The term “comfort women” masks the lived reality of the approximately 200,000 Chinese women and girls kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. (It is estimated that 400,000 women and girls from occupied countries such as Korea, China, and the Philippines were enslaved in total.) The term evokes a much more pleasant image than the survivors’ stories do—harrowing tales of daily rape and torture, often ending in death or permanent injury. Many of these “women” were not women at all, but girls, pushed into the “comfort stations” as soon as they began menstruating.
The notion that men not only need access to women’s bodies for sexual release but are entitled to them, particularly during wartime, was foundational to the existence of and justification for the comfort stations. According to researcher C. Sarah Soh, author of The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, the comfort women system was viewed as a way “to control the troops through regulated access to sex.”
For 70 years, the Chinese “comfort women” have been erased from Japan’s postwar narrative. It is only recently that the human-rights violations committed against these women and girls have broken through into public conversation.
Dr. Peipei Qiu, author of Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, began to cry as I spoke with her over the phone. The stories are almost unbearable.
Qiu tells me that one of the survivors interviewed witnessed a woman and younger girl—just a teenager—buried alive. She watched as a soldier showered the teenager’s body with dirt, stopping mid-task to laugh at her as she died.
Another survivor, Lei Guiying, was only nine when her hometown was occupied by Japanese soldiers. She witnessed the soldiers take the older girls—14 or 15 years old—away, sexually torture them, and leave them to die. Impoverished and begging on the streets, Guiying began working as a nanny and a maid in a comfort station in Tangshan. When she turned 13 and started menstruating, she was told: “Congratulations, you’re a grown-up now,” and sent off to a room where she was violently raped by a solider. She eventually managed to escape.
The book is the first in the English language that tells the stories of the Chinese women who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II. It includes the voices of 12 Chinese survivors who tell stories of being raped numerous times a day until they could no longer sit or walk. The women suffer from deep psychological trauma today, as well as headaches, memory loss, and other associated physical and medical problems. A number of the women have passed away since the book was published, still not having received compensation, acknowledgment, or justice.
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