On Friday, December 2nd, 2011, hundreds of high school students from all over the Lower Mainland gathered at Vancouver Technical Secondary School for the International Human Rights Day Symposium, held by Canada ALPHA (Association for Learning & Preserving the History of WWII in Asia). The Symposium consisted of a series of workshops to raise awareness on atrocities that took place during the Asia-Pacific War (1931 – 1945) in advance of December 10th, International Human Rights Day.
As a History 12 student, I attended these workshops myself, with the most significant one being about Comfort Women. This was my first time ever learning about Comfort Women, and I was shocked by not only how horrifying the subject was itself but how little it was known to the world. The title “comfort women” was given to a woman who was forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese soldiers during World War II. Emperor Hirohito, the ruler at the time, had given these women as “gifts” to the soldiers to reward them for the service, as well as to prevent them from catching any sexually transmitted diseases with their spontaneous sexual activities and slowing down the proficiency in the war. The fact that he allowed the sexual slavery to take place and made it a systemic function is a critical aspect of the wrongdoings against these women.
The women, the majority of them from Korea and the rest from China, Indonesia and the Philippines, were either lured from their homes with lies of promising pay for housework or simply captured, then taken to the houses that were used for the sole purpose of serving the soldiers’ sexual needs. Each woman faced four to six men per day who treated them like animals as many of the survivors described, using unimaginable methods of torture and rape. The few that tried to escape were captured and executed in public, while many others died from physical and mental toil. The remaining ones were lugged around with the soldiers wherever they went, and received minimal medical care with the exception of the check-ups that were intended to protect the soldiers, not the women. The soldiers also refused to use the condoms that were recommended and provided, causing the women to undergo abortion multiple times and eventually lose their ability to have children. When the war ended, some of the women were abandoned atop mountains by the soldiers, and others killed off. The survivors lost their way in life, shunned from family and society and buried in shame and self-disgust.
My classmates and I were appalled. I was even more so, due to my Korean heritage. However, we couldn’t help but admire the courage and strength of these former comfort women, who opened up about what they had gone through despite the traumatizing effects that it had left on them. In fact, they express themselves proudly and publicly now, in weekly Wednesday demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy in South Korea. This demonstration has set the record as the longest demonstration in history, and held its 1000th demonstration on December 14th with an estimate of 1000 people, ranging from former comfort women and their friends and family to middle and high school students and visitors from all around the world. This event was also promoted via social media, encouraging people to tweet the Prime Minister of Japan about the issue. The passion and devotion of the surviving comfort women have captured attention internationally, with the United Nations and governments of several nations, including Canada, urging Japan to respond accordingly to the outcries of the former comfort women.
So what exactly are these women asking for? Acknowledgement and reparations. The former comfort women want the Japanese government to give an official and sincere apology for their past actions, and make amendments for what the women had to suffer. However, the Japanese government has responded by saying that the women volunteered themselves to prostitution and destroying much of the evidence that existed. The subject of comfort women is barely touched upon in the school textbooks in Japan, if mentioned at all. This is similar to the way that the Japanese government is dealing with other atrocities that arose during the Asia-Pacific War, such as the Rape of Nanking.
It is unimaginable how much damage the whole experience inflicted on the former comfort women. But even more unimaginable is their endurance and strength to survive such horrors and fight for their human rights to this very day. As the Wednesday demonstrations carry on, so does the hope that these women will bring justice one day.
Photo from www.c-faculty.chuo-u.ac.jp/