Holly Pittaway argues for more education and awareness of the history of Japan’s comfort women
Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic description of sexual violence.
Japan today is the home of anime, manga, and all things pop culture. In recent years, it has experienced a massive tourism boom with over 28.7 million people visiting in 2017, a huge growth compared to the mere 3.3 million visitors that it received twenty years ago. But the country is hiding a dark past, a past that it has yet to come to terms with, a past that not enough people know about – this is the story of the comfort women.
Between 1932 and 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army forced thousands of women and young girls from all over its occupied lands, namely Korea, China, and the Philippines, into sexual slavery. They earned the name ‘comfort women’ because they were being used for exactly that – ‘comfort’ for the Japanese soldiers. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, even more comfort women were enlisted under false pretences after being told they would be sent to work in factories, restaurants, or to school for a higher education. However, since the Japanese government has been tight-lipped about this part of their history, we cannot know how many women were abducted and taken to these so-called ‘comfort stations’, although estimates range between 20,000 and 410,000.
Madame Kim Bok-Dong was amongst those taken, although she was much younger than the average comfort woman of 19 years old, being just 14 (in Western age) at the time. When Japanese soldiers took her from her home in South Korea at the start of the war, they assured her parents that she was just being sent to work in a factory making soldier’s uniforms, and that she would be back when she was old enough to marry. She was then taken, along with 30 other girls, to a comfort station in Guangdong Province, China. Upon arrival she was given a full-body examination and sent to her dorm, where slowly the reality began to sink in as she saw the true nature of the so-called ‘factory’ she would be working in. Put to work immediately, she was dragged into a room by a Japanese soldier who physically beat her, and then raped her; ‘When the guy finished, I was bleeding badly because it was my first time. The bed sheet was soaked in blood’ she recounted to a reporter for Asian Boss. She never wanted that to happen to her again, so she and some other girls at the comfort station pooled all the money they had and were able to afford a bottle of Kaoliang wine, a strong distilled Chinese liquor with between 38-63% alcohol content, which they used to attempt suicide. Unfortunately for them, the attempt was unsuccessful as the girls were found by soldiers and revived. From that day on Madame Kim vowed she would live to tell her story.
Like many other girls, Madame Kim was raped routinely by Japanese soldiers every day, often multiple times a day, for several years – Kim remembered that on Sundays she would be forced to have sex from 8 o’clock in the morning to 5 o’clock at night. Finally, at the age of 21, she was reunited with her family, although many girls were not so lucky. Madame Kim’s story, and the story of all the comfort women, does not end there though. After the war, their story went untold for years, and in part is still untold today; Madame Kim herself was not able to speak publicly about her experience until the age of 60, but even then the Japanese government refused to acknowledge the atrocities committed against these women, instead maintaining that they were prostitutes who willingly migrated to Japanese army bases in order to make as much money as they could from the war climate. With few comfort women remaining, it is unlikely that they will receive a formal apology or compensation from the government before their deaths – but we cannot let their history die with them.
Our history books need changing. As a second-year History student, I find it shocking that I only learnt the story of the comfort women just a few weeks ago, and even then it wasn’t something I was taught in a lecture, but rather a video that was recommended to me on YouTube. Too many people are in the dark about this issue that is still very prevalent in our world today, and while social media can be useful when it comes to telling untold histories, this can only have a limited influence – the only way for us to solve the comfort women controversy is to put it on our curriculum. Of course, this isn’t the only narrative being left out of history, and it would be impossible to tell them all, but the way history is being taught undoubtedly needs to change – a change that should begin with the comfort women.