Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day and the Forgotten Comfort Women of WWII

Silicon Valley may have it's first monument to the suffering of "Comfort Women," the young women and girls who were coerced into sexual slavery in Imperial Japanese Army-occupied East Asia during WWII, if a monument to remember the Holocaust and World Genocide is approved by one of our local cities

To date, discussions on erecting a monument of this type have been tabled, apparently based on possible controversy with partners in local sister City programs. A group of area residents continue to revise and redesign memorial plans to accommodate concerns, hoping to to revisit approval for a world genocide memorial at future council sessions, much like the group who assisted Sonoma State University achieve consensus for it's elegant, educational Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove, mentioned below:

"Hundreds of bricks display the messages of love, honor and hope. This project was launched by a few people with a budget of hope and promise, the joint efforts of the Sonoma State University School of Social Sciences, The Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, The Alliance for the Study of the Holocaust, and donor principal donor Mr. David Salm. It was made possible, too, by the generosity of the whole community and especially the businesses who have extended themselves in a most meaningful way to affirm the phrase 'Never again.' ”
Sonoma State University
Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove

Why Remember Comfort Women?

Comfort Women have been viewed as victims of genocide, since many of the girls and young women who were coerced into sexual slavery during WWII, were left at the front to die by retreating Imperial Japanese Army troops. 

Likewise, many surviving Comfort Women were left infertile due to shots they were given to control venereal diseases during the war.

 Sonoma State University, after careful deliberation and study, erected a Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove on campus. The focus of the memorial is a lovely sculpture by Jann Nunn which serves as a beacon for peace, when lit after dark. 

Tiles with names of those who were lost to genocide form stylistic railroad ties under metal rods representing train tracks. These "track" converge under the green glass memorial, in a peaceful grove setting near a man-made lake on campus.

A quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is inscribed at the base of the cylindrical sculpture:
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
You may view a segment of  the 2009 Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove Dedication Ceremony at Sonoma State University below, or at:

Jan Ruff-O'Herne, a Netherlander, who
was forced to serve as a Comfort
Woman at 17, in a WWII Imperial Japanese
Army Comfort Station in East Asia.
The History of Comfort Women During WWII

In 1932 the first Comfort Station in Shanghai was allegedly staffed by "volunteer" Japanese prostitutes. As the war expanded into Eastern Asia, more comfort stations were required by the Imperial Japanese Army, however, "volunteers" could not be found to fill new locations. More aggressive actions were employed to coerce, force or trick women and young girls into sexual slavery from regions surrounding new Imperial Japanese Army encampments beyond Shanghai. 

There is controversy as to whether the army or their agents or both, engaged in the coercion. What is clear, however, is that girls and women were sexually exploited and held captive for up to three years during the war, and in some cases murdered or left to die by retreating Imperial soldiers.

Girls and women from Korea, China, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Netherlands Dutch East Indies and Australia, were reportedly among victims coerced into sexual slavery for Imperial Japanese Army bases in East Asia.

The girls and women were called ianfu by the Japanese, a euphemism meaning, "Comfort Women." Some teenagers and women came from vulnerable circumstances and were offered work in factories and laundries, yet were sent to fill new Comfort Stations outside of Shanghai, then not allowed to leave or return home. 

Other Dutch women, like Jan Ruff-O'Herne (pictured above left) were found among girls living in Japanese concentration camps, who were told to line up and be inspected by Imperial Japanese Army officers. Officers selected girls from the lineup, then transported them to a military brothel, where they were told to either submit to officers or be murdered, and as O'Herne states, were raped repeatedly soon after they arrived.

Video of Jan Ruff-O'Herne and her daughters, telling her WWII story:

According to Japanese military documents, the Comfort Stations were developed to prevent local "rape crimes" by Japanese Imperial troops. 

Surviving Comfort Women like Jan Ruff-O'Herne, report that they were raped multiple times each day by troops, with the number of rapes multiplied 4 to 5 times over weekends.

Reparations for Surviving Comfort Women

Former Comfort Woman Ok-seon Lee at a
shelter for former sex workers. Guardian

Ok-seon Lee, (right) who stated that she was coerced into sexual slavery as a 15-year-old hotel worker and waslater stabbed by an Imperial Japanese Army officer, visited Washington DC to celebrate the anniversary of (2007) House Resolution 121 during a July 17, 2013 reception at the House of Representatives.

H. Res. 121 read, in summary: 
"The Government of Japan should 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, known to the world as ‘‘comfort women’’, during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands from the 1930s through the duration of World War II."
Previously, in August 4, 1993, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan had issued what has become known as the Kono Statement, which stated in part:
"The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military. The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing coercion, etc., and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments. They lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.

Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women.
The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women."
In a March 2014 statement Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded to conservative Japanese politicians who requested that Abe, "water down" the 1993 Kono apology to Comfort women, alleging there was "no evidence of large-scale coercion by government authorities or the military." Abe refused, stating to a parliamentary panel:
"With regard to the 'comfort women' issue, I am deeply pained to think of the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering, a feeling I share equally with my predecessors."

"The Kono Statement addresses this issue ... and, as my Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga stated in news conferences, the Abe Cabinet has no intention to review it."
Many surviving Comfort Women and their families believe that an apology is not enough.

In 2007 there was some confusion over how funds and services for reparations to Comfort Women were being handled, according to the BBC. Some Japanese citizens raised private funds for compensation to surviving Comfort Women through the Asian Women's Fund. However, the BBC states that in some cases, the money went to medical centers and homes for the elderly, rather than to victims, while a few survivors received $16,700 from the fund.

