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Crying out for comfort still

Millennium markers - Japanese Occupation

ON Sept 18, 1931, the Japanese army destroyed a Japanese-owned railway in north-east China, called it an act of Chinese hostility, and began an invasion. The Manchurian Incident, as it came to be called, was the first in a series of ''incidents'' that eventually led to full-scale war in China in July 1937. It was during the First Shanghai Incident that occurred in 1932 that naval ''comfort stations '' were set up for the first time. Okamura Yasuji, Vice Chief of Staff of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force, established them in March 1932.At the end of 1937, Nanjing, a wartime capital, fell to Japan. On the way to and inside Nanjing the Japanese army started the pillaging, massacres and rapes that later became known as the ''Rape of Nanjing.'' Concerned at incidences of inhuman treatment that occurred there, the Japanese army accelerated the establishment of comfort stations to serve the more than one million troops deployed in China.

Thus, the comfort station system was institutionalised to prevent widespread raping of local women by Japanese soldiers; it was thought that this would, in turn, limit anti-Japanese resistance in the occupied area, protect Japanese soldiers from venereal disease, and avoid the sort of international disgrace the Rape of Nanjing - which was widely reported in the world's media (though completely censored in Japan) - had heaped on Japan.

Women were recruited from Japan as well as Japanese colonies such as Korea and Taiwan, and occupied areas such as China, Burma, Malaya, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, islands in the Pacific and Thailand. Women and girls who were detained in these comfort stations - or, more accurately, rape centres - were called ''comfort women.''

On Dec 8, 1941, Japan declared war against Britain, the United States and The Netherlands. But even before the declaration, the Japanese army landed in Kota Baru and started to advance southward, signalling the beginning of the war in Malaya. The Southern Army commander, General Terauchi Hisaichi, directed the deployment of the Japanese army in South-East Asia. It was Southern Army headquarters that planned and established comfort stations for each division.

One of the earliest documents on comfort women in South-East Asia - from collections of original government documents published by, among others, the Asia Women's Foundation - is a secret Army Telegram sent by Japan's Taiwan Army, dated March 12, 1942. The Taiwan Army had been requested by the Southern Army General Command to ''dispatch as soon as possible 50 native comfort women to Borneo.'' There were also advertisements in Shonan Nippou, the Chinese-language newspaper, calling for hostesses; women aged 17 to 28 from all ethnic groups were being sought. The payment amounted to more than $150 (Straits dollars, a princely sum at that time). Women who engaged in the ''shameful calling,'' that is, prostitution, were also eligible to apply.

Many older Singaporeans and Malaysians remember the locations of comfort stations. Reputed stations in Kuala Lumpur included a large, single-storey bungalow behind what is now the Chinese Assembly Hall; four buildings next to what is now the National Library in Jalan Tun Razak; Tai Sun Hotel opposite the old Pudu Jail; and a large house along Jalan Ampang that was used by Japanese officers.

Comfort stations were established throughout the peninsula, including in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan (a large Tudor-style bungalow on the same road as the current Kuala Pilah MCA branch); Penang (the Tong Lock Hotel still stands today at the junction of Jalan Burma and Jalan Zainal Abidin); Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan (the current Seng Cheong building along Jalan Cheng Lock); and Sepang, Selangor (the Tamir school stands on the site there today).The Umno Youth official who called for victims of Japanese wartime atrocities to come forward in 1992 was Mustapha Yaakub. His decision to submit a report on the responses he received to the Human Rights Conference in Geneva that June, however, was derailed when the Malaysian Government decided that facts about the comfort women issue were not well-established enough for information to be submitted to an international conference. It was certainly a blow to the more than 3,500 letter writers who had bravely stepped forward to talk about surviving Japanese atrocities such as massacres, forced labour, rape and sexual slavery. When I visited Mustapha's office, I saw the pile of letters; he gave me copies of two of the letters, one from a Chinese woman and the other from a Malay woman.Letter from Ms X in Malay, written on her behalf by her daughter.

''Tuan: I cannot describe the Japanese atrocities during the occupation. All I can do is cry, cry in my heart. I have left everything in God's hands. I was caught when I was walking along the street. I cried all the time afterward. I worked as animal. They did to me just as they liked. I was prohibited to see my family. I obeyed their orders until their surrender. I did not receive any money. If I reflect (on) my experience I feel that I died once and returned to life again. Now, my experience has been made a part of history by the government. I hope that the Malaysian Government values my experience.''

Ms X, who lives in Negri Sembilan, was quite difficult to interview as she is old and can't tell her story in one sitting. According to her, she was taken to a construction site on the Burma-Siam Railway - the infamous Death Railway - with her husband. The Japanese Southern Army urgently needed labourers and took to kidnapping people from amusement centres, theatres and even the roadside. Ms X was one such kidnap victim; she was put on a freight train with other labourers and sent to Thailand. The group disembarked at Bangpong and forced to walk a long way to the construction camp through the jungle. The labour camps comprised long huts with bamboo walls and floors and nipah (palm thatch) roofs. Bad nutrition, a lack of medical facilities and hard labour, even on rainy days and through the night, eventually killed her husband. Ms X was then used as a sex slave in the camp.

