Justice Unfinished for Surviving Comfort Women

Han Li | 08/22/2017
Protesters holding signs about abuse of women
Photo Credit
Han Li

As a protest and a memorial statue are being launched, a painful part of Asian history is remembered in San Francisco.

Decades of silence about cruel historical truths ceased on August 14, 1991, when a Korean woman, Hak-sun Kim, first spoke about her sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WWII. Following Kim, hundreds of thousands of Asian women who were also victims have shone a spotlight on this institutionalized sexual exploitation, and August 14 is now the memorial day for those enslaved women.

More than 70 years after WWII, those women and girls are euphemized through the name “comfort women” and international pressure persists for justice and an apology from the Japanese government.

In the United States and other countries, various efforts are helping to commemorate the comfort women’s history, but fewer and fewer aging survivors are alive to see justice or even an acknowledgment of what happened.

San Francisco will be the first major U.S. city to install a memorial statue of the comfort women led by years of effort by a grassroots community organization for their human rights, the Comfort Women Justice Coalition (CWJC). It is co-chaired by two retired San Francisco Superior Court Judges Lillian Sing and Julie Tang.

The judges’ dedicated efforts won the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ approval to install the memorial statue in 2015, with a construction date expected for late 2017.

”Good or bad, it’s still history,” Lillian Sing said during a protest in front of the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco on August 14, 2017. Other cities throughout the world held similar events this International Comfort Women Memorial Day. She condemned the Japanese government’s distortion of history, without the courage to “admit their mistakes”, she said. About 70 people participated in this local rally with demonstrators wearing the symbol of the comfort women, the yellow butterfly, on their clothes.

Julie Tang said that they submitted the protest letter to the private residence of the Consul General, as the Japanese diplomats refused to meet with the activists. While there was no official response from the Consul General, some in the Japanese community have criticized these efforts saying that there is no evidence of the sexual enslavement. Those in opposition also say the statue will tear the country apart and some even argue that the women were paid prostitutes during the war.

According to the CWJC, 200,000 to 400,000 women and girls in the Asia-Pacific region were kidnapped and sexually assaulted in the Japanese army comfort women system.

In China, a documentary named Twenty-Two, has seen recent box office success. When the film was made in 2014, only 22 women who identified themselves publicly as comfort women remained alive in China. Only eight of those women were alive when the film premiered on August 14, 2017.

The main characters in the film include a comfort woman mother and her half-Chinese, half-Japanese son. The film shows how comfort women and their families not only have to suffer the lifelong excruciating memories of the sex slavery inflicted by the Japanese soldiers, but must also endure discrimination and humiliation from their own community.

In 2016, the award-winning documentary which showed in North America, The Apology, also illustrated this history, ensuring that the public could see firsthand accounts of the events while some of the victims were still alive.