Earlier this month, in a historic ruling, a South Korean court ordered the Japanese government to pay compensations to a group of former ‘comfort women’, a euphemistic way to refer to the women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II. It is estimated that more than 200,000 girls and women were turned into sexual slaves for the Japanese army during the war, often through abduction, coercion and deception. Military brothels (called ‘Comfort Stations’) were set up in China and other Asian and Pacific countries. Decades later, in the early 1990s, surviving ‘comfort women’ started coming forward to share their stories of abuse and oppression and the battle for the recognition of their grievances, along with acknowledgement of a deeply sexualised military war culture, began.
The catalyst for the establishment of the ‘comfort women’ system was the infamous incident of the ‘Rape of Nanking’ (1937), when Japanese soldiers unleashed unimaginable destruction in the Chinese city, brutally raping and killing thousands of Chinese women. The carnage created international outrage. Japan was facing huge reputational cost, especially in the context of its rhetorical projection of itself as the saviour of Asian nations. This prompted the Japanese emperor to pass the Imperial Ordinance No. 51952, establishing legal grounds for the recruitment of ‘comfort women’, detailing the methods of recruitment, terms of employment and so on.
Testimonies from surviving ‘comfort women’ chronicle the stories of how they have been recruited with promises of jobs as cooks, cleaners, and nurses and then forced into sexually serving the military. Many were kidnapped and coerced, all such acts justified and legally sanctioned. This is not to imply that the ‘comfort women’ system did not exist prior to the imperial ordinance. The ordinance gave the practice legal grounding and justification, and the emperor’s imprimatur.
The rationale for maintaining the ‘comfort women’ system was mainly two-fold: one, to prevent mass rapes by Japanese military in newly occupied territories, and two, to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) among the military forces. A majority of the comfort women were ‘recruited’ from Japanese colonies, almost 80% of them from Korea. It was believed that Korean women, brought up in a culture of chastity, were least likely to be the carriers of venerable diseases.
The aftermath of the war saw no acknowledgement by the international community of the crimes committed against ‘comfort women’. While Japan was held accountable for the atrocities perpetrated against prisoners (largely from the West), who were forced to work on the Burma-Thailand railroad, the crimes against women forced to work as sexual slaves remained unrecognised. Traumatised and victimised, the surviving ‘comfort women’, trapped in a culture of shame and neglect, were unable for the longest time to assert their dignity and rights. The Korean government, too, in its treaty negotiations with Japan, did not take up the issue of ‘comfort women’.
In 1991, Kim Hak San became the first Korean ‘comfort woman’ to bring forth her story of abuse and oppression and record her testimony. Following this, other ‘comfort women’ came forward with their stories. The silence around the issue was finally broken, forcing the international community to recognise the systemic abuse and sexual violence carried on against women during World War II. This movement for justice was driven by survivors, now women of advanced age. Their narratives recast the debate on human rights, race and gender in the Asia Pacific. Feminist groups, both in Korea and Japan, have been rallying since the 1990s, forging transnational partnerships and strategies, to seek acknowledgement, apology and compensation from the Japanese government for the crimes committed against ‘comfort women’. While initially Japan unequivocally denied the existence of the ‘comfort women’ system, as more and more evidence started surfacing, the country was forced to accept moral responsibility for the crimes, even as it steadfastly denied any legal responsibility for the same.
The ruling by the South Korean court, although being rejected by Japan as having no jurisdiction over it, marks a watershed moment for the 16 surviving women (out of a total of 240) who have come forward in South Korea, all of them now in their 80s and 90s. Japan is certainly not the lone country in human history of war and conflict to have engaged in systemic sexual violence and gotten away with it. However, this moment is a moment of victory (albeit not a complete one) for women who were silenced, ignored, written off and erased from history. It is a moment that forces us to look at the sexual politics embedded in wars and conflicts, a cycle of violence that actively encourages, enables and justifies women’s oppression. It is a moment that gives us hope about the power of narratives of the oppressed, the power of feminist solidarities that go beyond the trappings of nationalism, and hopefully would pave new possibilities for future activism.
(The writer is a Professor at Jindal Global Law School, O P Jindal Global University)