Community, Resilience, Activism, & Healing

In the 1990s, after 45 years of isolation, a support movement for the survivors of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery was born. How does one begin to find healing from such profound, multi-layered trauma? Especially when, as we have seen, the trauma was magnified and exacerbated by ongoing discrimination and marginalization? And when the forms of discrimination that shaped the women’s lives are still at work at all levels of society? As we have seen in exploring the stories of the survivors, being a “comfort woman” was not the only locus of trauma, though often in popular understandings of this issue, it is treated as an isolated period of time. Trauma, infinitely complex and individual in nature, is not something that can be erased or undone, bringing one back to a mythical state of pre-traumatic normalcy. For the survivors, what would be needed to begin a process of healing?

Supporting Survivors to Speak their Truth: Naming Military Sexual Slavery as a Human Rights Violation

In the context of South Korea, the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council) began reaching out to locate survivors around 1990. With their support, former “comfort woman” Kim Hak Sun testified on television in 1991, and filed a legal case for compensation against the Japanese government. In 1992, a group of survivors with the Korean Council’s support began the Weekly Wednesday Demonstrations in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, protests which have continued weekly for more than twenty years.

Video of the 1000th Weekly Wednesday Protest in Seoul

Soon, women’s organizations in other affected Asian countries began organizing and protesting, and gradually, a pan-Asian movement was born. In the context of the rapid growth of the international women’s human rights movement in the early 1990s, and armed with the knowledge that there was little domestic support for the issue, the Korean Council sought recognition and support for the survivors through the United Nations. The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, visited South Korea and Japan in her official capacity to investigate the issue, meet with scholars, former soldiers and surviving “comfort women”, and the subsequent report she submitted to the UN framed the “comfort women” system as a war crime and human rights violation, bringing recognition to the survivors. A few years later, the UN Special Rapporteur on Modern Forms of Slavery, Gay McDougall, submitted a report to the UN on the issue which named the “comfort women” system as systematic sexual slavery.

As we have seen, during the 1990s the Japanese government, though making some overtures to survivors, continued to evade full responsibility. The recommendations of the Special Rapporteurs and other UN bodies called for a full investigation, prosecution of war criminals, memorialisation and education on the issue, and reparations for survivors and families, all demands growing out of the 7 demands issued by survivors at the Weekly Wednesday protests. While Japan failed to apologize, the international movement continued to grow, as the survivors began to travel internationally to tell their stories, sharing testimony to the horrors they experienced during the war. International awareness around rape as a war crime was growing, and the survivors, by speaking their truth, contributed towards this understanding.

Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, Tokyo, 2000

In the year 2000, frustrated by the failure of the Japanese government to deal with the issue appropriately, women’s organizations from throughout Asia organized a popular war crimes tribunal in which they indicted the deceased Japanese Emperor and other high level officials who had not been tried as war criminals by the Allied powers after the war. Highly renowned international judges heard the testimonies of 64 survivors from throughout Asia, scholars and two Japanese former soldiers, and during recess other testimonies were heard about related war crimes in other parts of the world, linking the “comfort women” to other victims of military sexual violence throughout space and time. It took one year for the Tribunal to process all the information and render judgement. When the judgment was ready, it was read out in The Hague, the ‘home of international law,’ to demonstrate the importance of the judgment to the entire world. The Judgment charged the deceased Emperor and high level officials with war crimes, and made recommendations for the Japanese government to make restitution for the crimes. The Tribunal, while not acknowledged by the Japanese government, nor legally binding, carried profound moral and emotional impact for the survivors. The two last paragraphs of the judgement read as follows:

The Crimes committed against these survivors remain one of the greatest unacknowledged and unremedied injustices of the Second World War. There are no museums, no graves for the unknown “comfort woman”, no education of future generations, and there have been no judgement days for the victims of Japan’s military sexual slavery and the rampant sexual violence and brutality that characterized its aggressive war.

