Learning to Witness: ‘Comfort Women’ at CSW60
(updated 03/17/2016, 1: 50 EDT pm)
‘Comfort women.’ I didn’t know anything about them until I heard the announcement at our orientation. It appeared that there was to be an event where the forced sexual slavery of Korean women by the Japanese military was going to be denied and those interested were invited to gather for a conversation. I found myself doing so.
After all, I am the PW MAL (Presbyterian Women Member at Large) for Asian Americans in my Presbytery of Los Ranchos and Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. We have Korean congregations and new worshiping communities. I have close friends and family of Korean and Japanese origins. I wanted to learn more. That’s how late Tuesday (Mar 15) afternoon found us, in a meeting together: Young adult Presbyterian delegates and I, a Presbyterian Women delegate to the 60th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a United Methodist Women staff person, and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) staff people. The denial event was titled ‘Misunderstood Comfort Women,’ and it was on the next day, March 16 at 4: 30 pm. The event flyer proclaimed in bold letters: Comfort women were not “sex-slaves.”
I had done my own research before coming to this meeting and found it eye-opening. ‘Comfort women’ refers to women, young girls (and some boys too), who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War 2. The victims came from Asia and the Pacific, primarily Korea, Taiwan, China, Indonesia, and Philippines but also from elsewhere such as Burma. I even found one reference to the ‘Nederlands” (as Netherlands was called then). I won’t go into the horrific details of the coercion or the harm these women suffered (and continue to suffer), but highlight points in the case of Korea:
1) ‘Comfort women’ refers to women who were coerced or forced into providing sexual services to the soldiers and officers of the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII (1939-45) at military brothels known as ‘comfort stations.’ Experts estimate the number of ‘comfort women’ at tens or hundreds of thousands. Today, only 46 of the ‘comfort women’ who came forward and witnessed about their experience are still living. Many don’t come forward because of the shame and so it is difficult to estimate the full extent of the practice.
2) The ‘comfort women’ situation is extremely political as well as social, spanning human rights, social and cultural practices, and national security. The issue remains highly charged in Japan and Korea, and increasingly the US, despite a landmark deal, reached in Dec. 2015. According to this agreement, which is often called the 12.28, the Japanese government agreed to pay compensation to a fund for the ‘comfort women’ established by the Korean government.
3) The agreement was rejected by the ‘comfort women.’ The National Council of Churches in Korea has written a statement expressing great concerns about it. None of the ‘comfort women’ were consulted about the agreement which was also announced as final.
I decided to witness to the ‘comfort women’ at the event. In the UN CSW60 side event – Role of Media in the Attainment of Goal 16 and the SDGs (organizers: AustriaUN, Global Network of Women Peace Builders, and Peace is Loud) – that I’d attended just before coming to our meeting I’d learned about UNSCR 1325 and its implications. Two learning stood out: one, women need to be equal and full partners in all peace processes, and two, systemic rape is now a crime against humanity. While it is true that the crimes and violence against the ‘comfort women’ happened in the past, my faith compels me to witness to the truth as clearly as we possibly can. Equally importantly, we are called to be peace builders; and, we cannot implement the United Nations sustainable development goals or achieve gender equality if women continue to be excluded as they were in the 12.28 between Japan and Korea.
I also remembered the opening session of the 60th UN CSW. Ambassador Patriota (CSW60 Chair), Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo, and representatives of members states were excited and enthusiastic. The Ambassador set the stage for the Commission’s work in the 2 weeks ahead:”Focus of CSW60 is on implementation of the global goals for women and girls, not reopening existing commitments.” Ban urged the national delegates to increase their efforts: “I call on governments to step it up for gender equality.” Phumzile announced and later tweeted the launching of the book with the pledges of member states towards the goals: “Proud to launch book of Step It Up commitments at #CSW60. Pledges are documented, now the work starts.
#Planet5050.” Thus, for me, UN global goals would not be achieved unless women are included fully, something the two governments had ignored by their failure to include the ‘comfort women’ in the reparation negotiations. Also, Phumzile and others at the CSW60 stressed the global goals are inclusive; no one left behind means that the achievement of the global goals is for everybody, not just groups of people.
