TV & Radio
The New York Times
Denial Reopens Wounds of Japan’s Ex-Sex Slaves
Japanese students visiting South Korea view photos of Korean women who were sex slaves of Japan's army.
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
Published: March 8, 2007
SYDNEY, Australia, March 7 — Wu Hsiu-mei said she was 23 and working as a maid in a hotel in 1940 when her Taiwanese boss handed her over to Japanese officers. She and some 15 other women were sent to Guangdong Province in southern China to become sex slaves.
Among the victims of Japanese sexual slavery addressing a conference in Sydney were, top, from left, Wu Hsiu-mei of Taiwan; Jan Ruff O’Herne, an Australian formerly from Java; and bottom, Gil Won-ok, a South Korean.
Enlarge This Image
Tony Sernack for The New York Times
Demonstrators near Parliament in Tokyo with placards denouncing remarks last week by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, denying the role of the country’s military in coercing the women into their plight.
Close allies are urging Mr. Abe to ease the government’s 1993 admission of wartime sexual slavery.
Inside a hotel there was a so-called comfort station, managed by a Taiwanese but serving only the Japanese military, Ms. Wu said. Forced to have sex with more than 20 Japanese a day for almost a year, she said, she had multiple abortions and became sterile.
The long festering issue of Japan’s war-era sex slaves gained new prominence last week when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied the military’s role in coercing the women into servitude. The denial by Mr. Abe, Japan’s first prime minister born after the war, drew official protests from China, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines, some of the countries from which the sex slaves were taken.
The furor highlighted yet again Japan’s unresolved history in a region where it has been ceding influence to China. The controversy has also drawn in the United States, which has strongly resisted entering the history disputes that have roiled East Asia in recent years.
Ms. Wu told her story on Wednesday outside the Japanese Consulate here, where she and two others who had been sex slaves, known euphemistically as comfort women, were protesting Tokyo’s refusal to admit responsibility for the abuse that historians say they and as many as 200,000 other women suffered.
All three — Ms. Wu, who is now 90; a 78-year-old South Korean from Seoul; and an 84-year-old Dutch-Australian from Adelaide — were participating in an international conference for Japan’s former sex slaves here. Now, just days after Mr. Abe’s remarks, 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 Ms. Wu, who landed here in Sydney on Tuesday night after a daylong flight from Taipei. “How can Abe lie to the world like that?”
Mr. Abe, a nationalist who had built his career partly on playing down Japan’s wartime past, made his comments in response to a confluence of events, beginning with the Democratic victory in the American Congressional elections last fall. That gave impetus to a proposed nonbinding resolution in the House that would call on Japan to unequivocally acknowledge and apologize for its brutal mistreatment of the women.
Even as Mr. Abe’s closest allies pressed him to soften a 1993 government statement that acknowledged the military’s role in forcing the women into sexual slavery, three former victims testified in Congress last month.
On Monday, Mr. Abe said he would preserve the 1993 statement but denied its central admission of the military’s role, saying there had been no “coercion, like the authorities breaking into houses and kidnapping” women.
He said private dealers had coerced the women, adding that the House resolution was “not based on objective facts” and that Japan would not apologize even if it was passed.
The resolution calls for Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces’ coercion of young women into sexual slavery.”
“Prime Minister Abe is in effect saying that the women are lying,” Representative Mike Honda, the California Democrat 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.”
Japanese historians, using the diaries and testimony of military officials as well as official documents from the United States and other countries, have been able to show that the military was directly or indirectly involved in coercing, deceiving, luring and sometimes kidnapping young women throughout Japan’s Asian colonies and occupied territories.
They estimate that up to 200,000 women served in comfort stations that were often an intrinsic part of military operations.
Yet although Mr. Abe admitted coercion by private dealers, some of his closest allies in the governing Liberal Democratic Party have dismissed the women as prostitutes who volunteered to work in the comfort stations. They say no official Japanese government documents show the military’s role in recruiting the women.
According to historians, the military established the 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 first months of the postwar occupation, a fact that complicates American involvement in the current debate.
In 1995 a private fund was set up to compensate the women, but many refused to accept any money because they saw the measure as a way for the government to avoid taking direct responsibility. Only 285 women have accepted money from the fund, which will be terminated at the end of this month.
The most direct testimony of the military’s role has come from the women themselves.
“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 to a Congressional panel last month.
Ms. Ruff was living with her family in Java, in what was then the Dutch East Indies, when Japan invaded in 1942. She spent the first two years in a prison camp, she said, but Japanese officers arrived one day in 1944. They forced single girls and women to line up and eventually picked 10 of them, including Ms. Ruff, who was 21.
“On the first night, it was a high-ranking officer,” Ms. Ruff said. “It was so well organized. 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, or sometimes completely relied on, local people to obtain women.
In Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, Gil Won-ok said, she 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, Ms. Gil said, a Japanese military doctor removed her uterus.
“I’ve felt dead inside since I was 15,” said Ms. Gil, who was 16 when the war ended.
Like many comfort women, Ms. Gil was unable to bear children and never married, though she did adopt a son. She now lives in a home with three other former comfort women in Seoul.
Ms. Wu married twice, each time hiding her background. Somehow the husbands found out, and the marriages ended unhappily. Her adopted daughter is now angry with Ms. Wu for having spoken in public about her past, she said.
As for Ms. Ruff, she returned to the prison camp in Java after her release from the comfort station. Her parents swore her to silence. A Roman Catholic priest told Ms. Ruff, who had thought of becoming a nun: “My dear child, under these circumstances it is wise that you do not become a nun.”
It was 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 had two daughters and migrated to Australia.
“But I needed to talk about it,” Ms. Ruff said, sitting at the kitchen table in her daughter Carol’s home here. “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,” Ms. 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.”
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Carol said.
“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,” Ms. Ruff said. “But I remember telling Carol, ‘One day I’m going to tell my story, and people will be interested.’