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Decades past, little comfort for Japanese sex slaves
By Norimitsu Onishi
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
International Herald Tribune
SYDNEY: Three grandmothers from three different countries, speaking no common language, they had traveled far to protest outside the Japanese consulate here Wednesday.
What bound them — a 90-year-old Taiwanese from Taipei, a 78-year-old South Korean from Seoul, and an 84- year-old Dutch-Australian from Adelaide — was their experiences as sex slaves of Japan's military during World War II.
All three had participated in international conferences for Japan's former sex slaves before. But on Wednesday, just days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan denied the military's role in coercing the women into servitude, the three were united in their fury.
"I was taken away by force by Japanese officers, and a Japanese military doctor forced me to undress to examine me before I was taken away," said Wu Hsiu-mei, 90, who had landed here the night before after a daylong flight from Taipei. "How can Abe lie to the world like that?"
Abe's denial drew official protests from China, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines, some of the countries from which the sex slaves were taken. They pushed back to the forefront a dark chapter of Japan's wartime history that, despite an increasingly well- organized international network of activists, seemed destined to lose its raw power along with the dwindling population of former sex slaves now mostly in their 80s.
The furor highlighted yet again Japan's unresolved history in a region over which it has been ceding influence to China. It has also put at the very center of an emotionally charged debate the United States, which has strongly resisted being drawn into the history disputes roiling East Asia in recent years.
The prime minister's comments resulted from a confluence of events. Abe, a nationalist who had spent his career trying to play down Japan's wartime past, was elected prime minister last fall. At the same time, the Democratic victory in Congress gave impetus to a nonbinding resolution in the House of Representatives that would demand that Japan unequivocally acknowledge and apologize for its sex slaves, known euphemistically as comfort women.
Even as Abe's closest allies pressed him to revise a 1993 government statement that acknowledged the military's role in recruiting the women, three former sex slaves testified in Congress last month. On Monday, Abe said he would keep the 1993 statement but denied its central admission of the military's role, saying that there had been no "coercion, like the authorities breaking into houses and kidnapping" women. He said that private dealers had coerced the women, adding that the House resolution was "not based on objective facts" and he would not apologize even if it were passed.
The resolution calls for Japan to "formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Force's coercion of young women into sexual slavery."
"Prime Minister Abe is in effect saying that the women are lying," Mike Honda, the Democratic congressman from California who is spearheading the legislation, said in a telephone interview. "I find it hard to believe that he is correct given the evidence uncovered by Japanese historians and the testimony of the comfort women."
Abe's distinction goes to the heart of the debate over state responsibility in Japan during the war. While Abe admitted coercion by private dealers, some of his closest allies in the governing Liberal Democratic Party have dismissed them as prostitutes who volunteered to work in the so-called comfort stations.
Japanese historians, using diaries and testimonies of military officials, as well as official documents from the United States and other countries, have been able to show how the Japanese military was directly or indirectly involved in coercing, deceiving, luring, sometimes kidnapping outright young women throughout its Asian colonies and occupied territories. As many as 200,000 comfort women are estimated to have served in stations that were often an intrinsic part of military operations. But Abe's allies point out there are no official Japanese government documents showing the military's role in recruiting the women.
In 1995, a private fund was set up to compensate the sex slaves, but many women refused to accept any money because they saw the fund's nongovernment nature as a way for Tokyo to avoid taking direct responsibility. Only 285 women have accepted money from this fund, which will be terminated at the end of this month.
According to historians, the military established the comfort stations to boost morale among its troops, but also to prevent rapes of local women and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among soldiers. Japan's deep fear of rampaging soldiers also led it to establish brothels with Japanese prostitutes across Japan for American soldiers during the postwar U.S. Occupation — a fact that complicates American involvement in the current debate.
"An apology is the most important thing we want — an apology that comes from the government, not only a personal one — because this would give us back our dignity," said Jan Ruff O'Herne, 84, who testified in Congress last month.
Ruff was living with her family in Java, in the former Dutch East Indies, when Japan invaded in 1942. After she had spent the first two years in a prison camp, she said, Japanese officers came one day in 1944. They forced single girls to line up and eventually picked 10 of them, including Ruff who was 21 years old at the time.
"On the first night, it was a high- ranking officer," Ruff said. "He had a beautiful sword — I can see it as clearly as if it were yesterday."
"It was so well organized," she said. "A military doctor came to our house regularly to examine us against venereal diseases, and I tell you before I was examined, the doctor raped me first — that's how well organized it was."
In Japan's colonies, historians say, the military worked closely with locals to recruit women or relied on them completely.
In Taiwan, Wu said she was 23 years old and working as a maid in a hotel in 1940, when her Taiwanese boss handed her to Japanese officers. She and some 15 other women were then transported in a Japanese warship from Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan to Guangdong in southern China.
Inside a hotel, the comfort station was managed by a Taiwanese but served only Japanese military, Wu said. As she was forced to have sex with more than 20 Japanese a day for almost a year, Wu had abortions and became sterile.
In Pyongyang, in what is now North Korea, Gil Won Ok, 78, said she had lined up outside a Japanese military base to look for work in her early teens. A Korean man, she said, approached her with the promise of factory work, but she eventually found herself in a comfort station in northeast China.
After she caught syphilis and developed tumors, Gil said, a Japanese military doctor removed her uterus. "I've felt dead inside since I was 15," said Gil, who was 16 when the war ended.
Ever since a Korean woman spoke in 1992 about her experiences as a sex slave and broke the silence, other women in several countries, assisted by private organizations, have revealed details about their lives during and after the war.
Like many of the women, Gil was unable to bear children and never married. She found herself in South Korea, separated from her family in the North; she took all sorts of jobs to survive.
One day, an unmarried woman for whom she had prepared seaweed soup gave birth to a boy, whom Gil immediately adopted. The son, now 49, is a Methodist minister and has his own family.
In Taiwan, Wu married twice, each time hiding her background. Somehow the husbands found out, and the marriages ended unhappily.
As for Ruff, she returned to the prison camp in Java after her release from the comfort station. Her parents swore her to silence. But it is at the camp that she met her future husband, Tom Ruff, one of the British soldiers who had been deployed to guard the camp after Japan's defeat. She told him her story once before they were married — long before they would have two daughters and migrate to Australia.
"But I needed to talk about it," Ruff said. "I could never talk to my husband about it. I loved Tom and I wanted to marry and I wanted a house. I wanted a family, I wanted children, but I didn't want sex. He had to be very patient with me. He was a good husband. But because we couldn't talk about it, it made it all so hard."
"You could talk to Dad about it," said her daughter Carol, 55.
"No, this is what I keep saying," Ruff said. "I just told him the story once. It was never talked about again. For that generation, the story was too big. My mum couldn't cope with it. My dad couldn't cope with it. Tom couldn't cope with it. They just shut it up. But nowadays, you'll get counseling immediately."
"You don't know how hard it was to carry this enormous burden inside you, that you would like to scream out to the world, and yet you cannot," Ruff said. "But I remember telling Carol, one day, I'm going to tell my story and people will be interested."