Short excerpt from Chapter 9 of my book. Click here to get the book link Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women:
By Sylvia Yu Friedman
After keeping her secret for fifty years, Jan Ruff-O’Herne was the first European survivor of Imperial Japanese military sex slavery to come forward with her story. One journalist described Ruff-O’Herne as having “a captivating lightness of spirit.” Even her own children had no hint of her wartime experiences.
Jan Ruff-O’Herne has largely withdrawn from public life. In Holland, the Dutch activists spoke of her fondly but did not mention her message of forgiveness. “How can we forgive the Japanese for all they’ve done?” cried one older man in his sixties whose family members were killed by the Japanese soldiers.
But Jan Ruff-O’Herne did forgive. Through her faith in God, she overcame hate, bitterness, and revenge. She was able to meet with a Japanese soldier and extend forgiveness in person. Her act of forgiveness does not mean the denial of her perpetrators’ guilt nor does it change the facts of what happened, but it transcends them.
Her act of forgiveness is divine and brings to mind Nelson Mandela who forgave the ones who had imprisoned him for years. Both Ruff-O’Herne and Mandela have discovered the key to unlocking the prison door of bitterness and revenge. “You can’t imagine the shame that we have lived with…After you’ve experienced those atrocities, you feel dirty, you feel ashamed, you feel soiled, and we carry that shame all our life,” she said.
But they have chosen a higher road, and in doing so, they have modeled true justice and righteousness to their oppressors. For more than fifteen years, Ruff-O’Herne has fought for justice for herself and other comfort women, and she has always emphasized that “an apology will give us back our dignity.” Ruff-O’Herne said a formal apology would help the healing process to begin for her and the other survivors. “After sixty years, a lot of us are already dead,” she said. “I’m eighty-four, and it is about time that Japan acknowledges wartime atrocities.”
With two other Korean survivors from Seoul, Lee Young-Soo and Kim Kun-Ja, Ruff-O’Herne gave a moving testimony in February 15, 2007 before a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives. She testified to win support for House Resolution 121 that called on the Japanese government to take historical responsibility and issue a formal apology. “This is really the pinnacle of all the campaigning that I have done over the past fifteen years for justice for the comfort women,” Ruff-O’Herne said.
Since 2007, in a series of milestones in the international activist movement in support of Japanese military comfort women, the governments of Canada, the Netherlands, South Korea, Taiwan, and the European Parliament have all passed resolutions that demand justice from the Japanese government for these military sex slave survivors. This resolution movement continued into 2009, in Japan, as the city councils of Takarazuka, Kiyose, Sapporo, Fukuoka, Mino-o, Kyo-Tanabe, Koganei, Mitaka, and Ikoma have also called on their government to bring resolution and an official apology to these women.
In the last several years, the United Nations bodies, including the Human Rights Committee, the Committee against Torture, and the Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, have continued to make similar calls to the Japanese government on justice for the survivors. Amnesty International said that the continued denial of justice prolongs the humiliation and suffering of these women, which is another on-going human rights violation. While survivors with support from international lawyers and activists have been fighting for an apology and compensation, there has not been much traction on this issue with the Japanese government.
There are a multitude of reasons for why justice is being delayed, including but not limited to, the very denials from the Japanese government itself. It is human nature to desire to honor their history. And in their denials is a clear preservation of chauvinist history. Also, the survivors’ own governments failed to fight for their human rights in an era where women’s rights were not considered important and in the international arena. Discrimination against Asians prevented these sex slave survivors and other victims from being ignored. Other factors are cultural pressures to stay silent on sexual abuse and rape and the stigma they came up against from those who suspected they were enslaved sexually.
The Allies reinforced the injustice the survivors of sex slavery endured and allowed the perpetrators of the system and other war criminals to continue in their political careers, which would had been wholly unacceptable in Europe. For instance, in 1957, Nobusuke Kishi became Prime Minister for three years. This is shocking, in light of his being indicted as a Class-A war criminal, which was a charge against those in the highest decision-making bodies in the military. He served as a minister in Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s cabinet, an office that oversaw all of the manufacturing and every detail related to arms and weapons for the military during the war. The Nazi German equivalent of Kishi would be Albert Speer who spent twenty years in prison for his war crimes from 1946 to 1966. If Speer had become the leader of Germany, there would have been condemnation from the world. But Kishi’s term was met with only silence from Japan’s allies and regional neighbors.
Germany has paid reparations beyond what was required by treaty or law to victims under the Nazi regime and Holocaust including forced labor victims. The German government and companies involved in the use of wartime slave labor have also financed a fund to compensate survivors of Nazi slave labor in August 2000. Worth 5.1 billion Euros, the German Foundation Act established this fund. By 2005, they had accepted more than seventy thousand claims for compensation.
Among the Japanese activists was a huge, disproportionate sense of responsibility towards the survivors. They went against the grain in society. But all the calls for an apology by foreign governments and activists have been met by resistance or blatant justification in the form of continual visits to Yasukuni Shrine or approval of school textbooks that glorify the war.
What if a Japanese Prime Minister fell on his knees in a former comfort station or in Nanking to ask for forgiveness just like former German Chancellor Willy Brandt was on his knees before a monument that honored the Jewish victims of the former Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943. His visible act of deep repentance on December 7, 1970 moved many in Poland and Germany and brought healing to survivors’ families. In contrast, the apologies given so far by the Japanese government officials have only inflamed the anger and bitterness of survivors and their supporters towards the Japanese state.
