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Comfort women of Japanese military again endure old pain

Reversal of 1993 acknowledgement hurtful

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

SYDNEY, Australia - Three grandmothers from three different countries, speaking no common language but protesting with a common purpose, joined each other in front of the Japanese consulate here recently. What brought them together - a 90-year-old Taiwanese from Taipei, a 78-year-old South Korean from Seoul, and an 84- year-old Dutch-Australian from Adelaide - was their experiences as so-called ‘comfort women,’ or ‘troostmeisjes’ in Dutch, of Japan's military during World War II.

All three had participated in international conferences for Japan's former sex slaves before. This time, just days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan denied the military's role in coercing women into servitude in occupied countries, the three were united in their fury.

Abe's denial drew official protests from China, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines, some of the countries from which the sex slaves were taken. These protests pushed back to the forefront an especially dark chapter of Japan's wartime history.

The prime minister's comments resulted from a confluence of events. Abe, a nationalist who had spent his career trying to play down Japan's wartime past, was elected prime minister last fall. At the same time, the Democratic victory in U.S. Congress gave impetus to a nonbinding resolution in the House of Representatives that would demand that Japan unequivocally acknowledge and apologize for its sex slaves.

U.S. Congress

Even as Abe's closest allies pressed him to revise a 1993 government statement that acknowledged the military's role forcing unwilling women to act as sex slaves for wartime Japanese soldiers, three of the former sex slaves, including Dutch-born Jeanne Ruff O'Herne, testified in U.S. Congress in February. While Abe said he would keep the 1993 statement, he reversed its central admission of the military's role, arguing that there had been no "coercion, like the authorities breaking into houses and kidnapping" women. He claimed that private dealers had coerced the women, adding that the U.S. House resolution was "not based on objective facts" and he would not apologize even if it were passed by Congress.

The resolution calls for Japan to "formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Force's coercion of young women into sexual slavery."

"Prime Minister Abe is in effect saying that the women are lying," Mike Honda, the Japanese-American Democratic congressman from California who is spearheading the legislation, commented. Honda finds it hard to believe that given the evidence uncovered by Japanese historians and the testimony of the comfort women that Abe hold such a position.


Abe's distinction goes to the heart of the debate over state responsibility in Japan during the war. While Abe admitted coercion by private dealers, some of his closest allies in the governing Liberal Democratic Party have dismissed them as prostitutes who volunteered to work in the so-called comfort stations.

Japanese historians, using diaries and testimonies of military officials, as well as official documents from the United States and other countries, have been able to show how the Japanese military was directly or indirectly involved in coercing, deceiving, luring, sometimes kidnapping outright young women throughout its Asian colonies and occupied territories. As many as 200,000 comfort women are estimated to have served in stations that were often an intrinsic part of military operations. But Abe's political allies claim there are no official Japanese government documents showing the military's role in recruiting the women.

In 1995, a private fund was set up to compensate the sex slaves, but many women refused to accept any money because they saw the fund's non-government nature as a way for Tokyo to avoid taking direct responsibility. Only 285 women have accepted money from this fund, which will be terminated at the end of this month.


According to historians, the military established the comfort stations to boost morale among its troops, but also to prevent rapes of local women and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among soldiers. Japan's deep fear of rampaging soldiers also led it to establish brothels with Japanese prostitutes across Japan for American soldiers during the postwar U.S. Occupation - a fact that complicates American involvement in the current debate.

Ruff O'Herne, 84, testified in U.S. Congress that an apology is the most important thing they want - an apology that comes from the government, not only a personal one - because that would give them back their dignity.

Ruff O’Herne was living with her family in Java, in the former Dutch East Indies, when Japan invaded in 1942. She had spent the first two years in a prison camp, when one day in 1944 Japanese officers forced single girls to line up. Eventually they picked 10 of them, including Ruff who was 21 years old at the time.

They were well organized, said Ruff O’Herne, including visits from a military doctor who regularly came to examine them for venereal diseases.

In Japan's colonies, historians say, the military worked closely with locals to recruit women or relied on them completely.


Ever since a Korean woman in 1992 broke her silence by speaking out about her experiences as a sex slave, other women in several countries, assisted by private organizations, have revealed details about their lives during and after the war.

After Ruff O’Herne returned to the prison camp in Java following her release from the comfort station, her parents swore her to silence. But it is at the camp that she met her future husband, Tom Ruff, one of the British soldiers who had been deployed to guard the camp after Japan's defeat. She told him her story once before they were married - long before they would have two daughters and migrate to Australia.

Ruff O’Herne’s experiences are detailed in her Australia-published book, 50 Years of Silence and in an Australian documentary film. After breaking her silence, she has spoken about her experiences in various parts of the world. Ruff O’Herne says she has no hatred for Japan in her heart and has forgiven them, although she still wants justice to be done. It is a point she continued to stress when recently the Australian government entered into a security relationship with Japan.