The Forgotten Trauma of Chinese Comfort Women

Jade Connell Carroll

Comfort women lived in unspeakable conditions.

During the Second Sino-Japanese war (1932 - 1945), many women and young girls living in China, as well as other areas such as Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia were forced to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. They were held captive in their own homes or forced to work in brothels called “comfort stations'', operated by the imperial Japanese army. The first formal comfort station is known to have been established in Shanghai in 1932, but Japanese forces also kidnapped local women to be their sex slaves in northern China around the same time. As the war progressed, smaller makeshift comfort stations appeared alongside these official stations wherever troops appeared. According to Japanese military leaders, this official system was put in place to prevent the rape of local women and prevent the spread of venereal disease. However, as an officially authorized institution, it not only failed to prevent rape and disease (many women were not given contraception) but also normalized and fostered sexual violence both inside and outside the stations. Comfort women lived in unspeakable conditions. They were given the minimum amount of food necessary and were subjected to continual abuse. Those that tried to escape would be tortured or killed along with their families and it is estimated that up to 90% of these women did not survive through the war. Thousands of women including girls of “tender years” were raped, tortured and killed during what has become known as the Nanjing Massacre. The massacre began on the 13 December 1937 and lasted around six weeks. It is considered the defining incident of the war and one of the “longest running historical controversies in East Asia”. Due to the difficulties in documenting the incident the true number of women abused will never be known. According to foreign residents that were in Nanjing in the early days of occupation, there were over a thousand rape cases a night and many women were killed after being raped. A professor at the university of Nanjing wrote to his wife at the time that there was “no distinction of person, only that the prettier ones were preferred”. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimates that there were approximately twenty thousand cases of rape within the city during the first month of occupation.
The Forgotten Trauma of Chinese Comfort Women
Comfort Women statue in Hong Kong

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After surviving the brutality of occupation and the comfort system, survivors were then subjected to discrimination and poverty

After surviving the brutality of occupation and the comfort system, survivors were then subjected to discrimination and poverty due to the traditional attitudes toward female chastity which added to the shame and pain they felt. Due to this trauma many of their stories have only come to light in recent years, and many will never be known. This gendered violence against women has become a defining feature of the war, and even though it has been nearly a century since this sexual slavery started, the comfort women system is still difficult to discuss due to the historical and political debates surrounding it. One key debate is whether women were forced into these stations. The Japanese government denied any involvement until Japan’s official war documents came to light in 1922. Since then, progressive scholars and legal experts have played an important role in supporting the comfort women redress movement. In recent years, other efforts have been made to acknowledge these women. There have been statues to commemorate them, especially in areas where there is a large overseas Chinese community such as San Francisco and Sydney. According to The Straits Times, Japan and South Korea made an agreement in 2015, which outlined how the Japanese government would donate 1 billion Yen, to set up a compensation fund to help victims. However, many South Korean’s opposed this because the victims were not consulted about this decision. In 2017, South Korea said it would shut down the fund. According to The New York Times, a new agreement was made in January 2021. This agreement consisted of the Japanese government paying $91,000 to 12 Korean women involved. For many, this still isn’t enough, but it is a step in the right direction. Some of these women are still alive today and their oral histories have been documented in books and documentaries. The best thing I think we can do to honour these women, is to elevate their voices and ensure that they do not become forgotten.
Ancestry UK
The Forgotten Trauma of Chinese Comfort Women

Jade Connell Carroll

Jade wrote for Edition 2, Forgotten Women of History.
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