Her daughter told me that Ms X still has nightmares and cries out in her sleep; she tends to wander about after the bad dreams. Ms X told me that she begs God for pardon for the sins she had committed during her time in the labour camp. Nobody has told her that it is not her sin at all.

People who had not experienced the horrors of comfort stations often viewed comfort women as ''sinners'' or ''disgraced''. That was the case with Ms R, too. She is the only Malaysian woman to come forward publicly with her wartime experiences; she was moved to do so after she read a newspaper article about the Asian Tribunal of Women's Rights held in March 1994 at Waseda University in Tokyo which I had helped organise. I heard about her in November 1994 and flew to Penang to meet and interview her.

All Europeans on Penang secretly evacuated the island on Dec 16, 1941, after they received news that the Japanese Army had landed in Kota Baru on Dec 8. To avoid being bombed, the Malayan population hoisted a white flag at Fort Cornwallis the next day; one brave Eurasian young man pedalled his bicycle more than 30km to the Japanese Army headquarters that had been established in Sungei Patani to tell them that all Europeans had already evacuated. Thus, Penang avoided becoming a battlefield. But many women in Penang could not avoid the tragedy of the comfort stations.

In 1943, Ms R was divorced, living in the town of Jelton, and working hard cleaning, washing, sewing, waitressing, doing any job she could to feed her two children. One night, at 3am, Japanese soldiers raided the town, going from house to house and dragging women away. She resisted but her two children were taken from her arms and she was loaded into a truck with other women. She was taken to a big house and locked in. The house still stands at the junction of Jalan Burma and Jalan Zainal Abidin and is now Tong Lock Hotel. The sign at the entrance of the house in those days said ''Exclusive Army Use.''

Ms R was given a Japanese name, Hanako. She was raped continuously, daily by Japanese soldiers. From 8am the soldiers would begin coming in; at night officers came and stayed all night. On a busy day, Ms R would be raped by about 30 soldiers. She would just lie on the bed naked as there was no time to get dressed. Moreover, the soldiers were often drunk and would hit her about the face and head and pull her hair.

Often, she worried about her two small children who had been snatched from her when the Japanese kidnapped her. One day, a rickshaw puller who usually waited for customers in front of the comfort station told Ms R that her landlady and neighbours were taking care of her children. Ms R reminisced that, during the war, most people in that area were poor but very kind and helped each other.

Ms R got pregnant because many soldiers did not use condoms. She knew that other comfort women who got pregnant had disappeared; there were rumours that they were taken somewhere and killed. When the last month of Ms R's pregnancy approached in February 1945, she desperately begged the obasan - Japanese for auntie, as the woman who ran the comfort station was called - to let her go to the hospital. The obasan finally gave in and let her go. Ms R gave birth to a baby girl on Feb 12, 1945; when filling in the birth certificate, a Japanese hospital clerk pitied the woman who could not name the baby's father and let her use his own name, Sakamoto. The baby was registered as a Japanese citizen. Ms R remained in hospital for a month after the delivery and was freed when the Japanese surrendered.

But her pain, and the pain of countless other girls and women who were victims of sexual violence, was exacerbated by the rejection they faced on returning to their own communities. Throughout the interviews I conducted, I heard of girls and women forced to suffer in shame and silence as a consequence of sexist attitudes. They were spat on by their own village people and were despised as a disgrace to the family. The communities they returned to held them responsible for their own tragedies. But Ms R hoped to help change this worldwide pattern of sexual stereotyping. She wants to win back her human dignity which has been lost for so long. And, perhaps, to see some justice done, as some of those who broke their silence through the letters they wrote, hoped for.

One letter that showed how these horrific wartime experiences still affect people today came from Ms P; it was written in English on her behalf by her daughter as Ms P is illiterate; I also interviewed Ms P in 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1996.''I was living in Serdang (Selangor) when Japan invaded Malaya. I was a rubber tapper. I was 16 years old. (On March 22, 1942) two truck-loads of Japanese soldiers came to my village. I was cooking in the kitchen. I failed to escape. They caught me and raped me. I struggled against them but one of them kicked my head with his boot. My head was injured. They took me with several girls from the village. They confined us in a house in Ampang and raped us one after another every day for one month. Then they took us to the comfort station opposite Pudu Jail. It was called in Chinese Tai Sun Hotel. Then we were transferred to 'Ngan Ngan' (a comfort station in Jalan Tun Razak). There were four big buildings where women serving Japanese soldiers were living. I had to serve 10 to 20 soldiers every day. I was punched all the time. It continued until 1945 when Japan surrendered.''

