Chinese and Japanese activists struggle to keep memory of ‘comfort women’ alive

By Xing Xiaojing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/14 18:31:44

Only 15 of Chinese ‘comfort women’ are still alive

Most women forced into sex slavery by Japanese soldiers during the war remained silent for much of their lives

A dedicated group of advocates persuaded some of the women to tell their stories and claim their due compensation

Although the advocates struggle to win an official apology and compensation from Japan failed, they vow to keep fighting, even as the final victims are passing away

Zhang Shuangbing looks into the distance at the Jianchuan Museum in Sichuan Province on July 31. Photo: Li Hao/GT

The film Great Cold, telling the plight of China's "comfort women," was re-screened across the country on Tuesday to mark the International Memorial Day for "Comfort Women."

At least 200,000 Chinese women were forced into sex slavery by Japanese troops during World War II.

These women are known by the euphemistic term "comfort women."

Great Cold explores these women's difficult experiences, both during the war and after.

Their great pain and shame lasted a lifetime, and some hunched-over elderly women have chosen to take their secrets to the grave.

Now, only 15 of them are known to be alive, including two sisters in their 90s from Central China's Hunan Province.

These two sisters recently chose to talk about their experiences for the first time, said Su Zhiliang, the director of the Research Center for Chinese Comfort Women at Shanghai Normal University.

Su is one of many activists who have watched over and protected these women decade after decade.

Some activists have dedicated themselves to pushing for rights of the victims, such as Japanese lawyer Noriko Omori, Chinese lawyer Kang Jian and Chinese private investigator Zhang Shuangbing.

All of them told the Global Times that they have built close connections with these women as their guardians.

Film Great Cold is screened at the Jianchuan Museum on August 1. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Hidden shame

Zhang, a former primary school teacher in Shanxi province, met an elderly woman, Hou Dong'e, in autumn 1982. Hou struggled and kneeled on the ground to cut wheat alone.

After learning about the humiliation as well as physical and mental trauma of the elderly woman, he realized his life mission - documenting the lives of China's "comfort women."

Over the past 35 years, Zhang has found around 300 suspected "comfort women." Over 130 of them have spoken about the Japanese invaders' crimes to him in detail. Stories of 127 of these people became the material for the film Great Cold. Over the past 16 years, Zhang has helped 16 elderly women file lawsuits using their real names in order to make the Japanese government offer an apology and compensation.

From December 16, 1937 to August 25, 1945, Japanese invaders seized Yu county in Shanxi Province, setting up over 70 "comfort stations" and forcing over a thousand women into sex slavery, resulting in disability, if not death, for most of the women.

Whenever Zhang heard any information about "comfort women," he would ride his shabby bike and inquire about the information from door to door.

His family did not understand why he would do this. In rural China, it was shameful for a village woman to acknowledge that she was a "comfort woman." They regard reputation as more important than anything else.

In the early 1990s, Zhang read that Japan might compensate Chinese wartime laborers. He thought this was the right time to claim justice for these women. Since then, elderly women started to open their hearts to him.

In 2007, the Supreme Court of Japan announced that a lawsuit launched on behalf of Chinese wartime laborers failed. This upset the families of the elderly women since there wasn't any apology or compensation. They blamed Zhang for damaging the reputation of the elderly women he represented.

On the day of the interview for this article, the last surviving "comfort woman" featured in Great Cold, Cao Heimao, passed away.

Zhang had broken his promise to the women of getting the Japanese government to apologize.

Speaking of Cao's death, he said with tears, "I lost a mother… but I will claim justice in my remaining years. I will fight as long as I live!"

Zhang Shuangbing visits a "comfort woman" in Shanxi Province in 1998. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Shuangbing

Not giving up

Noriko Omori is a Japanese lawyer who is the leader of the legal team in compensation lawsuits filed by Chinese victims against the Japanese government. In 1994, she decided to join the team and traveled to Shanxi Province interviewing Chinese "comfort women."

Local people did not support discussing what they considered to be a shameful past, so Omori had to conduct the interviews in hidden areas, such as basements and warehouses.

Some Japanese lawyers were motivated to help the comfort women by their vanity, but not Omori. In the past 24 years, she has never thought of giving up.

Noting that the elderly women have tremendous courage to speak up, Omori feels a sense of responsibility for them. Moreover, these women have to suffer from being looked down on by their neighbors in backward rural villages in China. "They chose to talk about their experience to me because they trust me, hence, I should be responsible for them and cannot give up halfway," she added.

Omori told the Global Times that young Japanese who accept national education do not have an opportunity to learn about the history of the Japanese invasion of China.

In 2007, the Japanese court gave a final judgment, saying it accepted that the women were forced into sex slavery.

However, the court did not  offer any apology or compensation to China's "comfort women."

Although her legal team lost the lawsuit, she feels it won a big achievement by getting the Japanese government to acknowledge its criminal behavior.

"In order to ask for the Japanese government's apology, I am making desperate efforts and I will keep doing it, so that more Japanese can learn about the truth of history," she said.


'It will never end!'

In September 1995, thousands of women and men from around the world met in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women, where Omori offered legal aid to China's "comfort women." As a foreigner, she of course needed domestic Chinese help. Kang Jian, a delegate representing China's female lawyers at the conference, volunteered to provide assistance.

"I thought the assistance was just for one time, but I have done it for my whole life," Kang said.

Kang has traveled to the provinces of Shanxi, Hainan and Liaoning in order to help Japanese lawyers assist China's "comfort women" and sue the Japanese government.

Once she visited a victim called Liu Mianhuan. The elderly woman hugged her and said, "I am so dirty! I have not been a human for my whole life!"

In 1943, three Japanese soldiers broke down Liu's door, imprisoning the 16-year-old girl for 40 days, resulting in a lifelong disability.

Another elderly woman who made Kang's heart ache was Hou Qiaolian, who passed away in 1998.

During the war, someone in the village reported that her father had a connection with the Eighth Route Army of the Communist Party of China. The Japanese soldiers tortured them, and raped the 13-year-old daughter.

Kang said that after dozens of years, these women told her secretly that they still thought it was their fault, causing them shame throughout their entire lives.

"Don't think we will let it go when the victims pass away. It will never end!" Kang said.

Everyone should help

Su became a "comfort women" expert when he visited Japan as a scholar in 1992. A Japanese scholar heard that Su came from Shanghai, and asked Su if he was aware that the first Japanese comfort station was in that city.

"I didn't know at that time to be honest," Su said.

But he felt that as a Chinese, it was his responsibility to investigate the issue.

He started his research after returning from Japan in 1994. He thought there were four "comfort stations" in Shanghai, but later it was proved that the number surpassed 180.

Su said with regret that the research work started too late. "If we encouraged those women to speak out 30 or 50 years ago, there would be more [evidence] than now. What's more, many elderly women kept this a secret for all their lives."

It has been 11 years since the final judgment came out in 2007. Su said the Japanese government ascertains the sex slavery occurred, but ruled that in the 1972 China-Japanese Joint Statement, the Chinese government has given up the right to collect damages from the war. For this reason, the court ruled against the victims.

"But the statement did not say that victims give up the right to collect damages from the war," Su noted. "To some extent, I don't think the war has ended."

Talking about the film Great Cold, he said though it may have subtle shortcomings, the fact that it recorded the stories of "comfort women" is encouraging. He said that everyone should do something to acknowledge or help the "comfort women."
Newspaper headline: Never forgotten

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