Violent Expressions of the Imperialist Conquest

By Megan ShankOctober 2, 2014

Violent Expressions of the Imperialist Conquest

DURING THE ASIA-PACIFIC WAR, the Japanese army forced hundreds of thousands of Chinese women into sexual slavery as “comfort women.” Members of the Japanese army routinely raped, starved, and beat them. The women lived in dark and filthy quarters and were isolated from others. They were considered army supplies, not human beings. So if they contracted venereal disease or “wore out,” they were often casually discarded — killed or left to die. Back in society, they were often seen as traitors — for it was more noble to die than to survive a rape by the enemy — and were given two choices: remain silent with those terrible scenes or speak out and face the wrath of the Red Army. Most chose to remain silent until recently, when advocates, academics, and family members have encouraged them to testify. In Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, they do so in their own words. The result is a moving, visceral body of damning evidence that calls for action before the last of their voices fades — for they are all into their 80s and beyond. Peipei Qiu spoke with LARB Asia Co-editor Megan Shank about why it’s taken so long to hear these women’s voices, how Japan’s failure to own up to its atrocities has impacted its relationship with neighboring countries, and how making amends for the past can be a prescriptive step toward ending sexual trafficking today.


MEGAN SHANK: Tell us about your decision to use the term "comfort women" instead of sexual slave. How do you think the traditional term has influenced the way people view the history?

PEIPEI QIU: The term “comfort women” is a literal translation of the Japanese word ianfu, which was used euphemistically to refer to women servicing Japanese troops during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945). Given the sexual exploitation and horrific torture to which these women were subjected in the Japanese military “comfort stations,” I didn’t want to use the term at first. However, after careful consideration I decided to use it because two decades of international debate, historical research, and legal investigation have made the term a widely recognized symbol of the victims of the Japanese military system of sexual slavery. Together with “comfort station” (ianjo), the term was created to mask the violent nature of the system. Ironically, however, this euphemism evidenced its militaristic and sexist nature.

The previous assumption was that most "comfort women" were Japanese or Korean. Why?

For a long time after the war these rape victims were kept quiet in China because they were viewed as shameful and in some cases were mistreated as collaborators “serving the enemy.” The information about the large number of Chinese women enslaved in Japan’s wartime “comfort stations” first came out in the 1990s, when the “comfort women” redress movement in South Korean and Japan inspired a nationwide investigation on Japanese military “comfort stations.” However, although a large number of publications concerning Korean and Japanese “comfort women” have been published in English since the late 1980s, research findings about Chinese “comfort women” have been mostly in Chinese language, so people outside of China did not know about it.

What stories or individual lives stood out for you? Can you please tell our readership about them?

All these survivors’ stories are heart-rending and unforgettable, and their courage to resist violence is remarkable. Wan Aihua, for example, was abducted by the Japanese troops when she was 14. She risked her life to escape but was recaptured. The soldiers gang-raped her and tortured her continuously until one day she passed out and didn’t wake up for a long time. The soldiers thought she was dead so they threw her out into a runnel by the village. Wan Aihua had no clothes on her body and the water in the river was frozen. She would have died if a villager didn’t pass by who saw her. Wan was bedridden for three years and, for the rest of her life, she suffered severe physical pain resulting from the torture by the Japanese military. Yet, in spite of her own suffering, over the years she offered free massage therapy to those who could not afford medical treatment. The resilience and humanity of these women, who continued loving others even though they themselves were abused, are deeply moving.

Please talk about the cultural factors that have prevented Chinese women from coming forward. Describe the process of locating and speaking to the surviving Chinese women.

The sexual brutality in the Japanese military “comfort stations” is very difficult for the victims to speak about. In addition, in the rural areas where most of the Chinese survivors lived, patriarchal views regarding chastity remain deeply rooted and contributed significantly to the embarrassment and pain the survivors experience in telling their wartime suffering. The patriarchal ideology in traditional Chinese society required women to be virgins before marriage and chaste thereafter. A woman who died resisting rape was considered a martyr, while one who survived was deemed shameful. This discriminative attitude towards rape victims was further intensified by a political prejudice that viewed women who serviced the enemy’s troops, even though forced to do so, as traitorous. These sociopolitical factors formed a suppressive environment that prevented many Chinese survivors from coming forward. The 12 women whose personal narratives are introduced in the book were found through the help of local people who had firsthand knowledge of the survivors’ wartime abductions. These survivors would not have been able to step forth to testify without the support of researchers, specialists, and their family members.

In the book, you describe the dilemma of the collaborators. Please tell our LARB readers about the deception and coercion that took place.

In occupied areas the Japanese forces both directly kidnapped local women into “comfort stations” and used Chinese men to round up women. While some Chinese collaborators actively participated in the setting-up and operation of “comfort stations,” in many cases local officials were coerced to draft women as the occupation forces openly threatened to kill local residents if they refused to do so. Although these middlemen’s actions cannot be justified by the pressure produced by the occupation forces, given the widespread killing carried out by the Japanese troops in the occupied areas, it is clear that refusal to follow the occupiers’ orders would have put the safety of many local residents at risk. Witnesses on Hainan Island, for example, reported that Japanese troops built two military strongholds at Fuli Township in 1943. The occupation army demanded that the nearby villages submit two women to be long-term “comfort women” for the master sergeant and the sergeant first class, and that they submit another five or six women to be short-term “comfort women” for the soldiers on a daily basis. They threatened that if any village disobeyed this order, the residents of the entire village would be killed and their houses burned. Consequently, two local women were turned in to service the sergeants, and villages in the township took turns submitting five to six women to the Japanese strongholds each day. In the book I discuss cases of collaborations under different circumstances. Collaborators who actively helped the Japanese military in forcing women into sexual slavery were brought to justice by Chinese court when the war ended.