According to her testimony and my subsequent interviews, Ms P was living with her parents and younger brother when she was abducted. A Chinese man led the Japanese soldiers to their house. They took her younger brother and when her father begged the soldiers not to take his children, he was killed. Her mother was also killed after she was raped. Three soldiers raped Ms P, then took her away; the head injury she received at that time required four stitches. At the house in Ampang, she was not allowed to go outside, nor could she communicate with the other girls there. When she did not cooperate in performing the ordered sexual acts, she was kicked and beaten. She was eventually given a Japanese name, Momoko. At the end of the war, when Ms P saw Europeans march into the city, all the girls and women were let out of the comfort stations and told to flee. When she returned to Serdang, however, the villagers spat on her for having been a comfort woman to the Japanese. Her uncle had to take her away to Seremban.

In 1951, Ms P married but she testified that she was unable to have children due to the rapes; her womb had become so infected that it had to be removed. She and her husband adopted two girls, in 1952 and 1958. She was, however, never able to find relief from the psychological and physical pains caused by the rapes. She abhorred sex and hated being touched by any man, even her husband, who abandoned her in the early 1960s. At this time, she suffered acute stomach pains and developed hypertension. In 1990, Ms P had to be hospitalised to deal with the high blood pressure; in 1992, she developed stomach ulcers and had to be hospitalised again and transfused with two litres of blood due to the bleeding. By 1995, she had developed heart disease and diabetes. Despite all these serious illnesses, Ms P had been working without pause since 1961. She testified that ''Now I have four different chronic illnesses and need long-term medical treatment. I have lost my ability to work and this seriously affects my economic situation. All this had been brought upon me by World War II.''

When she heard Mustapha's call for victims to come forward, she summoned up her courage after more than half a century and told her wartime experiences to her foster daughter. That letter was the crystallisation of her whole life's agony from the time she was raped by three Japanese soldiers at the age of 16. But her dream of seeking justice is still sitting in a pile of other letters, all awaiting the government's decision on the issue.

Legal recourseThe Japanese comfort station or sex slavery system during WWII was one of the most egregious examples of systematic rape and sexual slavery in history. After the war, Japan was tried for war crimes by the WWII Allies at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Far East from April 1946 to November 1948. But the court did not prosecute Japanese officials for sexual slavery despite possessing evidence of such practices. The responsibility for failing to prosecute this issue lies not only with the tribunal, but also Japan, which should be responsible for its failure to apologise and provide reparation and other meaningful remedies over the last 55 years.

The People's Tribunal, the Women's International War Crime Tribunal 2000 on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery in Tokyo, was created by an International Organising Committee chaired by representatives from Japan, the Philippines and South Korea. Women from these countries have been active since 1991 in helping survivors of war crimes and organising international networks on behalf of survivors. The first summary of findings on Dec 12 last year said: ''This is a People's Tribunal set up by the voice of global civil society. The authority for this tribunal comes not from a state or intergovernmental organisation but from the peoples of the Asia-Pacific region and, indeed, the peoples of the world to whom Japan owes a duty under international law to render account. In so doing, it is hoped the government of Japan will recognise that the greatest shame lies in not admitting its full legal responsibility and providing redress.''

The tribunal was established because the women involved think that survivors' voices should not be silenced. North and South Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, The Netherlands, and Malaysia sent prosecutors as well as a total of 64 survivors as witnesses (Malaysia, though, presented video testimony).

One of the most important results of the meeting is that the prosecutors charged Emperor Hirohito and other high-ranking Japanese military and political officials with responsibility for crimes against humanity in approving, condoning and failing to prevent the rape and sexual slavery of women of the countries of the Asia-Pacific subjugated by the Japanese military during WWII.

Among the tribunal's recommendations was that the United Nations ''take all steps necessary to ensure that the government of Japan provides full reparations to the victims and survivors and those entitled to recover on account of the violations committed against them.'' The final judgement will be delivered next month at The Hague, Netherlands.

n Prof Nakahara Michiko, who lectures History at Waseda University, Japan, has several publications on Malaysian history in Japanese as well as articles in English, including: (1999) 'Labour Recruitment in Malaya Under the Japanese Occupation: The Case of the Burma-Siam Railway', in Jomo K.S. (ed), Rethinking Malaysia: Malaysian Studies I, Hong Kong: Asia 2000.

Notes: STF -: In 1992, an Umno Youth official called for victims of cruelty under the Japanese Occupation of Malaya during World War II to speak out. He received thousands ofletters from a generation that had suppressed its feelings for more than half a century, including five fromformer Japanese military 'comfort women' or sex slaves. And when the MCA also started calling for victims to come forward, its Public Services and Complaints Bureau (now Department) received letters from three additional comfort women. In all, four Malay women and four Chinese women were recognised as former comfort women. In this week's Millennium Markers, Prof NAKAHARA MICHIKO traces the beginnings of 'comfort stations', speaks to several Malaysian women who were placed in them and how their lives have been affected even today by their experiences.

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+1 #1 John Lee 2011-09-23 16:36
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