Coming back to our group: we brainstormed and wrestled with our questions: What did we want to do or accomplish by our presence at the ‘comfort women’ denial event? What words should or could we use on the posters and hashtag for our social media campaign to witness, advocate and raise awareness? I soon learned, for example, that generally on social media and in other documents, quotes around the phrase, like this, ‘comfort women’ means the historic and euphemistic use of the term. So we made a poster that said, Rape is not comforting. Even more importantly I discovered that the ‘comfort women’ phrase has been accepted by the women themselves. Sometimes people who deny the truth use the phrase without quotes but not always.
Soon other young delegates joined us including friends from ELCA. We wanted to document our processes and so we took pictures and videos even as we googled, brainstormed, crafted strategy, and created the posters to hold up, in case we had no opportunity to speak, a flyer to hand out to others at the event, and a 2-second elevator speech! Then, I was up most of the night tweeting with our PC (USA) misson co-worker in Daejon, South Korea trying to understand, focus, and verify our little campaign hashtag.
On Wednesday we met again at 12:30 pm to review our action plan. Another friend from China joined us. The ‘Misunderstood Comfort Women’ denial event had originally been scheduled to take place in the Church Center at the UN building (CCUN). that it had been We now learned that it had been moved to the Taipei Cultural Center. We, the Comfort Women = Sex Slaves team decided to meet at CCUN at 3:45 pm and walk there together. Since I had another meeting for 3:30 pm I would come there by myself after my meeting was over at 4:30 pm, probably by 4:45 or 5:0 pm.
Well, the event was moved back to the CCUN and my team mate called to warn me. However, I was in the UN HQ and I misunderstood the message. I thought the event was canceled and we were to meet in the CCUN conference room; my excuse is a poor one but this is my first time in New York, first time at the UN, first time at the CSW and I’m overwhelmed! So there I was hanging out with the other Presbyterian Women delegates on the 7th floor while the event took place on the 11th floor, CCUN. Another of the young women, who had gone to it impromptu and left early was there too. It was only when I saw the literature she had, over dinner, that I learned I’d missed the meeting.
I made my way upstairs but the event was over and the Presbyterians on the team were debriefing. Yes, Mark and Sung-ok were right. This was a denial event. Much like some people try to deny the Holocaust ever happened, the event organizers were trying to deny the truth about the ‘comfort women.’ What is more, the language used by one of the speakers was reported as being “extremely racist, offensive.” The good news, though, I learned, was that there were more people in the audience, including of course, our own ecumenical team members, who witnessed and advocated for the ‘comfort women.’
I’m bummed I missed the denial event but I’ve certainly learned a lot! More on this later.
For now, I invite you, to get informed about the ‘comfort women’ issue. My second invite is to my friends and family especially in California. If you have south-east Asian, Korean or Japanese American ancestry/interest and/or friends of these ethnicities, I ask you to read and share this post with them. Also, I urge you to pray about becoming a ‘comfort women’ witness. This issue highlights all sorts of injustices such as how patriarchy and colonialism are embedded invisibly in systems of defense (including our defense budgets), the insidious relationship between domestic violence and violence against women in conflict and war situations, and last, but not least, issues of human identity and use of women’s bodies. I can’t write more now but will share this: One of the key speakers at Misunderstood Comfort Women was Dr. Koichi Mera, President of GAHT-US, California, and GAHT-Japan, Tokyo. Dr. Mera is the author of the book Comfort Women Not “Sex Slaves:” Rectifying the Myriad of Perspectives (Xlibris, 2015). The book was distributed to the audience and Minna gave me her copy of it. It is a small book, only 102 pages, published by a self-publishing and print on demand company called Xlibris. Dr. Mera’s arguments that ‘comfort women’ were not sex slaves are not true; Emi Koyama provides an overview of how this revisionism effort in Southern California. They need to be debunked and we need faithful and informed witnesses (see this LA Times article).
Jesus asked Pilate, “What is truth?” As information proliferates online, it is getting harder and harder to separate the truth from the propaganda, mis-information and dis-information. The dignity of human identities, however, are at stake, whenever even one is denied, and I pray that we will continue to listen to individual and collective community memories as well as documented reports to discern and learn. May we be a true witness.
To learn more about ‘comfort women’ I’ve put together this list of resources:
A Fact Sheet on Japanese Military “Comfort Women.” FEND, Japan-US Feminist Network for Decolonization. http://fendnow.org/pdf/cw_factsheet.pdf
National Council of Churches in Korea. Statement on the 12.28 agreement of the Korea-Japan Ministerial Meeting on the Military Sexual Slavery (Comfort Women). http://www.doam.org/index.php/projekte/menschenrechte/trostfrauen/japan-korea-einigen-sich/3454-nat-council-of-churches-in-korea-women-s-committee
U.S. House of Representatives (May 15, 2013). Comfort Women. Congressional Record. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?r113:H15MY3-0009:/
Andrews, William. Daughters of the Dragon: A Comfort Woman’s Story. 2014. Available from Amazon.
