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A Q&A with Peipei Qiu on Chinese comfort women

Issues concerning Imperial Japan’s wartime “comfort women” have ignited international debates in the past two decades, and a number of personal accounts of “comfort women” have been published in English since the 1990s. Until recently, however, there has been a notable lack of information about the women drafted from Mainland China. Chinese Comfort Women is the first book in English to record the first-hand experiences of twelve Chinese women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese Imperial forces during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945). Here, author and translator Peipei Qiu (who wrote the book in collaboration with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei), answers some questions about her new book.

What is one of the most surprising facts about “comfort women” that you found during your research?

One of the shocking facts revealed in this book is that the scope of military sexual slavery in the war was much larger than previously known. Korean and Japanese researchers, based on the information available to them, had estimated that the Japanese military had detained between 30,000 and 200,000 women to be sex slaves during the war.  These early estimations, however, don’t accurately reflect the large number of Chinese women enslaved. Investigations conducted by Chinese researchers suggest a much higher number. My collaborating researcher Su Zhiliang, for example, estimates that between 1931 and 1945 approximately 400,000 women were forced to become military “comfort women,” and that at least half of them were drafted from Mainland China.

Although it is not possible to obtain accurate statistics on the total number of kidnappings, documented cases suggest shockingly large numbers. For instance, around the time of the Nanjing Massacre, the Japanese army abducted tens of thousands of women from Nanjing and the surrounding areas, including over 2,000 women from Suzhou, 3,000 from Wuxi, and 20,000 from Hangzhou. These blatant kidnappings continued throughout the entire war, the youngest abductee’s being only nine years old.

Chinese and Malayan girls forcibly taken from Penang by the Japanese to work as 'comfort girls' for the troops. The Allied Reoccupation of the Andaman Islands, 1945. Lemon A E (Sergeant), No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit. War Office, Central Office of Information and American Second World War Official Collection. Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Chinese and Malayan girls forcibly taken from Penang by the Japanese to work as ‘comfort girls’ for the troops. The Allied Reoccupation of the Andaman Islands, 1945. Lemon A E (Sergeant), No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit. War Office, Central Office of Information and American Second World War Official Collection. IWM Non Commercial Licence. Imperial War Museums.

What impressed you most deeply when you heard the stories of these women?

What struck me most deeply were the “comfort women’s” horrendous sufferings. I felt strongly that their stories must be told to the world. Many of the women were teenagers when the Japanese Imperial Forces kidnapped them. They were given the minimum amount of food necessary to keep them alive and were subjected to multiple rapes each day. Those who resisted were beaten or killed, and those who attempted to escape would be punished with anything from torture to decapitation, and the punishment often included not only the woman but also her family members.

The brutal torture was not only physical. These women confined in the so-called “comfort stations” lived in constant fear and agony, not knowing how long they would have to endure and what would happen to them the following day, worrying what their families went through trying to save them, and witnessing other women being tortured and killed. During research and writing I often could not hold back tears, and their stories always remain heavily and vividly in my mind.

I was also deeply impressed by their resilience and faith in humanity. These women were brutally tortured and exploited by the Japanese imperial forces during the war, and when the war ended, members of their own patriarchal society discarded them as defiled and useless. Many of them were ignored, treated as collaborators with the enemy, or even persecuted. Yet what the survivors remember and recount is not only suffering and anger but also acts of humanity – no matter how little they themselves have witnessed. Wan Aihua, though gang-raped multiple times and nearly beaten to death by Japanese troops, never forgot an army interpreter who saved her from a Japanese officer’s sword. She told us, “I didn’t know if the interpreter was Japanese, but I believe there were kind people in the Japanese troops, just as there are today, when many Japanese people support our fight for justice.”

What motivated you to write this book? 

In part, I was shocked by the lack of information available. In this day and age, it feels like every fact or story to be known is easily at our fingertips. However, in this instance, it was not the case. Even after the rise of the “comfort women” redress movement, most of the focus was on the “comfort women” of Japan and its colonies, and little was known about Chinese “comfort women” outside of China. This created a serious issue in understanding the history of the Asia-Pacific war and to the study of the entire “comfort women” issue.  Without a thorough understanding of Chinese “comfort women’s” experiences, an accurate explication of the scope and nature of that system cannot be achieved.

In the past two decades, how to understand what happened to “comfort women” has become an international controversy. Some Japanese politicians and activists insist that “comfort women” were prostitutes making money at frontlines, that there was not evidence of direct involvements of Japanese military and government. And they say telling the stories of “comfort women” disgraces the Japanese people.

One of the main purposes for me to write about Chinese “comfort women” is to help achieve a transnational understanding of their sufferings.  To understand what happened to the “comfort women,” we must transcend the boundaries of nation-state. I hope to demonstrate that fundamentally confronting the tragedy of “comfort women” is not about politics, nor is it about national interests; it is about human life. Dismissing individual sufferings in the name of national honor is not only wrong but also dangerous, it is a ploy that nation-states have used, and continue to use, to drag people into war, to deprive them of their basic rights, and to abuse them.

Peipei Qiu is the author and translator of Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, which she wrote in collaboration with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei. She is currently professor of Chinese and Japanese on the Louise Boyd Dale and Alfred Lichtenstein Chair and director of the Asian Studies Program at Vassar College.

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