Rumi Nishino TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)–The doors to the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace in Tokyo open to an entryway decorated with fresh flowers and a large panel of black-and-white photographs of elderly women.

This is a portrait gallery of women who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army from 1932 to 1945 who are euphemistically called “comfort women.”

In a country still coming to terms with a legacy of atrocities committed during World War II, the idea of an institution that would comprehensively record Japan’s history of sexual slavery is highly controversial.

“There is regular hate mail posted on the Internet against us, calling us liars and trouble-makers,” said Rumiko Nishino, curator and director of the Women’s Fund for Peace and Human Rights, which seeks to raise awareness about the perils facing women in wartime. Nishino said people have threatened to burn the museum down.

But the planners of the museum, which opened Aug. 6 on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, say they will not buckle under the pressure.

“There are many reasons why the new museum means so much to us, as well as to other women in Asia,” Nishino said. “We are sending a message to the world that we will not tolerate this violence anymore.”

On Friday, the women’s case was bolstered by Amnesty International, which renewed its appeals for compensation and an official apology from Japan in a report, “Still Waiting After 60 Years.” The Oct. 29 report documents the brutal treatments inflicted on an estimated 200,000 comfort women held captive before and during World War II.

Evidence Destroyed

Despite the lack of official documentation on the comfort-women system–Japan destroyed most of the evidence after its surrender in World War II–private surveys by researchers have estimated there were 160 “comfort stations” operated by the Imperial Army throughout Asia. Women were taken from occupied countries, including the Korean peninsula, the Philippines, Indonesia, China and Taiwan.

The women–often as young as 12 years old–were forced to have sex with up to 50 soldiers a day, according to the Amnesty report, and were beaten if they refused, sometimes to death.

“I was taken to China when I was 16 years old,” Lee Ok-sun, a Korean woman who was forced into sexual slavery in a comfort station, is quoted as saying in the Amnesty report. “It was a painful experience. There was not enough food, not enough sleep and I couldn’t even kill myself. I desperately wanted to escape.”

Ok-sun, now 79 years old, was not able to return to Korea for 58 years after she was enslaved.

Japan Says Rape Was Not War Crime

The government has argued that rape was not a war crime before 1945 and that its colonization of Asian countries was a pre-emptive effort to protect them from Western colonialism.

Japanese officials have claimed that comfort women were really prostitutes who offered their services willingly and some conservative politicians continue to repeat the assertion. The government did not begin to recognize the system of sexual slavery until the mid-1990s.

Other women have filed lawsuits in Japan, but have been rejected by judges who ruled that the government has already paid war reparations to other countries and individual compensation is not included.

Amnesty also charges that the Asian Women’s Fund–established in 1995 to compensate victims–does not meet international standards for war reparations and is perceived by survivors as an attempt to buy their silence. The fund paid about $20,000 in “atonement money” to 285 survivors before 2002.

Japan’s first apology to the comfort women was delivered in South Korea in 1992 by the prime minister, but has been criticized as inadequate by survivors, according to the Amnesty report. Comfort women still want an official apology from the Japanese Diet, which represents the people of Japan and the emperor.

Hundreds of Testimonials

The rooms of the Tokyo museum contain hundreds of testimonial records from former comfort women.

In one, a woman describes a regimented schedule in which afternoons were reserved for visits from mid-ranking officers and evenings for high-ranking officers. Women were held inside barbed-wire fences and were only sent out to wash the soldiers’ uniforms or do hard labor.

When the war ended most comfort women were simply abandoned. Many never attempted to return home because they did not know how or were afraid to meet their families out of shame and humiliation.

Other exhibits in the museum document violations against women in conflicts around the world, including Rwanda, East Timor and Iraq. Nishino said that the examination of how women are affected by current conflicts helps the museum nurture discussion and advocacy.

The museum designers have done much to soften disturbing subject matter. The walls are painted a warm, rust color and the rooms are softly lit. Documentaries, news stories and books about the comfort women system are available to visitors.

For the women in Japan who have been working to help comfort women, the museum has become a symbol of their persistent refusal to disappear and be forgotten.

Nishino and others, however, recognize that they are still in an uphill fight.

Just a few kilometers from the museum stands a gleaming, glass-and-steel concrete museum at Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s former military leaders are buried. Some of the men memorialized there are the same men who established the comfort women system during the war.

Suvendrini Kakuchi is a Sri Lankan journalist specializing in Japan-Asia relations.

For more information:

Amnesty International–
Still Waiting After 60 Years:

Violence Against Women in War – Japan Network:

‘Comfort Women’ Await Apology from Japan:

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