Tan Yuhua was sixteen when the Imperial Japanese Army raided her hometown in Hunan Province in 1944. Her father, unable to move quickly because of a disabled leg, was easy prey. Forcing him to kneel, the soldiers threatened to kill him with a sword. Tan Yuhua couldn’t help crying out from her hiding place, so she too was caught. Locked in a military “comfort station” in the nearby town of Zhuliang-qiao together with other abducted girls and women, Tan was forced to service a Japanese officer as his sex slave.
In 2008, I met Tan Yuhua, then eighty, in Shanghai. Recounting her brutal abduction, Tan’s small body visibly trembled. “One of my aunts died during that attack,” she recalled. “The soldiers arrested my father and forced him to work for them, but he was unable to perform hard labor due to his disability, so the Japanese soldiers killed him.” She paused, her face frozen in deep sorrow.
Tan Yuhua was one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese women kidnapped by Imperial Japanese forces during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945). Her abduction and sexual servitude exemplify the experiences of many other comfort women drafted from regions under Japanese occupation across Asia. Because these women were nationals of imperial Japan’s enemies, they suffered unimaginable brutality in the military comfort stations. And, as in the case of Tan Yuhua, torture and murder of their family members frequently occurred alongside abduction and sexual violence.
Although a large number of survivors’ testimonies and ample historical evidence have come to light since the 1990s, steadfast denial of the Japanese military’s involvement in forcing women into sexual slavery continues. In recent months the government of Japan launched another campaign to whitewash the history of Imperial Japan’s wartime “comfort women.”
On 14 October 2014, a Japanese official was sent to New York to ask Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, former United Nations Special Rapporteur, to reconsider her 1996 report on Imperial Japan’s coercion of women and girls into sexual slavery. A week later, the Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan charged that his predecessor, Yôhei Kôno, created a “major problem” for the country with his 1993 statement that admitted administrative and military involvement in recruiting comfort women.
This tide of denial rose higher after Asahi Shimbun’s retraction of articles on “comfort women” in August 2014. The retracted articles, published by Asahi two decades ago, cited former Japanese soldier Seiji Yoshida’s fictitious account of forcibly rounding up Korean women during World War II. Researchers have long pointed out the fabrication in Yoshida’s account, which has not been cited by the scholarly community in determining that the comfort women system was sexual slavery. Nonetheless, historical revisionists seized upon the newspaper’s retraction to repudiate Japanese military involvement in setting up the comfort women system, and they pressed the news media to muzzle their reporting. Earlier in October Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, banned any reference to the infamous Nanking Massacre and comfort women. By the end of November, the Daily Yomiuri had also issued an apology for having used “sex slave” and “other inappropriate expressions” from February 1992 to January 2013 in reporting on the comfort women.
Ultranationalists in Japan present the denial of war crimes as a patriotic act to protect Japan’s honor. They regard the recognition of comfort women’s sufferings as damaging to the nation’s international image. However, denial only makes Japan look worse. As Keio University Professor Eiji Kojima points out, “their efforts to rectify the recognition of historical facts have no prospect of winning approval in the global community and will only backfire if they are accompanied by intentions to restore the honor of the former Axis power and deny the postwar international order.”
Contrary to ultranationalist rhetoric, throughout the postwar era, Japanese citizen groups, researchers, lawyers, intellectuals, and lawmakers who care about humanitarian principles and the long-term prosperity of their own country have confronted Imperial Japan’s past wrongs. They have also played a crucial role in the international movement of redress for comfort women of all nations.
Japanese attorney Noriko Ômori, who has worked devotedly since the early 1990s to represent comfort station victims in China in their litigation for redress, sees the Japanese government’s failure to take responsible action to help heal the victims’ wounded hearts as unacceptable. “If we truly care about Japan’s future,” she writes, “we must ensure that Japan can obtain full trust from the world in terms of moral principles, and particularly, that Japan can form a truly friendly relationship with Asian countries.” Advocates like Ms. Ômori reflect the true honor of humanity, and they deserve the world’s trust and respect as the campaign for redress continues.
Featured image: A cave dwelling in Yu County, Shanxi Province, used as a “comfort station” by the Japanese troops. Images reproduced with permission of the Publisher from Chinese Comfort Women by Peipei Qiu with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei © University of British Columbia Press 2013.