by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Guam Daily Post
December 30, 2015
After years of denials, Japan and South Korea appear close to making a deal over apologizing for the comfort women issue from World War II. Money is being promised, although to give a sense of how late this, estimates show that there might have been as many as 200,000 Korean comfort women (although these estimates vary due to records being lost or destroyed.) The Associated Press reports that there are only 46 left alive today.
This potential deal comes after a number of quiet, but embarrassing protests against Japanese denial of their history of sexual slavery. In 2011, a statue of a young Korean woman sitting next to an empty chair was erected across the street from the Japanese consulate in Seoul. Korean women comprised the majority of those used by the Japanese for sexual slavery. The statue was meant to symbolize the untold number of Korean women who wanted for apologies or reparations from Japan over their mistreatment. The Japanese government complained ferociously about how embarrassing this statue was. Earlier this year, prior to a visit to Seoul by Japanese Prime Minister Abe, two more statues appeared in a park, one symbolizing Korean comfort women, the other Chinese. Since the early 1990s, this issue has been prominent and sometimes strained relations between Japan and South Korea. In 1965, the two countries signed a treaty that was meant to put an end to any reparations claims related to World War II. For the past two decades, more and more women have come forward to share their stories of being sexual slaves for the Japanese military, refusing to allow the issue to disappear. The timing of the apology is intriguing, as Abe’s government seems more interested than ever in finding ways to revitalize the faded militaristic past of Japan.
But the issue of comfort women during World War II is far greater than just an issue between these two nations. It is a terrible history that brings together women from a number of countries and islands, the Philippines, Chuuk, Okinawa, Indonesia, Taiwan, Burma, and the Marianas.
Local history textbooks regularly mention the issue of comfort women on Guam during World War II, but scarcely provide any details. The Guam Legislature has approved a number of resolutions calling upon the Japanese government to apologize for their “vicious coercion of young women into sexual slavery and for their cruelty towards the people of Guam during its occupation.” The sexual violence that Chamorro women endured remains one of the most public secrets from that time period. It is something that all take for granted and know happened in various forms, but it remains a taboo subject, something better not spoken of or investigated.
But in the messy mire, what we commonly find is that the issue of comfort women in Guam is largely obscured by misconceptions or the larger specter of sexual violence during the Japanese occupation. The various ways in which women were victimized leads to some ways, which represent far complicated or difficult histories go unspoken and lost.
When I was conducting my research on World War II about 12 years ago, I interviewed more than 100 survivors of “I Tiempon Chapones.” As of today, the majority of those I interviewed have passed on, and I feel grateful to have spent time with so many. sitting at their kitchen tables, their outside kitchens, or meeting them for coffee at Hagatna McDonald’s to hear their stories.
When I would broach the topic of comfort women, it was clearly something that was very difficult to discuss. But even in this difficulty, there were problems of definition. When I asked one woman about her knowledge of comfort women on Guam, she said her mother had been one of them. Noting that this was a rarity, as people tended to speak generally about comfort women, knowing of their existence, but also careful never to be too specific, to name any names, I seized this chance to learn more about the life of Chamorro comfort women. But when she described her mother’s experience, she had been raped by a Japanese soldier at their ranch, I realized she had misunderstood what it meant to be a comfort woman.
Sexual attacks on Chamorro women were all too common during the occupation. Families took care to hide the young women in their family, or alter their appearance in ways to make them less “appetizing” to your average soldier turned rapist. In other instances, women felt compelled to be “friendly” to Japanese soldiers or officers in order to obtain favors or protection for their families. They became girlfriends or mistresses to the Japanese troops, something which made sense in the heat of war, but afterwards became an almost unmentionable act.
This everyday coercion and violence that Chamorro women felt obscures the ways in which Guam was incorporated into the comfort women system. The rapes or the abuse was horrific, but the comfort women represented a more naturalized form of sexual oppression, where women were recruited to be part of a system whereby they would regularly serve the “comfort” of soldiers. The random acts of sexual violence represent one traumatic aspect of war, the comfort women represent an entirely different form of trauma, which can’t be accounted for in random or calculated acts of sexual violence. The comfort women system used by the Japanese military in Asia and the Pacific, was a system of sexual slavery, a massive human trafficking operation. It speaks to something beyond the character of individuals soldiers or commanders, but to the Japanese nation and its treatment of human beings, especially those it deemed as inferior.
It remains to be seen how this apology and this reparation process for South Korea might affect the Chamorro struggle for apologies or restitution for their suffering during World War II.