The Comfort Women

During the Second World War, tens of thousands of women were taken from their homes and turned into sex slaves for (predominantly) the Japanese army.

Most of these women never made it home after the war.

Those that did were faced with a lifetime of shame, guilt and secrecy.

Now less than 35 of these women are alive. Yet in recent years, their story and their unending fight for an apology has sparked an international crisis.

So who were the Comfort Women? What happened to them? And why only now, decades later, are they close to getting justice?

Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic wording around sexual abuse and rape.

Video footage of comfort women
Footage from a rare surviving video of a comfort station (link here)

The Comfort Women programme was set up by the Japanese military during the Second World War. The main reason for its inception was as a way to ensure troops avoided venereal disease and any instances of rape, abuse and assault of local women.

So the military set up what became known as ‘Comfort Stations’.

The first known station was opened around 1931 in occupied China. This station was staffed by Japanese sex workers who had volunteered to take part in the scheme.

However as the Japanese military progressed and expanded its territory, these volunteers just couldn’t meet demand.

So the army looked to its new territories to fill the gap. Recruiting women from across Asia, in addition to some from The Netherlands and Australia. The vast majority of the women brought in to staff the stations came from Korea.

These women would all became known as, Comfort Women.

The exact number of women who became ‘Comfort Women’ is still disputed, with historians and activists estimating figures from 20,000 to more than 200,000.

What we do know, is how these women and girls became Comfort Women. A small minority joined voluntarily. Some were tricked, promised roles as cooks or maids and then forced to become Comfort Women. Some were sold into the role, and others were kidnapped.

A row of comfort women
A line of comfort women

In 2010 Dutch journalists, Jan Banning and Hilde Janssen, interviewed former Comfort Women about their experiences. 

One woman, Niyem, told how she had been kidnapped at 10, forced onto a truck with other kidnapped women and sent to Java.

There, the group of abducted women were forced to become Comfort Women.

Niyem was barely fed and slept in a tent with 2 other young girls. There soldiers would visit them and Niyem would watch as her friends were raped, before she was also raped. Niyem explained:

‘I was still so young, within two months my body was completely destroyed… I was nothing but a toy, as a human being I meant nothing, that’s how it felt during the Japanese era.”

This was not an isolated incident.

In 2015, Yong Soo Lee -now in her 80s- spoke to The Washington Post about her time as a Comfort Woman, after she was kidnapped at 14:

‘At first the other girls tried to protect me because I was so young. I saw the soldiers on them, but the girls put a blanket over me and told me to pretend I was dead so nothing would happen to me. I didn’t know what they meant. I was only 14. I didn’t know anything then.” 

But Niyem and Young Soo Lee were the lucky ones. They’d get to live to tell their harrowing stories.

You see, the vast majority of Comfort Women didn’t make it home after the war. A small minority managed to integrate themselves with the local community. But the fates of most of the women still remains unknown. It’s thought many died at the Comfort Stations.

Comfort Women during WW2
Comfort Women with a soldier

For those that did come home, they were met with silence. What had happened to them was not officially recognised. There would be no reparations for individuals, no help, no official apology.

Many of the women were also rejected by the lives they had been taken from.

Met with families and husbands who were now disgusted by them. It was near impossible to move forward to what had happened to them.

Even those women whose families did support them, had almost insurmountable hurdles ahead. Faced with the threat of infertility, due to STDs that were rampant at the Comfort Stations. Some women had even been sterilised, or beaten so badly they could no longer naturally have children.

Without help or acknowledgement of what they’d been through, the women struggled to move forward, to marry, build families and new lives for themselves.

So, they did the best they could. Living alone with the trauma of what had happened.

Then in the 1990s everything changed.

Kim Hak Sun
Meet Kim Hak Sun, one hell of a brave woman

In 1991, Kim Hak Sun, became the first Korean Comfort Woman to speak out about what had happened to her.

Kim Hak Sun was 17 when she became a Comfort Woman. She was 67 by the time she got to tell her story.

50 years after her ordeal began, she held a press conference, explaining:

‘Until now, I did not have the courage to speak, even though there are so many things I want to say.’

Kim Hak Sun filed a lawsuit against the Japanese Government, looking for the government to acknowledge what had happened to her and thousands of others:

‘Why do they lie that we don’t exist even though I am right here? This should now be straightened out.’

In 1997 Kim Hak Sun died, she never saw her acknowledgement.

BUT her bravery inspired other Comfort Women to stand up and demand that their voices finally be heard.

More and more Comfort Women from all over the world started making their voices heard and fighting for their long overdue rights.

By the mid 1990s Korea’s government was working to tell the Comfort Women’s story. School textbooks now clearly outlined what had happened and applications were opened up so the women could finally start seeking financial aid.

Then in 1995, Japans Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, set up a private fund for the women.

But the Comfort Women refused the money.

You see, the money came from private donations, rather than from the Japanese Government.

As it was the government, who they believed were morally responsible for the atrocities that happened, the women would not accept money from any other body.

