Women and War: Japanese Women Still Waiting for Justice


Last week, as we heard about American women in war, another story about women and war surfaced. An article in the NY Times reported that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is refusing to acknowledge that Japanese (and other) women were forced into sex-slavery by the military during World War II.

This weekend, after a great stirring of emotions and controversy, the government of Japan reiterated its stance. The women who lived through it, however, are refusing to accept this distortion of history:

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.

''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?''

Prime Minister Abe is Japan's first Prime Minister who was born after the end of the war, and he seems intent on drawing eyes and ears away from that era in Japan's past. His denial drew official protests from China, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines, some of the countries from which the sex slaves were taken. In addition to igniting anger throughout Asia, Abe's remarks have also made an impact here in the United States, where the House of Representatives has been considering a nonbinding resolution calling on Japan to acknowledge and apologize for the wartime sex slavery.

The Japanese government claims that it will adhere to a 1993 declaration that acknowledged and apologized for Japan's brutal mistreatment of the comfort women. Mr. Abe, who has been under pressure from the right wing of his Liberal Democratic Party to reject the 1993 declaration's admission of state responsibility, said last week that the women had been coerced by private brokers and that Japan will not apologize even if the House resolution passes. Despite Mr. Abe's statements to the contrary, the testimonies of many women have clearly asserted that while private brokers were often involved, the role of the military clearly cannot be overlooked.

''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.

We see it documented again and again: In times of war, the bodies and lives of women are often chalked up to "unavoidable casualties" and are disproportionately "victims of war." Around the world, as armed conflicts rage, soldiers and paramilitaries terrorize women with sexual and other physical violence. A central tenet of reproductive justice is bodily autonomy and integrity. War, in addition to exacerbating violence against women, always finds itself in direct opposition to the right of bodily integrity. These tactics are tools of war, and are manifestations of a much bigger problem. Women's bodies are used as measures of victory and simultaneously devalued during times of war and conflict. As demonstrated by the Japanese government, many still view this kind of violence against women as a regrettable, but unavoidable, consequence of war. In this case, they go so far as to deny any participation. Allowing impunity for such violence should be strongly challenged by the international community and the relevant parties should be held accountable by all of us who see these practices for what they are: brutality and violence against women. That much is owed to the women who come forward to tell their stories. And it is the lesson to be learned from those stories so painfully shared by many Japanese women who were forced into sexual slavery. Unfortunately, it seems that Mr. Abe, and many others, have yet to learn that lesson.

  • To sign a petition to bring House Resolution 121- IH to a full vote sign on here.
  • For a great articulation of why militarism is bad for reproductive freedom, see this article.
  • For Amnesty International's full report on military sexual slavery in Japan see here.

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