Soh, Sarah. The Comfort Women: Sexual violence and postcolonial memory in Korea and Japan. (Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, and Culture). 2009. Available from Amazon.
Digital Museum: The Comfort Women Issue and the Asian Women’s Fund. Available from http://www.awf.or.jp/. (Testimonies of the ‘Comfort Women’ who have thus far come forward)
Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace. http://wam-peace.org/en/
Oral Histories of the Comfort Women. Primary source document with questions (DBQs). Available from, Asia for Educators: An initiative of the Weatherhood East Asian Institute and Columbia University. For students and educators at all levels. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/korea/comfort_women.pdf
Magazine and Scholarly Journal Articles
Maeda Akira Caroline Norma, translation and commentary. The South Korean Controversy Over the Comfort Women, Justice and Academic Freedom: The Case of Park Yuha. The Asia-Pacific Journal, Japan Focus, Volume 14, Issue 4, Number 2, Feb 2016. http://apjjf.org/-Maeda-Akira/4857/article.pdf
Danielle Harms. A Guide to the literature of Japan’s “comfort women”: Comfort station survivors tell their stories. Salon Jan 17, 2016. http://www.salon.com/2016/01/17/a_guide_to_the_literature_of_japans_comfort_women_comfort_station_survivors_tell_their_stories/
Ronald Klein. Markova: Wartime Comfort Gay in the Philippines. Interview with Walter Dempster, Jr. In Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context Issue 13, August 2006. http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue13/klein_interview.html
Emi Koyama. The U.S. as “Major Battleground for for “Comfort Woman” Revisionism: The Screening of Scottsboro Girls at Central Washington University.” Asia-Pacific Journal, May 31, 2015, Vol. 13, Issue 21, No. 2 http://apjjf.org/2015/13/21/Emi-Koyama/4324.html
Rumiko Nishimo. The Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace and its role in public education. Available from http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/file/nishino.pdf
Rumi Sakamoto. The Flawed Japan-ROK Attempt to Resolve the Controversy Over Wartime Sexual Slavery and the Case of Park Yuha. Asia-Pacific Journal, Vo. 14, Issue 5, No. 3, 1 March 2016. http://apjjf.org/2016/05/Kitahara.html
Movies and Plays:
Comfort Women. By Chungmi Kim, directed by Frances W. Hill. http://urbanstages.org/comfort-women/
Spirit’s Homecoming. A 2016 South Korean period drama film written and directed by Cho Jung-rae. It was released in South Korea on February 24, 2016. http://joent.net/en/spirits-homecoming/
Alexis Dudden. An Uncomfortable Legacy. Indian Express, January 14, 2016. http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/an-uncomfortable-legacy-sexual-slavery-japan-south-korea-comfort-women-humanity/
Juliet Elprin. Agreement on comfort women offers strategic benefit to U.S. in Asia-Pacific, January 9, 2016. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/agreement-on-comfort-women-offers-ancillary-benefit-to-us-in-asia-pacific/2016/01/09/41a03d84-b54c-11e5-a842-0feb51d1d124_story.html
Esther Felden. Former comfort women tells uncomforting story. DW Times. 02.09.2013. http://dw.com/en/former-comfort-woman-tells-uncomforting-story/a-17060384
Victoria Kim. ‘Comfort Women’ and a lesson in how history is shaped in California textbooks. 7 February 2016. http://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-me-comfort-women-curriculum-20160207-story.html
Scott Snyder. The Japan-Korea Comfort Women Deal: This Is Only The Beginning. Forbes Feb. 1, 2016. http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottasnyder/2016/02/01/the-japan-korea-comfort-women-deal-this-is-only-the-beginning/
United Nations official documents and websites:
UN Security Council Resolution 1325. http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/1325(2000)
Anita Coleman is an independent scholar and researcher who lives in Southern California with her husband, son, and their pet cat Smokie. This is her first visit to New York, the United Nations, and the 60th Commission on the Status of Women! Anita’s books are on Amazon and you can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter @chariscol.