Comfort Women protest
Former comfort women during a protest

20 years later, in 2015, Japan and Korea reached an agreement. The Japanese government would set up a fund for Korea’s Comfort Women, worth 1 billion yen (approx $8.3 million at the time)

The agreement declared that issue was:
‘resolved, finally and irreversibly.’

But just 2 years later in 2017, Korea’s new President, Moon Jae-in, questioned the deal’s validity.

Then in 2018 he argued that the current deal did not include a sincere apology. Thus failing to upheld the dignity of the Comfort Women.

What happens next in the reparations saga remains up for debate. But that’s just half of the story. The other crucial factor is:

How do we keep this chapter of history alive?

The number of surviving Comfort Women is dropping rapidly. With just a few dozen remaining.

These elderly women are spending their last years reliving the worst moments of their lives and begging history to acknowledge them.

With so many first hand accounts, in addition to pictures and video you’d think that, of course, historic bodies would take these women seriously.

Comfort women

You’d be wrong…

An application was made for the Comfort Women’s story to be included in UNESCO’s (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ) Memory of The World, which is a register designed to safeguard crucial chapters in history.

However, in 2017, UNESCO postponed any decision around including the Comfort Women in The Memory of the World program.

This decision just confirmed everything the women were fighting against. That what had happened to them had no significance and could be forgotten.

So what happens now?

Well, the Comfort Women continue to fight.

There are regular protests and these brave women continue to tell their stories.

Slowly but surely the women are getting more and more international attention. Pressure is growing, with monuments and projects remembering the Comfort Women starting to spring up across the globe.

The surviving Comfort Women are now in their 80s and 90s and it’s unlikely they will receive the recognition, reparations and apologies that they seek within their lifetimes. But, like Kim Hak Sun, their fight will leave an incredible impact.

These women are fighting not just for themselves, but for the tens of thousands of women who were stripped of their names, dignity and lives.

They are fighting for their right to be remembered. And that is a fight we can all help with. 

This was interesting, where can I find out more? If you can find a copy, I would suggest checking out, Jan Banning and Hilde Janssens, book:Comfort Women / Troostmeisjes. It is sold out on most online retailers, but you mind have luck via your local library or second hand book shop.

I’d also suggest checking out 2016 documentary, The Apology, which follows three former comfort women, as they remember what happened to them and fight for change.

This is an ongoing issue, so set yourself up a Google Alert, and stay on top of everything that’s going on!

American Traitor: The Tokyo Rose

The myth of the Tokyo Rose can first be traced back to American soldiers stationed in Japan during WW2. Too far from home to be able to tune into US radio, they were at the mercy of Japanese entertainment. The Japanese quickly cottoned onto this and allowed American GI’s to listen to their favourite songs…at a price.

The music was introduced by  the voice of a mysterious woman, she spoke English but also predicted Americas fall and the imment deaths of the listening GI’s. Not exactly ideal dinner guest material. This woman became known as Tokyo Rose and soon became a notorious and hated symbol of the war.

When the war ended Tokyo Rose lived on ; her story now told in hushed tones and with an air of bitter resentment to the this war criminal who has alluded justice. Hollywood even turned its attention to this villainess in 1946 with the aptly titled, Tokyo Rose; with the films hero a GI on the hunt to kill the venomous Tokyo Rose.

tokyo rose
This bitch, am i right?

But heres the thing…Tokyo Rose wasn’t one woman. She was many. 

She was mostly American Japanese women who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and were now stuck behind enemy lines and faced with a choice. The most infamous of these women is Iva Toguri D’Aqiino

Iva 1
Iva Toguri D’aquino – just look at all that evil..

Ironically born on Independence Day in 1916, Iva Toguri D’aquino would grow up to be one of America’s greatest traitors. ironic

Iva grew up in LA, where she was a popular but average high school student. In 1941, newly graduated from college, Iva’s parents sent the now 25 year old to Japan to care for her sick Aunt.

Though she had never traveled outside of America, Iva hopped on a plane, keen to care for ailing Aunt. But she couldn’t settle in Japan and grew desperately homesick. After a few months Iva packed up and bought a ticket back to US soil. But her plans were scuppered when a paperwork mix up prevented her from boarding the boat back to America. It was a set back but Iva was determined to get another ticket, eager to return to the US.

 And then Pearl Harbour happened 

well shit
well shit

Iva Toguri D’Aqiino was now trapped. An American citizen in enemy waters.

But she was tough, when military police asked her to renounce her US citizenship she refused, even following harassment and her relatives pleas she refused. And so Iva was kicked out of her relatives house.

Now homeless, branded an enemy alien and denied rations, Iva was having by all accounts, a shit holiday. But still she didn’t give in.

Iva 3
Don’t let the smile fool you, she has balls of steel

By 1943 Iva was living in Tokyo, still refusing to renounce her US citizenship. She supported herself working as a secretary for news companies, eventually securing a job at Radio Tokyo. Along with its usual output Radio Tokyo also produced propaganda programming aimed directly at American troops who had nothing better to do but listen in. These shows were created and hosted by Allied Prisoners of War, who were forced to now work against their own side.

