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Comfort Women: Tales of Trauma and Twisted Apologies.

An account of enforced prostitution in the background of the World War II, anchored on a gendered understanding of war and militarization.

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War is a masculine enterprise. For most part of history, women and war have had a fraught relationship: women appear in discussions of war and military almost always as alleged causes, transferable trophies of victors, docile nurses, wives of diplomats, widows, prostitutes, show girls, and workers in ammunition industries; in general as latent victims and hidden entities.

Making sense of international politics and wars through a feminist lens would not only mean rethinking the position of women, but examining the agency that male enemy forces have wielded over them. The consequences of the two World Wars offer ghastly evidence for the same, and yet, scholarly works on the feminist contextualization of the multidimensional victimization of women cutting across countries, ethnicities, or regions is woefully limited and publically hushed. Who speaks for the millions of women deployed as show girls on the army bases for the entertainment of wearied soldiers? And what had the war brought to them?

The deliberately suppressed accounts of the trauma of ‘Comfort Women’, deployed by the Imperial Japanese forces in the Second World War, underline a disturbing, dialectical trend in the masculine-feminine narratives of conflict, within both the domestic and the public domain. The submission of women and their bodies for the pleasure of men and a woman’s sexuality- husbands in the room or soldiers on the base- is regarded by society as a man’s ‘right’.

There is a silent storm in the calm pose of the figure of ‘The Statue of Peace’, also known as the Sonyeosang (Korean : Statue of Girl), standing outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, defiantly reminding the world, especially the intransigent Japanese Government, of the unspeakable trauma and pain inflicted upon thousands of women deployed as ‘Comfort Women’ in military brothels across the Imperial Japanese bases during the Second World War. It is a call for ‘apology and remembrance’ of the women who have been either forgotten or misrepresented and gravely wronged.

Women and War

War has a masculine colouring, in that it has been historically a result of aggressive ambitions of men (interestingly, women from Helen to Draupadi have been called out as the catalysts to conflict), and women’s roles in battles have either been ignored or downplayed. In wars, where are the women? Our ‘feminist curiosity’ as Cynthia Enloe, renowed feminist scholar and theorist, puts it, would tell us that “a feminist analysis of a military base would need to take seriously the lives of sex workers, whose bodies are not only used by the troops stationed there but also subjected to a raft of rules and regulations designed to limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among the soldiers. It would also need to take seriously the lives of those women who have been sexually assaulted by members of the military, and the groups that work to help and support those affected.”

One needs to bear in mind that military prostitution on bases reconfigures the sexual politics of the society as a whole, for it represents on a larger canvas the absence of sexual democracy across cultures and societies, and, in particular, the absence of bodily agency that women exercise.

Wartime exploitation of women is not an unheard phenomenon; but it certainly is a silenced one. In listing out the ramifications of enterprises like battles, sexual exploitation in the shape of military prostitution might never hold the attention it deserves. There is well documented evidence showing institutionalized military brothel systems, one that would cater to the uncouth ravaging of the soldiers. George Hicks, author and anthropologist says in his book The Comfort Women - “The Roman Empire, with its far flung army, had a comfort system remarkably similar to that of the Japanese military. Roman system of slavery ensured a regular supply of captive females for the military brothels which were attached to every Roman garrison or campaigning army.” Similar systems were in place in the British, German and Indian armies too.

Unknown and Un-comfort-able Tales

The Japanese case was quaint at best. Its military was rife with superstitions of what promotes and what jinxes victory. And a lot of these superstitions were those which as Hicks mentions as linked to sex. He states that “These included the belief that sex before going into battle worked as a charm against injury. Amulets could be made with pubic hair of comfort women, or from something belonging to them. Sexual deprivation was believed to make one accident prone…….another rationale that ritualized the Japanese army visits to the comfort stations was the belief that a virgin soldier must have sex at least once before his death.”

Military brothels existed in Japan long before the Second World War. They became rampant across Japanese bases after the infamous Rape of Nanking in late 1937. This brutal event saw the Japanese army indulge in a six weeks long massacre of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians in the then Capital of China, Nanjing, as well as rapes and assaults of around 80,000 women of the City.

Japanese military authorities relied on comfort women as the standard measure for relieving the tension of combat, or military life generally. However, once this rape campaign began tarnishing Japan's international image, Emperor Hirohito ordered the military to expand its “Comfort Stations” to prevent further atrocities, reduce sexually transmitted diseases, and ensure a steady and isolated group of prostitutes to satisfy the Japanese soldiers’ sexual desires.

A major graphic and stark account of a former survivor of Japanese 'comfort stations' is given in ‘Memoirs of a Korean Comfort Woman’. Hidden behind the Pseudonym ‘Kim Chun Ja’, the writer’s original identity still remains an enigma.

Kim’s account begins when she, along with four other girls, was pressured to volunteer for the Women’s Patriotic Service Corps. They were taken to Seoul via train. On arrival they were first given Korean costume and a Japanese Kimono along with undergarments. On enquiry about their jobs, they were told, “Your job is to look pretty and comfort the soldiers”. Later the girls were given Japanese names before being escorted to an Inn, where they were bathed, decorated and dressed up in bathrobes to be taken to a room in the Inn with five Japanese men who were drinking. Before long, each of the girls were seized in a well practised grip, ‘like sparrows caught in an eagle’s talons’ and dragged screaming to separate rooms.

In the stations, the women were taught to be romantic, walk stylishly, and be seductive. It is harrowing to even attempt to give an account of the women’s conditions. And worse: the entire issue was denied by the Japanese officials and the stories belied for centuries. The women had to first fight to be believed before they could fight to be served justice.

But this particular victimization was never made apparent to the world until the late twentieth century, and, even then, the Imperial Japanese refuted the alleged involvement in recruiting comfort women or setting up comfort stations. In 1962 journalist Senda Kako stumbled upon an unexplained photograph while curating remnants of the War as part of a research for his book. The photograph showed two women wading across a river with a soldier and no explanations given could provide Kako answers. This instigated a personal-level investigation by him where he learned of them being the Japanese “Comfort Women” recruited from Korea with the assistance of military doctor Aso Tetsuo. Further investigations pointed out that the first such “Comfort Station'' was established near Shanghai in 1938, where primarily women from Korea were brought in through coercive deception and abduction. Senda later published one of the first books titled ‘Jugun-Ianfu’ (Military Comfort Women) on the issue of “Comfort Women''. This remained one of the most controversial books for decades.