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Asia’s Grandmothers: The Myth of the 'Comfort Women'

By Heidi Lee

Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault

I first learned about “comfort women” in my elementary school history class. In my textbook, they were only mentioned in one or two paragraphs. This incomplete narrative made them vague, tragic figures instead of real people in my mind.

According to the UN Security Council, sexual violence is used as a tactic to implant fear and to humiliate and dominate a community or an ethnic group. During the Second World War, the Japanese Imperial Army set up “comfort stations” all across Asia*. Hundreds of thousands of Asian women were kidnapped and raped in these “stations,” according to Pei-pei Qiu, co-author of Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves. Qiu said that if these women tried to escape they would be tortured or even decapitated by the Japanese army.

The Japanese called these women “ianfu,” where “ian” means comfort and “fu” means women. “Comfort women,” in other words. Young girls and women who were being forced into sexual slavery for members of the Japanese Imperial Army prior to and during the Second World War were labelled with this term.

Photo: Ahn Se-hong

Qiu says these women were often slut-shamed by the locals after the war, which led to headaches, nightmares, depression and some even died by suicide. One of the survivors of the “comfort stations,” Hao Yue-lian, was raped by Japanese soldiers. After she was rescued by her parents, she was captured and put into the “comfort” facilities again by militants, as her hometown was occupied by the Japanese army. Qiu, who knew Hao from doing her research, said Hao experienced nightmares and felt the necessity to carry a knife around with her to protect herself.

According to Qiu, the term “comfort women” is inappropriate because it covers up the sexual abuse and exploitation local women experienced in the “comfort stations” built by the Japanese Imperial Army.

“This term reveals the mentality of a lot of Japanese soldiers thinking that they are entitled to sexual services from women,” Qui says. “They were being comforted while local women were raped multiple times.”

While she says that this problematic term has become widely recognized in historical literatures, researches and international debates, her solution is to use quotation marks when referring to this group of wartime victims.

Tiffany Hsiung, director of the award-winning documentary The Apology (2016), gives us a respectful and sweet form of address. She refers to the “comfort women” as “Grandmothers,” a courteous way to call your female elders in Asian culture.

The Apology (2016) is a documentary about the Grandmothers fighting for reconciliation and justice. It tells the story of the internal struggle the Grandmothers still experience. Three Grandmothers are the main focus: Adela Reyes Barroquillo from the Philippines, Gil Won-ok from Korea and Cao Hei-mao from China.

Grandmother Adela wasn’t able to tell her family about her past. She kept this secret from her husband until he died. “There is a lack of stories out there about survivors not being able to come out to their family,” says Hsiung.

Hsiung says Grandmother Cao’s story shows love through action. Grandma Cao adopted a girl because she was unable to give birth after she was raped. She never shared her past with her daughter because she believed there was no need to pass down the painful history to her daughter. “But there is a cost,” says Hsiung. “The next generation would not know there if we refuse to tell them the truth.” Grandmother Gil was protesting on the frontline in front of the Japanese embassy in South Korea when Hsiung first met her. “She is an activist, a fighter fighting for the apology,” says Hsiung. “Not only she is an advocate for herself, she is also doing to prevent history from repeating itself.”

Another documentary Twenty Two (2015) shows the Grandmothers life after the war in rural areas. It is named after the number of the survivors left in China.

Photo: Ahn Se-hong

Director Guo Ke says he had the idea of this documentary came from the unique mother-son relationship of former “comfort woman” Wei Shao-lan and her half-Japanese son, Luo Shan-xue. Wei gave birth to Luo at a time when abandoning or killing half-Japanese was a norm; they were seen as a disgrace. Wei is now one of only 14 Grandmothers left in China.

Guo says it is important for future generations to remember the past by “getting to know” the Grandmothers.“Once young people get to know them, they would definitely get emotionally attached to the grandmothers and develop an intimate relationship with them,” he says. “Our crew want to show their human side to the audience and stop isolating them from our society.”

Hsiung says “the correct way” to connect with the Grandmothers is to understand the obstacles they have been living through, and that learning about the Grandmothers’ stories can “break the cycle of shame silence:”

“The Grandmothers are brave enough to talk about it, so we learn from them,” she says. “If we don’t choose to learn from them, we are enabling decades more of silence.”

Many have heard the term “comfort women,” however, few have asked what actually happened to them or cared about their lives afterwards. Educating yourself is a way to tear off that degrading label that was stuck onto the Grandmothers. After ripping off that label, I can now see them clearly.

Recommended readings and resources:

Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women (2000)

Thirty Two (2013)

Twenty Two (2015)

The Apology (2016)

Spirits' Homecoming (2016)

Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, by Peipei Qiu, with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei


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