One of these programmes, Zero Hour, was produced by a group of POWs from America, Australia and the Philippines, with the team headed up by Australian Army major Charles Cousins. Iva and Cousens already knew each other, with Iva having smuggled food to POWs on several occasions.

Upon arriving at Radio Tokyo, Cousens quickly picked out Iva, thanks to her unique husky voice and he requested that she come and work on Zero Hour.

Now here’s something to know: Zero Hour wasn’t actually propaganda. It was meant to be but….Cousens and his team were instead covertly working to undermine Zero Hour and fill it in jokes mocking its own propaganda.

It was a pretty ballsy move. But Cousens and his team weren’t happy with just mocking their enemy, they also wanted to produce a quality comedy programme! Which is why they were interested in Iva. Cousens felt her trademark husky growl would be the final touch to tip Zero Hour into full on farce (nice guy that Cousens)

After a lot of persuasion Iva joined the Zero Hour team, donning the persona of ‘Orphan Ann’ she directed messages to her ‘fellow Orphans’, took part in skits and regularly introduced propaganda with more than a telling nod: ‘here’s the first blow at your morale!’ (Iva wasn’t known for subtle satire) Iva 7

All in Iva took part on several hundreds of broadcasts over three years. During her spell as a presenter on Zero Hour she also met her husband, Filipe D’Aquino, who like her was trapped in an enemy land.

The pair tried continuously to get passage back to America, but still branded an enemy alien by the Japanese Government Iva’s financial situation was dire. Sadly things didn’t change for Iva following The Japanese surrender to America in 1945; she remained broke and far from home.

There seemed to be little hope in sight when one day two American reporters from Cosmopolitan turned up at Iva’s doorstep offering her several thousand dollars for an interview with the real Tokyo Rose.

Now Iva had never referred to herself on air as Tokyo Rose, but the considerable cash on offer would help get her the hell out of dodge; what harm could it really do?

You know the answer here. (it’s a lot.)

You see, the reporter from Cosmopolitan hadn’t actually got editorial sign off on Iva’s pretty hefty fee (whoops!) So the magazine did whatever it could to get out of its exclusive contract. Eventually duping Iva into giving a press conference to other journalists – thus making her violate her exclusive Cosmo contract and lose the money.

Not only that but in the finished article the journalist pretty much left out any mention of Iva deliberately undermining the propaganda she delivered – effectively turning the article into Iva’s confession. And so in 1945 Iva was arrested.

And you thought the worst thing Cosmo did was constant dieting tips

Iva was released without any charges a year later in 1946. (thats right a year later) She want back to life with her husband and hoped for normality. The pair tried to settle in Japan but their hopes for starting a family were shattered when still weakened from prison Iva gave birth to a child who died not long after.

You did this Cosmo. You did this!

Meanwhile America hadn’t forgotten Tokyo Rose. A campaign against Iva was gaining momentum and in 1948 that American citizenship Iva had worked so hard to keep meant that she was dragged back to US soil and under great public pressure she was promptly put on trial for treason.

In 1949 Iva went on trial, the seventh person in American history to be tried for treason, in what – at the time – was the most costly court case in history, the jury was all white and no actual broadcast evidence was to be shown ; it’s safe to say that things weren’t looking good for Iva. Iva 5

Over the course of 13 weeks Iva was charged with 8 counts of treason. She pled her innocence throughout, with the Zero Hour crew flying out to the trial in San Francisco to give evidence on her behalf. Charles Cousens even flew from Australia to speak in her defence, outlining the farcical undercurrent of the show. But then the prosecution conjured a series of Japanese witnesses and it was game over.

The witnesses testified to Iva voicing strong anti-American sentiments on the show, with the final nail in her coffin being witness evidence that following the Battle of Leyte Gulf (which saw over 2000 allied casualties and 12,000 Japense casualties) Iva went on air and crowed:

“Orphans of the Pacific, you are really orphans now. How will you get home now that your ships are sunk?”

There were of course no transcripts or audio record to back this claim up. Nonetheless in October 1949 Iva was found guilty of treason. She was fined £10,000, sentenced to 10 years in prison and stripped of the American citizenship she had fought so hard for.Iva jail

Iva was released for good behaviour after 6 years in a Virginia woman’s prison. Once more deportation loomed, but Iva battled to stay in America, working with her husband she successfully argued for her right to stay, citing her fathers valid US citizenship. Her stay was granted. Her husbands was not. This time the distance was too great and the pair amicably split.

Iva went to live with her family in Chicago where she quietly and peacefully lived out much of the rest of her life. Then In 1976 two of the key witnesses in Iva’s trial spoke out and admitted to being forced into giving false testimony.

In 1977 Iva received a presidential pardon. By 2006 the tide had fully turned; That same year was Iva’s 80th birthday and the World War ll Veterans committee awarded her for her bravery, patriotism and spirit-she described it as the most memorable day in her life.

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