Accordingly, through this Judgment, this Tribunal intends to honor all the women victimized by Japan’s military sexual slavery system. The Judges recognize the great fortitude and dignity of the survivors who have toiled to survive and reconstruct their shattered lives and who have faced down fear and shame to tell their stories to the world and testify before us. Many of the women who have come forward to fight for justice have died unsung heroes. While the names inscribed in history’s pages have been, at best, those of the men who commit the crimes or who prosecute them, rather than the women who suffer them, this Judgement bears the names of the survivors who took the stand to tell their stories, and thereby, for four days at least, put wrong on the scaffold and truth on the throne.

Read more about the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal HERE, and watch this video:

Continued International Support for the Survivors

Though the impact of the Tribunal on the survivors who participated was profound, and created an opportunity to be heard, to connect with other women survivors from other countries, and to be recognized by the international community, the Japanese government continued to evade responsibility. Accordingly, in the subsequent years, the “comfort women” support movement continued to find ways to put pressure on Japan. In recent years, a number of countries, and also local municipalities in Japan, have passed resolutions calling for the Japanese government to formally apologize and pay reparations. Countries which have passed such resolutions include: the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, the European Union, among others. Watch this video to learn about the historic adoption of US House Resolution 121, highly symbolic given decades of the US government, who administered Japan’s defeat post WWII, maintaining that the Japanese government had already dealt with all outstanding issues from the war.

International Solidarity where it counts: Video of Japanese women supporting the “comfort women” movement

Tending to Survivors as Individuals: Companionship, Well-being & Reweaving the Social Fabric

Many of the surviving “comfort women” have reclaimed their hidden histories, renamed their experiences publicly and connected with others through participation in the activist movement through testimony, protest, law suits, travelling speaking tours, publishing books, and more. This has no doubt been, despite the Japanese government’s failure to respond adequately to their demands, a difficult and painful, but empowering process. Many of the women in Seoul, though very elderly and with many health problems, still attend the Weekly Wednesday protests even in sub-zero temperatures. The Weekly Wednesday protests have become, through the help of myriad participating organizations and individuals, a place to celebrate the courage and resilience of the survivors. Protestors sing, dance, and perform songs and poetry for the survivors. Allies from other countries, including Japan, some activists, some students, and even former soldiers, come and speak their support, calling on the public to never forget, and calling on the governments involved to do the right thing. Women’s organizations that work on modern issues of trafficking and violence against women speak, drawing the links between sexual slavery and endemic violence against women in all spheres of life. Visitors knit blankets for the survivors, and promise them to fight against such atrocities, pledging to share their stories of pain, trauma, and courageous survival. The Wednesday protests have become a place of recognition and community-building, a warm circle that wraps itself around the survivors, reminding them that although it is late, they are not alone.

Samulnori Performers at Weekly Wednesday Demonstration, Seoul

Equally important to this reclaiming of the public sphere for and with the survivors, is support for the women as individuals, in the sphere of the personal. The activists who stepped forward in the context of South Korea to support the survivors, some from the women’s movement, others from Buddhist or Christian human rights groups, have always sought to balance the welfare of the survivors with the need for a political movement to support them. Many of the former “comfort women” spent decades living in poverty, without adequate healthcare, so one of the priorities of the movement was to find social and financial support for the women. Supporters assisted survivors in obtaining social services, including pressuring government to provide living and healthcare stipends, and have arranged for scores of volunteers to provide the women with services such as natural medicine care (acupuncture, Korean herbal medicine), allopathic medical care, massage therapy, and other services such as aesthetic care. Survivors still living abroad were given legal support to reinstate their nationality, finally given the option to return to Korea.