It’s striking that these women’s lives seemed to go from bad to worse. In the book, you describe how many of the women were sold as child brides or abandoned or mistreated by their families. Many had bound feet. Please tell our readers what life was like for Chinese women during these times. Do you think Chinese society’s devaluation of women had anything to do with the way the Japanese saw these women?

The patriarchal ideology dominant in China at the time regarded woman as subordinate to man, a tool to produce offspring for the continuation of the family line. In this male- dominated culture, daughters of poor families were often abandoned or sold to richer families, and wives were divorced or discriminated against when they lost the ability to bear children. This patriarchal culture contributed to the lifelong suffering of these women and made them easy prey for the violence of Japanese troops. However, the brutal ways with which Japanese imperial forces treated Chinese women cannot be attributed to the patriarchal society’s devaluation of women. They were violent expressions of the imperialist conquest. They were made possible by the order of the war and carried out for the war.

How has Japan’s refusal to apologize for its war crimes affected its relationship as a nation-state with China and other countries?

It has been gravely detrimental to the relationship between Japan and its Asian neighbors. True friendship can only be built upon mutual trust. Japan’s refusal to apologize for its war crimes sparked widespread anger among peoples of its neighboring countries and has seriously damaged trust in Japan’s sincerity to correct its past wrongs.

If Germany had never apologized to the Jews, there would be a public outcry that resonated the world over. Why has the "comfort women" issue attracted so little rage? Do you think it’s even comparable?

Researchers have given different explanations to this question. In discussing why the International Military Tribunal for the Far East failed to identify the Japanese military “comfort women” system as a major war crime, scholars noted several contributing factors, including racial prejudice, patriarchal views of gender, and the Japanese government’s coordinated effort to destroy military records at the end of the war. It is worth noting that in both the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, when rape was mentioned it was often to highlight the heroism of the nation-states who achieved victory as opposed to the barbarity of the other side, and the rape victims as individuals were overlooked. Nicola Henry sees this as a form of “legal amnesia” rooted both in political factors and in the patriarchal nature of legal discourse.

Please tell us about the efforts underway to demand recognition and justice for these women. Do you see your book as part of that effort?

Since the 1990s a total of 10 lawsuits have been filed with Japanese courts by the victims of Japan’s military “comfort stations,” including four cases by victims from mainland China, but thus far the Japanese courts have denied all the former “comfort women’s” claims for compensation. In the absence of appropriate action by the Japanese government in response to the victims’ demands, researchers, legal specialists, and citizen groups who support the survivors have worked with the international community to urge the Japanese government to take responsibility for its wartime past. Since 2001, resolutions or recommendations urging the Japanese government to accept full responsibility for its enslavement of “comfort women” have passed a number of parliaments of different countries, including the United States. Last week the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva issued another call on Japan to take responsibility for its use of “comfort women” during World War II. At the same time, grassroots-initiated investigations continue and “comfort women” memorials of different forms have become important sites for commemorating the victims. By documenting the profound sufferings of the “comfort women” as well as the international effort to support their redress, I hope our book can help facilitate a fuller understanding of the “comfort women” issue.

Women and girls are still routinely kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery in countries all over the world, including the United States. As an academic who has studied the issue in a different context, do you have ideas on what can be done to end this practice for good?

One of the most important measures in ending this practice in the future is to bring past crimes of sexual violence to justice. Imperial Japan’s military “comfort women” system is a gross precedent for all these issues — sexual slavery, exploitation, and human trafficking — that are still prevalent today. Therefore properly recognizing and compensating the sufferings of the “comfort women” is imperative. It is the least we can do to end this practice for good.


Megan Shank is a freelance writer and translator, Mandarin Chinese tutor, and Asia co-editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Megan Shank is a freelance writer and translator, Mandarin Chinese tutor, and Asia co-editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Most recently, she served as managing editor for East View Information Service’s The Current Digest of the Chinese Press.

Shank’s work has appeared in Newsweek InternationalThe Daily BeastProspect, Ms., Bloomberg NewsThe Washington PostMiller-McCuneArchaeologyThe San Antonio Express-News, CNN.comThe South China Morning PostThe American Lawyer, and Global Journalist, among others.

Shank wrote a chapter for Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (University of California Press, September 2012). Her writing is also featured in the first edition of McGraw-Hill College’s Women Worldwide: Transnational Feminist Perspectives on Women (March 2010). She has worked as a researcher and translator for and has made guest appearances on NPR and Pacifica Radio and spoken at the Asia Society. She has blogged for the Huffington Post and Ms. and reported for a short documentary film about Chinese youth and pollution produced by Pearson Education.

Working with Newsweek International and a Hong Kong partner, Shank helped establish Newsweek Select, the Chinese-language edition of Newsweek. As a senior editor, she trained Chinese and Western reporters, edited Chinese and English-language pieces, developed new sections, translated Chinese copy into English for the New York office’s review, and orchestrated a pan-Asian Newsweek foreign editions conference. During her spare time, Shank co-wrote, produced, and co-directed the Shanghai-staged play Impulse and used proceeds to create a scholarship for a Chinese woman in the arts.

During her six-year residency in China, before her years at Newsweek Select, she performed with a Chinese jazz group, recorded cartoon voices for a Japanese educational company, taught kindergarten, and coached a high school girls’ basketball team. As Shanghai editor at Ringier AG, a Swiss media company, Shank produced the biweekly Shanghai City Weekend, the quarterlies Parents & Kids and Home & Office, and the annual Shanghai Bar & Restaurant Guide.


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