ago. The Japanese government continues to deny this ever happened, and claim these women were “prostitutes”. There is so much controversy that the “comfort women” monument that was unveiled 2017, in Manila, Philippines was shamefully removed in 2018. A day after the removal Osaka mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura tweeted the following: “... I want the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan to put forth an effort to remove the Comfort Women Memorial Statue, which has been set up in one city of the United States with which Japan has an alliance.” The city which Yoshimura speaks of is San Francisco. In 1951, Japan signed the ‘San Francisco Peace Treaty’ along with forty-eight other countries including Canada. This would end the American- Allied occupation in Japan, however, topics of negligence have resurfaced and the Japanese government under Shinzo Abe refuse to cooperate. The statue of the “comfort women” in San Francisco right on California Street is very important, it symbolizes revolution and antiquity. Many are unaware of just how much history this statue holds, along with the problematic governmental issues surrounding its location.
Along with the “comfort women” statues a renowned statue that really caught my attention was ‘The Peace Girl’, it is a statue that sits next to an empty chair, which invites one to think “What if it was me?”. Like the one pictured above, I sat in the empty chair, and as I sat I thought about what it would be like if I was in one of the “comfort women's” shoes. I went home and thought of a poem that could most describe how I felt.
Poem by Yesenia Olmos
“What if it was me?”
As I sit in the empty chair, I think “what if it was me?”
What if it was me who at the age of eleven was taken from my country
What if it was me who had to forcefully sell my body, only to be recognized as a “prostitute”
What if it was me who was forgotten amidst the modernization of WWII
The girl next to the empty chair must be filled by you and me, woman or man
The girl represents peace, she represents solidarity, she represents atrocities
Those women were forgotten and denied an apology by the Japanese government
This girl is you and me, she represents humanity
We must remember solidarity
We must remember forgotten history
We must remember humility
We must remember hope
Hope for an apology
Hope for improved history lessons
Hope for the next seven generations
Hope for the majority to rise up from being the minority
History teaches us how to correct past wrongs, it teaches us how humanity is connected no matter race, gender, ethnicity, or stature. The “comfort women” are only one of the many atrocities committed in our world today. The continuation of human rights violations is still very present. The “comfort women” teach us that no matter what obstacles stand in your way, if you persevere history, it can begin to correct itself.
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