Massage Team at House of Sharing

For many of the survivors, their greatest personal regrets have to do with what they missed out on: many of them never had an education due to their gender, Japanese colonialism/war, and due to their trauma and its after-effects. Literacy education and foreign language education are amongst services that survivors have requested and received. Many survivors express a sense of loss around the expectations they had around what a woman’s life would include: a wedding, family, children, grandchildren, celebration of holidays and rites of passage, the flow of their personal and cultural lives. As a result, supporters have reached out to survivors with a range of offerings: photo shoots of the women dressed up in wedding clothes, time spent with schoolkids visiting them just to socialize, the marking of important cultural holidays in community, traditional Shamanic healing ceremonies etc. Two primary organizations in South Korea, the Korean Council, and the House of Sharing, have created communal safe houses where some survivors have chosen to live, and in this way, they have both physical and emotional support available to them on a regular basis. “Our House,” supported by the feminist Korean Council, is located in Seoul, and survivors living there have the full-time support of nursing/social work staff. House of Sharing, located in the countryside outside of Seoul, is home to approximately 10 survivors as of 2012, and is a combined social welfare and education centre which hosts many visitors to learn about the history of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery.

Making Kimchi, House of Sharing

Supporters also understood that part of the psychological and emotional needs of the survivors was to find means to express and process memories and experiences they had buried for so many decades. Testimony was one way in which some survivors found an outlet for sharing, and many have continued travelling locally and internationally to share their stories in hopes of holding the Japanese government accountable, and preventing military sexual slavery from continuing to happen. Social workers, volunteers and companions also spend a great deal of time with survivors, enabling them to talk and share memories in ways that feel appropriate to them. These informal conversations, which often happen inside the women’s rooms at House of Sharing or Our House, are more intimate and less scripted than what is required of them for public testimony. Another program of support provided to survivors early on in the Korean context was an art therapy program which sought to enable survivors to share and process their experiences through artwork. Survivors were given painting classes and materials, and for several of the women, this became an outlet of expression. The House of Sharing museum has a gallery with many of the survivors’ paintings, and their images of abduction and internment in “comfort stations” have become a major educational tool as well.


Call to Action

When Yi Ok Seon tells her story in public testimonies, she often concludes with a request, or perhaps an exhortation, to her audience. Retelling and reliving her story is very painful, she says, and it is something she feels compelled to do, rather than it being something enjoyable. She would rather be somewhere else, without these memories burdening her with the same intensity now as she felt them when they were made. Everyone who hears her story now carries it, and since a story has a life and a meaning, it has to be shared. Her story has to be shared so that others can learn the truth, which is still highly contested, and also because women around the world are suffering in similar circumstances, and we must make it stop. Yi Ok Seon is in her late 80s, as are the other few remaining survivors, and she knows she does not have a lot of time left to speak her truth. It is the next generation, she says, who has to carry this knowledge forward. Yi Ok Seon’s testimony is shared on this webpage, as well as the stories of other survivors. Now that you have joined the circle of those who know, please do your part in whatever way you can.

Yi Ok Seon, sharing her story and photos with visitors, House of Sharing

What We Can Do

Share her story, fight for the stories of “comfort women” and other survivors of egregious gender violence to be included in school curriculum, in the media, and in the policies of decision-makers who still don’t know how to make the links between systemic violence and the trauma of daily life. In honour of the memory of the survivors, organize a Take Back the Night event, organize or join events organized around the world for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence (Nov 25 – Dec 10), start a petition or send a message to your local Japanese Embassy about the issue. Volunteer in a home for the elderly, or with a sexual violence hotline, and give someone else a chance to share and begin to heal. Care for yourself, and find the right kind of support you need to process and begin to heal from your own trauma. Speak to the truth about insidious and intergenerational trauma, visibilizing the violence of everyday life so we can begin to build a different society and a different world. Let us pause, and gather our energies for action, with the words of Kim Hak Soon, the courageous survivor who first shared her story on television in 1991:

We must record these things, which were forced upon us.

Solidarity Demonstration, Ottawa, 1000th Weekly Wednesday Demonstration — Organized by Toronto ALPHA

For further reading:

Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery By Japan:

Women’s Global Solidarity Action Network:

House of Sharing:

Violence Against Women in War Network, Japan:

Toronto ALPHA:

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