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Telling the Story of the Comfort Women

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This is an excerpt from Park Statue Politics: World War II Comfort Women Memorials in the United States. Get your free copy here.

In the mid-1930s, the government of Japan established a government-controlled network of brothels, referred to as “ianjo” or comfort stations, based on a massive Japanese private prostitution network in place since the emergence of Japan as a colonial power in the late nineteenth century. The ianjo system involved the deployment of tens of thousands of indentured Japanese sex workers across Northern Asia. As Japan prepared for war in the late 1930s, its military decided against continuing to recruit Japanese women for this purpose. The government replaced them largely with innocent Korean women and girls who joined the military because, in most cases, they had been deceptively recruited based on promises of a bright future with education and respectable, gainful employment. Instead these women became the exploited sex prisoners of the Japanese Army and the collaborators who had misled them into an unending nightmare of terror and rape.

This book is dedicated to the tens of thousands of women and girls who endured such deception only to face daily, multiple sexual violations by the Japanese military during World War II. Let us also remember the empty, ruined lives that surviving victims faced when they returned home after the war. They became marginalized from society because they had committed the “crime” of being raped. Sadly, the role played by Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese collaborators in the deceptive recruitment of women and girls for Japan’s comfort women system must also be told. Just as the Croat, Serb, and Romanian nationals who oversaw Hitler’s concentration camps did not escape judgment because they too were also “victims,” the crimes of the comfort women collaborators should not be concealed when the comfort women’s story is told.

We should not forget that the American military also had a role in all of this. They patronized the comfort women system during the first year after the war. After that, for 72 years until today, American GIs have patronized the hundreds of thousands of women and girls trapped in the camp towns around U.S. bases in Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Like the WWII comfort women, many of these women’s lives have also been destroyed. Nor can we forget that today, North Korean women escape every day across the border into China. To repay the “debt” for their “freedom,” these women will be sold into a forced marriage or to a brothel in China. Many will face the same personal shock and terror that women and girls endured three-quarters of a century ago under Japan’s military during the Pacific War.

Human trafficking extends far beyond Asia. By properly telling the story of the comfort women and properly identifying all responsible parties, we believe that we can best contribute to a future world where all women will experience that personal dignity, respect, and genuine love that the comfort women could never know.

In March 2017, Europe’s first comfort women memorial was dedicated in Wiesent, Germany, a small town in Bavaria with a population of approximately 2,500. The monument was described in the Korea Times as the “first ‘comfort women’ statue in Europe,” suggesting that there could be more in the future. The Korea Times reported that, on the one hand, this statue along with the 60 some other statues that have already been set up in Korea, China, Canada, the United States and Australia served “as a means to promote global awareness of comfort women,” that is, the tens of thousands of women and girls forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s military during WWII. The Korea Times added that the comfort women statues also stand “in protest of the deal reached between Seoul and Tokyo on the issue in December 2015,” [1] the date when the agreement was signed by Japan and Korea which in theory ended the comfort women impasse between the two countries. This agreement fell apart with the March 2017 impeachment of Korean President Park Geun-hye. Park was the key Korean proponent of the deal whereby Japan recognized that the Japanese military leadership was directly responsible for the creation of the comfort women system and it agreed to provide some $8.3 million for the creation of a foundation to provide support for surviving comfort women.

The events surrounding the installation of the Wiesent statue provide insight into our motivation for writing this book. In fact, on September 8, 2016, the sister cities of Suwon, Korea and Freiburg, Germany announced plans for the installation of the first comfort woman statue in Europe. The statue’s dedication was........

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