NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–As a participant at the nongovernmental organization forum that accompanied the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, I witnessed a delegation of Korean “comfort women” survivors who were trying to call attention to their victimization as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II.
By then, they were no longer young and some indeed looked frail, but they made a powerful and striking presence to demand recognition of their history.
In the early 1990s, Kim Hak Soon was the first former comfort woman to speak out, at the age of 67, and her testimony inspired other women to do the same. Within one year more than 200 other Korean women who had been enslaved as comfort women came forward. They have joined together, supported each other and shared their experience.
A local monument to these brave women was the subject of a startling May 19 story in The New York Times. The first surprise was my own ignorance of the monument, just across the Hudson River from New York City, in Palisades Park, N.J., where more than half of the population is of Korean descent. Since it’s the only one of its kind in the U.S., it seemed strange that it had not attracted widespread publicity and become a major pilgrimage site for women’s advocates.
My surprise turned to shock when I read that two delegations of Japanese officials were pressing for the removal of the memorial from its location in a public park. The incident began on May 1, when a delegation led by New York Consul General Shigeyuki Hiroki came to offer to plant cherry trees and donate books to the public library in exchange for the memorial’s removal.
After borough officials rejected this request, on May 6 a delegation led by four members of the Japanese Parliament arrived. They denied that the comfort women had ever been forced sex slaves and said that they were paid to come and take care of the troops, according to a statement in the article by Palisades Park Mayor James Rotundo.
The deputy consul general of Japan, Fumio Iwai, said the issue of the comfort women is “the subject of continuing discussion ‘at a very high level’ between the governments of South Korea and Japan.”
The interference by Japanese officials has boomeranged. Now, according to the article, more of these small monuments are being planned. New York City Councilman Peter Koo has also proposed renaming a street in Flushing, Queens, in honor of the comfort women.
In the film “We Came to Testify,” produced by Abigail Disney, shown on PBS and also presented as part of a program in which I participated last week at the New York offices of Women’s eNews, a scene reminded me of these Japanese officials. The film portrays a groundbreaking 2001 trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the Netherlands, at which rape victims from Foca, Bosnia, testified. For the first time in history, three perpetrators were convicted of rape as a crime against humanity.
In one part of the film, some of the victims returned to their hometown after the war and tried to place a plaque at the site of their repeated rapes. They were met by a violent crowd and a large cordon of policemen, all of whom prevented them from accomplishing their mission.
These brave Bosnian women were making an effort to mark the site where the crimes against them had been committed. In the case of the comfort women, the memorial is a small plaque far from the scene of the crime.
For me, the violent scene in Bosnia and the diplomatic tensions on the outskirts of New York City are about the same thing. In both cases, these women were once considered by their enemies as less than human, or “untermenschen,” the word used by the Nazis in similar circumstances during the Holocaust. In these cases and others, the history of women’s sexual violation in war is being suppressed, rejected and denied.
Rochelle G. Saidel is the founder and executive director of Remember the Women Institute, which is currently seeking witnesses to sexual violence during the Holocaust. She is co-editor with Sonja M. Hedgepeth of “Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust” and the author of five other books on the Holocaust.
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