For six decades, the dwindling band of survivors the world knows as the “Comfort Women” have been waiting for an apology. This year, on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II, their patience is at an end. Backed by women’s organisations around the world, the Comfort Women want a simple, elusive thing: justice.
The Japanese Imperial Army, at the time of WWII, was one of the world’s more formidable fighting forces. As the Japanese army stationed forces in Manchuria, China, Korea, the Philippines, Dutch East India, Malaysia and Indonesia, it set up military-run brothels on and near military bases as a matter of policy.
When the first stories of the Comfort Women began to emerge, it was assumed that about 20,000 women were “recruited” from across Asia. Today, historians estimate that between 100,000 and 250,000 women were used as “comfort” for the relief of troops. Many of these women were kidnapped, sold or forced into the military brothels. In the last months of World War II, retreating Japanese troops followed a policy of “purging”'killing civilians, including the women in the brothels, as they left. The women who survived the purge had spent years in brothels that were run with dehumanising cruelty ' many died anyway. It’s estimated that only 30 per cent of the women drafted by the Japanese army for the pleasure of its troops survived.
It was only from 1988 onwards that the shroud of shame and silence around the truth of the Comfort Women lifted. Their stories began to be told, at first haltingly and then with gathering anger. The Japanese government has made only reluctant apologies; it has not officially offered compensation to the survivors. Last month, a Japanese cabinet minister indicated that he believed the term “comfort women” should not be included in Japanese textbooks and that the women should take pride in the role they played in “soothing” soldiers during the war.
Women like Lee Yong-Soo (now 76) and Priscilla Bartonico (now 78) survived the ordeal; they survived the purges; they survived the long silence in which their sufferings were shrouded. They found the courage to come out and tell their stories, to stand in front of the world and demand justice.
These women, coming from so many different Asian countries, want only one thing: for the world to see that a terrible crime was committed, that what happened in those Houses of Sharing was institutionalised rape. All they want is for the Japanese government to say, even if it’s 60 years late, that it’s sorry.