A repentant Japanese prime minister would catalyze a reconciliation process for peace in the region. The role of government in this case is one critical way to bring reconciliation by acknowledging the truth and issuing an official apology. It is very difficult to forgive if there is no open acknowledgement of the injustices that wounded you or your people. A genuine remorseful apology issued by the Japanese government would lift the shadows off of Japan and her neighbors and restore deep trust and friendship. Japan is mostly alienated in East Asia. We could then see the beginnings of an unshakable alliance between Japan, China, and Korea.
Denials by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine with other lawmakers such as Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose family-owned company has used both Allied prisoner-of-war and Korean slave labor, have tarnished Japan’s image in the international arena and aggravated diplomatic relations– drawing criticism from the US government even as late as December 2013– indeed, Japan’s wartime atrocities is an extremely painful and sensitive sore spot. However, it must be a blind spot for the Japanese government that is largely unaware of the extremely negative impact and tarnishing of Japan’s international image that its denials of wartime atrocities have on other nations. Could Abe, who has publicly cried over Japanese kidnapped by North Korea, have the same compassion on the former Imperial Japanese military sex slaves?
Racism has contributed to the war wounds, and racial healing is still needed. The wound inflicted from Japanese military invasions and colonialism still remains. Minority Koreans and Chinese face apartheid-like conditions and underlying persecution in Japan while the nation presents a gross contradiction by being a huge supporter of the United Nations while angling for a seat on the Security Council. They dismiss lawsuits from victims that demand compensation while they have given $50 million to a humanitarian project in Afghanistan. The Japanese government also had an opportunity to apologize on the world stage after the United States House of Representatives and House Foreign Relations Committee, as well as government bodies in other nations, passed similar resolutions as House Resolution 121, but they have done nothing.
Do the Japanese government and Japanese people regard the survivors of Imperial Japanese military sex slavery differently in light of the lessons from a terrible injustice that had happened to the Japanese in the West? The Japanese were treated as second-class citizens and basically jailed on the basis of racial discrimination during World War II in Canada and the United States. After the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor in the US on December 7, 1941, Japanese Canadians were moved out of the West Coast due to “military necessity.” Some senior members of Canada’s military and police force opposed this order to relocate Japanese Canadians believing that they posed no security threat to Canada. However, this injustice of exclusion from the West Coast continued until 1949, four years after the war. It was part of a racist movement to eliminate Asians entirely from the West Coast.
When World War II was nearly over, Japanese Canadians were told to prove their “loyalty to Canada” by “moving east of the Rockies” immediately, or sign papers to agree to be “repatriated” to Japan when the war ended. Many moved to other parts of the country, and never recovered the loss of their property and possessions. Out of about four thousand Japanese who were living in Canada, half were born in Canada and had absolutely no connection with Japan, but were exiled to Japan in 1946.
My junior high French teacher was interned as a child. In his fifties, still scarred from the experience of incarceration, he often spoke of his family’s time in the horse stall where they had to use the horse drinking trough as a toilet. I’ve been told that not many in Japan know about the Japanese internment experience in North America. These Japanese Canadians and Americans suffered greatly during the war for no other reason than for their Japanese ethnicity at a time when their nations were at war with Japan.
But after years of struggle and fight for an apology, the Japanese Canadians finally achieved victory more than three decades later. In September 1988, the Government of Canada formally apologized in the House of Commons and offered compensation for wrongful incarceration, seizure of property, and the disenfranchisement of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s said to the House of Commons on September 22, 1988:
“I know that I speak for Members on all sides of the House today in offering to Japanese Canadians the formal and sincere apology of this Parliament for those past injustices against them, against their families, and against their heritage, and our solemn commitment and undertaking to Canadians of every origin that such violations will never again in this country be countenanced or repeated.”
The historic redress settlement for the Japanese Canadians included:
A Payment of twenty-one thousand dollars to all surviving evacuees;
A clearing of all criminal records related to violations of the War Measures Act.;
A re-instatement of citizenship to the “repatriated” Japanese;
A twelve-million-dollar community fund;
A twenty-four million-dollar contribution to the establishment of a Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
Through the official government apology, the Japanese across Canada received collective healing. It is possible for a government to admit it was gravely wrong in implementing racist policies that were not only morally wrong but a terrible violation of basic human rights. Japan could learn from Canada where once racist laws segregated Chinese and Japanese from their fellow citizens of European descent. Canada’s racist past includes: the Japanese internment experience in Canada, discrimination against the Chinese through unfair immigration laws that kept their wives and families from immigrating and painfully separated families, the violent riots against the Chinese in Chinatown in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Komagata Maru incident in 1914 where three hundred seventy-six immigrants from India were refused entry. Canada was a white man’s country.
Today, Canada espouses a multicultural policy that embraces diverse cultures and encourages racial harmony while discouraging discrimination of any kind. Canada, unlike Japan, has issued an official apology to people groups it had discriminated and committed terrible acts of injustice against. In his historic official government apology to members of the aboriginal community, the prime minister stated in his speech, “The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation.”