By Sylvia Yu Friedman
On August 14, 1991, a slight, pepper-haired woman in white traditional Korean dress took the stage at a news conference in Seoul, Korea. With a brooding intensity in her wrinkled face and hollow eyes that belied her ordinary appearance, 68-year-old Kim Hak-soon did something completely out of character for women in her culture. She testified tearfully that as a 17-year-old, she was forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military in northern China. She was raped by up to 30 Japanese soldiers a day in Manchuria during the Japanese war against China.
Japanese ultranationalists and right-wing conservatives called Kim and others like her voluntary prostitutes when they bore witness in the media about being forced into sexual servitude for the Japanese military before and during the Second World War. Kim refuted that she was a willing prostitute.
“How did I become a public witness? When I read newspapers and watched the news, Japan kept denying the truth,” Kim said. “They took us forcibly, put us directly in the military compound, and turned us into comfort women.”
Kim suffered profoundly with her secret for 50 years before breaking her silence. You could say Kim had the very first “Me Too” moment in Asia.
I was 15 when I first heard of comfort women and Kim Hak-soon from a Korean newspaper article that my mother shared with me.
“Comfort women” was a euphemism for tens of thousands of young women from Pacific Asian countries who were forced into wartime sexual slavery by the Japanese military from 1931 to 1945. For 14 years, girls and women were raped by as many as 60 soldiers a day. There were more than 1,000 “comfort stations” in China alone.
The girls were intended to “comfort” lonely and traumatized Japanese soldiers to prevent military secrets from being leaked and to protect the men from sexually transmitted diseases, leading to an increased demand for younger girls and women who were virgins and disease-free. The victims included Koreans, Japanese, Dutch (in Indonesia), Taiwanese, Chinese, Eurasians, Filipinos, Burmese, Malays, Vietnamese, Thai, and Pacific Islanders.
I found no mention of “comfort women” in my high-school history books or in the index of any war-history book in the library. I was disturbed by what seemed like the erasure of suffering Asian women, many of whom were enslaved when they were my age.
Growing up in an all-Caucasian neighbourhood in Burnaby, I was the only Asian girl in my grade. I became disconnected from my Korean heritage, mostly because of the humiliation of racial discrimination. I was called a “chink” and asked, “Is Korea in China?” Some classmates betrayed my trust by making fun of the kimchi jars in my fridge and laughing that I smelled like Korean food. I was mortified. Ashamed of my Korean heritage, I vowed to never speak Korean at home and asked my parents to never address me by my Korean name, Saejung, ever again. I joked that I was a white person trapped in a Korean body—a “banana”, white on the inside, yellow on the outside.
Then I learned about the comfort women. A profound generational anger, seemingly embedded in my DNA, cropped up. Although I experienced no racial tension with a good friend who was a Japanese Canadian, I suddenly began to feel uncomfortable around the Japanese man and his family who rented the basement in our house. As I learned more about the experiences of the wartime sex slaves in the United Nations reports, I felt an inexplicable pain and anger toward the culture responsible for these and other wartime atrocities that seemed as if it had been passed down from my ancestors.
I also noticed the anti-Japanese attitudes of those around me. I recalled that my great-uncle spoke fluent Japanese but owned no Japanese electronics and vowed he would never buy a Japanese car. He drives an American car to this day. Growing up in South Korea under the Japanese occupation, he experienced unjust treatment from the teachers at his Japanese government-run school.
Young and old in the Chinese and Korean communities whispered that no one liked the Japanese. No one wanted to date Japanese men. I heard multiple stories of grandparents and parents in the Chinese and Korean communities who distrusted the Japanese. Where did this come from?
While working as a TV reporter in Victoria, I heard that Kim Soon-duk, an 80-year-old survivor of Japanese military sex slavery, would speak at a news conference at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. Three hours later, I was driving to Seattle to catch a flight. I met Kim, who asked me to tell the world about her experience: at 16, she was deceptively recruited as a nurse in Japan, then forced into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers.
After hearing Kim’s horrific testimony of enslavement, I learned of the Japanese government’s unwillingness to accept unequivocal responsibility for direct involvement in forcibly and deceptively recruiting girls and women into this sex-trafficking system and to apologize without ambiguity for destroying the lives of so many girls and women. I decided to write a book.
I moved to Beijing in 2004 to do more research. I asked people daily what they thought of the Japanese. Young and old, Christians and atheists, even pastors all said they hated the Japanese because of what they did to the Chinese during the war, such as enslaving women and the Rape of Nanking. The Chinese learn about Japanese war crimes as early as kindergarten. “The Japanese government hasn’t made a proper apology to us,” I heard repeatedly. “They need to apologize!”
Over the years, Japanese prime ministers and politicians have repeatedly and publicly denied historical facts and direct responsibility for forcing women into military sex slavery. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said there’s no evidence that Japan’s wartime government coerced women into prostitution for the Japanese Imperial Army.
As a result, the Japanese government has refused to give symbolic government compensation to victims. Prime Minister Abe has even said he wants to revise the Kono Statement, the first apology given by the Japanese government in 1993, which was rejected by survivors and activists for its ambiguity and an insincere tone. Survivors still await an official apology from the prime minister that honours and fully acknowledges the survivors and victims of imperial Japanese military sex slavery.
Since 2007, the governments of Canada, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Taiwan and the European Parliament have all passed resolutions demanding that the Japanese government take moral and legal responsibility for directly planning and implementing the military-sex-slavery system. They called on the Japanese government to offer an unequivocal apology and compensation to the survivors.
