Is There A Future Without Sexual Violence? First We Must Confront The Past?
CW: This article contains mentions of sexual violence and suicide. This may be distressing for some readers. How can we bring an end to sexual violence? With the existence of other forms of sexual exploitation and the lack of acknowledge of past sexual violence, can we properly prevent it from happening in the future? For…
CW: This article contains mentions of sexual violence and suicide. This may be distressing for some readers.
How can we bring an end to sexual violence? With the existence of other forms of sexual exploitation and the lack of acknowledge of past sexual violence, can we properly prevent it from happening in the future? For Korean feminists in the 1980s, the answer was no. These groups saw the thread between current practices of sexual exploitation in Korea and the “comfort women” system which had ended approximately 40 years prior and concluded that this past must be redressed to disentangle contemporary abuse practices. The “comfort women” system involved the forced and coerced mobilisation of thousands of women and girls across Japanese occupied territories into sexual slavery for the Japanese Imperial army throughout the Asia-Pacific War (1932 – 45).
There was knowledge about the system in Korea — yet it had not become a topic of public discussion in either Korea or Japan. Few Japanese officials responsible for the atrocity had been prosecuted or convicted for their crimes. With the growth of feminism in Korea, coupled by the work of historians, this issue successfully broke into the public consciousness and the 1990s saw Japan condemned in the international sphere for their crimes against women and humanity in the Second World War. This issue however, remains a thorn in the side of Korean-Japanese relations, as Japan has oscillated between public acknowledgement of the practice, and endorsement of far-right revisionist narratives that align with nationalist sentiments.
At the same time, the Korean state has seldom acknowledged their complicity in the system, distorting the “comfort women” story into one of Japanese Imperialist abuse of the Korean nation rather than one of intense racialised, class-based and gendered violence facilitated by governments in both parties. How can meaningful redress occur in this climate of historical revision? Why did the crime go ignored until the late 1980s? And how can we make sense of such a horrifying atrocity?
While the exact number of “comfort women” is unknown, the number ranges from around 80,000 to 200,000. These women, many of whom originated from Korea, were coerced through methods ranging from the promise of jobs or education, to outright violence. Japanese officials made efforts to communicate orally about the system to limit evidence and as officials became aware of the likelihood of eventual defeat, hundreds of documents proving the existence of the system were burned. In addition to this, many “comfort women” died or committed suicide during the war or in years following.
Despite efforts to conceal the system, Western powers were well-aware of its existence and brutality. However, they still failed to prosecute Japan during post-war criminal trials, paying little attention to non-Western victims of Japanese war crimes. The only iteration of the “comfort women” system prosecuted was in Indonesia, led by the Netherlands, focusing on the involvement of Dutch “comfort women”. The US were also quick to grant Emperor Hirohito impunity in order to involve Japan in their policy of containment in Asia. Additionally, the logic of militarism deemed sexual violence as an inevitable byproduct of the process of war, making it comparatively easy to “brush under the rug”.
As many “comfort women” returned home, they were silenced by a patriarchal society that deemed the chastity of unmarried women paramount. One testimony from a Korean “comfort women” reads: “At that time, a woman’s chastity was considered more important than her life. How could I tell people I was daily raped by many soldiers. It would have been a great humiliation to my parents. Many times I regretted I came back home alive. It would have been better for me to die there. … Yet, looking back I am angry at the fact that because of traditional Korean customs I had to hide my past without myself doing anything wrong.”
In the 1990s, organisations in Korea advocated for an acknowledgement of these crimes, in what became known as the ‘Redress Movement’. Producing an open letter to the Japanese government, activists outlined their core demands, including; “that the Japanese government admit the forced draft of Korean women as “comfort women”; That a public apology be made for this; That all barbarities be fully disclosed; That a memorial be raised for the victims; That the survivors or their bereaved families be compensated [and] that these facts be continuously related in historical education so that such misdeeds are not repeated”.
While Japan has paid reparations to the Korean state and offered apologies, agreements were largely made without sufficient involvement of the former “comfort women” and right-wing politicians, such as Shinzo Abe, redacted former apologies and claimed historical falsity. Similarly Japan has frequently requested for the removal of statues memorialising the “comfort women”. Osaka ended its long-term “sister-city” relationship with San Francisco over this issue. Similarly, little efforts have been made to enshrine these experiences into the public history of Japan.
How can we make sense of such an atrocity? Sexual violence continues throughout the world. How can we ensure that the work of activists and the bravery of the survivors who’ve relieved their traumas do not go ignored? As Australians, it’s easy to feel like there’s little we can do to influence the governments of Japan or Korea. But anyone can listen to calls made by “comfort women” activists, educate themselves on this history and make a concerted effort to understand how this violence occurred within gendered, racialised and class-based systems of oppression. If anything, I hope that this article has made a small contribution to those efforts, and encouraged you to learn more about this forgotten history.
There is a wealth of high-quality academic literature written in this field that I encourage one to explore, however my particular recommendations is the work of Pyong Gap Min, particularly the book “Comfort Women: Military Brothels, Brutality and the Redress Movement” and article “Comfort Women: The Intersection of Colonial Power, Gender and Class” and the work of Sachiyo Tsukamoto and their book “The Politics of Trauma and Integrity: Stories of Japanese “Comfort Women”.
If this article has caused you any distress you can contact any of the following organisations for assistance:
- The University’s Safer Communities student liaison officers, firstname.lastname@example.org, 1800 SYD HLP
- Free counselling through RPA Sexual Assault Clinic, 9515 9040 (Monday to Friday, 8:30am – 5:00pm)
- RDVSA NSW Rape Crisis Hotline, 1800 424 017 (24hrs, 7 days)
- 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
- The University of Sydney’s Safer Communities student liaison officers, email@example.com, 1800 SYD HLP