NPR has developed a slide-show on the testimonies of some surviving Comfort Women, some of whom state that they were coerced into sexual slavery and raped at just 10 years of age.

There were an estimated 200,000 women from East Asia who were trafficked as Comfort Women during WWII, according to historians, so the lack of memorials to these exploited women and girls, is troubling to many worldwide. 

Chinese and Malaysian girls held at an
Imperial Japanese Army Comfort Station during WWII
Koreans have spearheaded a movement to preserve the legacy of Comfort Women, so their suffering is not lost to history. 

In Seoul, Korea, the bronze statue of a seated Korean girl, representing a coerced WWII Comfort Woman, faces the Japanese Embassy in silent tribute.

Korean residents in Glendale, California, moved to erect a twin statue of the Seoul memorial statue at Glendale Central Park, yet were met with resistance from some in the Japanese community, who claimed that all military Comfort Women "were there voluntarily," which is only true in regards to the first Shanghai Comfort Station of 1932.

Some Japanese-American residents found the memorial "divisive," yet other residents referred to the statue as a "Peace Monument."

A similar outcry took place when a monument to Comfort Women was erected in Palisades Park, New Jersey in 2010. Japanese-American residents and representatives from the Japanese government asked the city council there to have it removed. However, Mayor James Rotundo stated that the monument was there for educational purposes, to raise awareness of the role of Comfort Women in WWII history.

Gendale city council member Frank Quintero stated that many complaints about the memorial came from Japan, where some believed that the so-called, "Rape of Nanking" was also a fabricated story, despite the fact that Japanese veterans who served in Nanking in December 1937, admitted that a massive slaughter of non-combatants took place.

Bok-Dong Kim, Survivor, Glendale
WWII Comfort Women Memorial
Contra Costa Times
Historians estimate that the number of civilians slaughtered in Nanking could be anywhere from 40,000 to 200,000, over the six-week period of time when the Japanese attack took place. 

Existing photos show some prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Army being buried alive, and some mothers and daughters raped with sticks, bottles and other weapons, then having expired from their injuries. 

Massacre photos were captured in a December 13, 1937 film by American Episcopal priest, John Magee, who was a missionary to Nanking at the time of the Imperial Japanese Army assault.

Magee was credited with saving thousands of lives during the slaughter. His witness to that event is memorialized at Yale University's Digital Archive of  Documents and Photos from American Missionaries who Witnessed the Rape of Nanking.

Currently there are only four memorials to Comfort Women in the United States

Why a Silicon Valley Monument Remembering Genocide During WWII?

Honoring and remembering the girls and women who were often fatally coerced into sexual slavery during WWII after the first "voluntary" Shanhai Comfort Station was expanded, as well as other nations who lost citizens to genocidal events in world history, remains important in returning dignity and respect to those who were affected.

Jan Ruff-O'Herne & surviving Comfort Women, Japan, 1993
Sydney Morning Herald
By remembering thousands of Australian, East Asian and Netherlander Dutch East Indies women during World War II, the stories of those women will not be lost to history. 

Public memorials, like the monument being considered by one Silicon Valley city, serve to raise awareness and prevent similar atrocities, reducing the likelihood that atrocities will be repeated, based on increasing public education on world history. 

A public memorial may also serve to lift an undeserved residue of shame from those girls and women who were coerced and exploited into sexual slavery during WWII, yet have remained unable to speak of their wartime experiences and achieve healing. A growing wave of civic and global compassion for the suffering of Comfort Women through public monuments and programs, has slowly transformed the dynamic of hidden shame into a public recognition of courage and fortitude. 

A public memorial may also serve to remove the veil of shame from contemporary victims of sexual assault and coercion, a silent yet profound gift to the many abused or exploited women and girls in our communities. 

If we can acknowledge the Holocaust in our history books and monuments, without first paring-down history to avoid offending those Americans of Austrian, German or Eastern European descent, we certainly may acknowledge the whole-scale coercion, exploitation and rape, of many thousands of East Asian, Australian and Netherlander Dutch East Indies women and girls during WWII, as viewed through the lens of documented records from the WWII era, where the massive and continued exploitation of women and girls was deemed an acceptable act of war.


The Conflict Surrounding UNAIDS and UN Resolutions Monitoring
Trafficking and Prostitution Near Military Bases:

Since prostitution near military bases has became a national and international issue, the United Nations, in 1950, attempted a treaty to monitor human trafficking and houses of prostitution. (Near military bases, these women were sometimes called "minor wives," since servicemen returned to the same woman regularly and often left children behind on exiting the service and returning home.) 

The most notable UN Resolution on this issue was the 1985 report, Activities for the advancement of women: equality, development, and peace: report of Jean Fernand-Laurent, special rapporteur on the suppression of the traffic in persons and the exploitation of the prostitution of others, found at WorldCat online, which also displays where you may find this publication in your area.

The UN history of Chapter VII: Traffic in Persons (Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others) may be found on the UN Web site, which includes a record of each country's comments on Chapter VII as it pertains to their nation.

Recently, in 2013 the United Nations group UNAIDS was criticized for wanting to decriminalize "voluntary" global prostitution in order to better control AIDS and reduce sexual assaults and abuse, as stated in their 2012 report

Many critics disagreed with the 2012 UNAIDS report, stating that global decriminalization of voluntary prostitution might lead to an increase in the illegal trafficking and exploitation of women and girls, supposedly working under the guise of "voluntary" service. It might not be easily proven that some so-called "voluntary" sex workers were in actuality, involuntary sex workers being held under duress due to enslavement or financial obligations to their employers. 


Please also see my article about the Internment of the Japanese in the Bay Area during World War II


---Catherine Alexander Bright,