For a Ricepaper magazine article in 1999, I interviewed leading civil-rights lawyer Gay McDougall, who authored the second report on Imperial Japanese military sex slavery as a UN special rapporteur in 1998. She told me that the Japanese government had spent a lot of time and money trying to bury her report.
This year, during a two-day review of Japan’s record, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the government of Japan to do more for victims of wartime sexual slavery and offer full redress and reparations. McDougall, one of the 18 UN committee members, said: “I think it is a wound that has been festering for far too long.”
When visiting Hong Kong in 2008, I attended a meeting with a reconciliation team, a group of Japanese civilians who travelled to China in an attempt to heal the divide between the Japanese and the Chinese. During our meeting, they apologized sincerely to the Chinese audience for killing and torturing people during the war and for forcing women into sex slavery. The Chinese wept.
I sat rigid and stony-faced as they faced me to apologize to the Koreans. I doubted their apology would affect me, the “banana” who had no connection with the place of my birth. Besides, no civilian apology could ever replace an official apology from the prime minister, despite the sincere intentions of the Japanese team.
To my surprise, I wept until I had no more tears to shed. Their simple apology triggered a profound release of pain and generational racial hatred toward the Japanese. Imagine the profound depth of impact that an official government apology from Prime Minister Abe would have?
I later filmed a different reconciliation team for a documentary. They bowed on the ground and held a sign of calligraphy that expressed how deeply sorry they were for Japanese war crimes against humanity such as the comfort women. Their humility and love transformed lives. Wherever they went in China, people wept after reading their sign. Their sincerity touched ancient pain. As an ancient Jewish poet described it: “deep calls unto deep.”
Sadly, the Japanese involved in grassroots reconciliation face intense persecution and rejection by fellow Japanese and family members. One woman in Tokyo was ordered by her husband to never participate in the reconciliation work again and asked us to blur her face in the documentary.
Online attacks and harassment from the right wing or ultranationalists occur regularly to Japanese involved in raising awareness of comfort women and World War II war crimes. They said that most Japanese have not learned about comfort women or other Japanese war crimes in their history books, so they don’t understand the issue and how it impacts other Asian people. This same harassment by the Japanese right wing happened during the debate surrounding the proposed comfort-women memorial statue in Burnaby.
When I showed my documentary about the Japanese reconciliation team at schools and universities in China, Hong Kong, and the U.S., many wept during the film, even teenagers. One student said she was touched that there were Japanese willing to apologize and that she didn’t know there were good people in Japan. Others said their grandparents or parents were affected by the Japanese invasion of China and they hated the Japanese still.
I also experienced angry reactions when my book was published. I hid my identity for a year and wrote under a pen name to protect myself from harassment. An American who had lived in Japan for many years angrily confronted me at a conference and asked why Korean soldiers weren’t being held accountable for raping Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War. I told him that he was repeating Japanese right-wing “comfort-women denier” arguments word for word. He had no idea.
After my book is published in Japanese, I’m planning to go to Japan to speak on the issue and call for racial reconciliation (or racial justice). (It would be like an African-American going into the heart of segregation in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era to talk about lynching.)
In one of the few existing photos of comfort women, four women in tattered clothes with traumatized faces stand against a hillside. One is obviously pregnant, her expression anguished.
More than 50 years later, that woman made an emotional journey back to China to testify about her years as a military sex slave. Pak Yong-sim was 17 when she was abducted from her village in northern Korea in 1938. She and 15 other Korean girls were taken by train and truck to Nanjing, China. When they arrived at a three-storey brick building, Pak was placed in a tiny room with a bed, where she was forced into sexual servitude for the Japanese military. She was raped by up to 30 soldiers, on average, every day in Nanjing and then later in Myanmar.
“One day I begged mercy from an officer, as I was dead tired from the continuous rapes and humiliation,” she said. “He held his sword to my neck, threatening to kill me. Then he beat me viciously before gratifying his sexual lust.”
Pak was the only wartime sex-slavery survivor to identify the current location of a former military brothel, or “comfort station”, in Nanjing. The Chinese government later turned it into a comfort-women museum. A striking bronze statue of Pak and two other wartime sex slaves sits in front of it.
I attended the opening ceremony in December 2015. As I viewed the haunting exhibits featuring the testimonials of the comfort women, I was struck by the faces and stories of the victims and the unspeakable suffering they endured. For more than 10 years, I had interviewed survivors for my book, but to be in the actual building where girls and women were raped daily was harrowing. I renewed my commitment to help bring justice and peace to this unresolved human-rights issue in Asia that still affects Asian race relations today in the West.
Reporting on these survivors changed my life. Meeting these women helped me see that the cycle of slavery continues and inspired me to continue writing and producing films on the issue of human trafficking and human-rights violations. I’ve interviewed girls and women forced into prostitution, and interviewed traffickers, “mamasans”, and pimps in Asia.
The UN says there are 4.5 million children and women suffering in sexual enslavement in Asia and around the world. How can the nations of Japan, China, and Korea cooperate to fight sex trafficking today if they cannot agree on what happened in history?
Seventy-three years after the Second World War, I share my journey of raising awareness of the comfort women to say we also need to heal the divisions within the Asian communities in Canada. For inspiration, we could look to the recent national Truth and Reconciliation Commission that called our government and churches to acknowledge and educate others about atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples throughout history.
There are fewer than 50 confirmed survivors of Japanese military sex slavery around the world. Only 27 survivors left in Korea have reported to the government. In China, survivors are still coming forward. Most of the survivors I interviewed have, sadly, passed away. For many years, these elderly women in their twilight years have fought for a sincere apology that brings healing.
Closure, healing, and reconciliation are urgently needed.