Intergenerational Trauma

Canadian filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung, prepares a special birthday lunch for a Filipina survivor, from her forthcoming film, Within Every Woman.

Secrecy, Denial, Stigma: Personal and Communal Legacies of Trauma

In the post-war period, the survivors of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery were abandoned. First, by the Japanese military that conscripted them, then by the Allied Powers who were aware of their existence, but who did not view the “comfort women” system as a war crime, or conclude that the survivors needed particular support. Social attitudes towards gender roles, the commodification of the female body, and the ideals of masculinity perpetuated by military culture remained invisible, unchallenged, by those in power. Many women were displaced, abandoned in other countries when the Japanese military retreated, and had to survive cut off from their community and homeland. Some, ashamed and unable to face their families due to the stigma of sexual trauma, did not seek to go home, or returned to Korea but found themselves unable to reintegrate into their families and communities. Many women were rejected or abandoned due to that stigma, compounding their trauma even further.

Over the decades of silence, the women struggled with the after-effects of their trauma—physical, psychological and spiritual scars—while the issue was ignored by their own governments as well. While many of the women were unable to bear children as a result of the violence they experienced, some did, and others adopted the children of mothers who died during the war. Having virtually no medical or emotional support for their trauma, the survivors employed various coping mechanisms and continued their lives marginalized, many living in poverty. As the testimony of Yi Yong Nyeo shared on this website illustrates, the gender based discrimination experienced by the “comfort women” was not isolated, but rather continued to shape their lives. In her case, after being repatriated from Burma at the end of the war, she was coerced into being the unofficial second wife of a wealthy Korean man who abused her, and to whom she bore two sons.

Direct Effects on the Next Generation

Those survivors who raised children often did so within these constraints, the effects of their trauma shaping the lives of the next generation. Some survivors who remained in other countries reared children there. Yi Ok Seon, whose testimony is explored on this website, remained in China for close to 60 years after the war, unable to return home, declared as dead by her family who did not know what happened to her. In China, she lived with a Korean widower and raised his children, who grew up mostly speaking Chinese, never having set foot in Korea. In 2009, after being repatriated through the efforts of civil society organizations seeking former “comfort women” abroad, Yi Ok Seon brought her two grandsons to Korea. There, they experienced the marginalization of being Korean-Chinese, a widespread social problem in modern South Korea, and struggled to master their ancestral tongue to be able to study and find work in their newly adopted homeland. Yi Ok Seon lives in a communal home for survivors, the House of Sharing, where her grandsons came to stay with her. There, they learned for the first time, of their grandmother’s experiences in the “comfort station”, a part of her history she had kept hidden for decades.

Yi Ok Seon – Post War Period

Communal Trauma & Disintegration of Community

There is no doubt that the entire nation of Chosun experienced a collective trauma through the process of colonization by Japan, the suppression of Korean identity, and through the violence of the war. The post-war decades were difficult for the entire nation, as the Korean War broke out, and North and South Korea were split upon ideological lines. To this day, the Korean War remains under a ceasefire, a peace agreement never having been brokered, with families separated on either side of the Demilitarized Zone between the nations. The collective trauma and displacement as a result of the colonial period and subsequent war, followed by decades of repressive military dictatorship in South Korea and a controlling communist government in North Korea, still plays out in people’s lives today. The tissues of the community had already been damaged, both by violence and by the split between those who collaborated with the Japanese colonial government and those who resisted it. Some of the best loved figures in modern Korean history are those who fought against the colonial powers, the male freedom fighters recognized as heroic resisters. In addition, Koreans forced into labour or the Japanese military were left with deep scars, there being little support or recognition of their experiences in the post-war period.

However, the situation of the “comfort women” within this wider communal trauma, due to the stigma of sexual violence and the importance of “virginity” in the patriarchal mainstream culture, was one of even deeper social exclusion and marginalization. From a masculinist, ethno-nationalist perspective, the “comfort women” are a national shame—a symbol of the ‘weakness’ of the Korean state, which was unable to protect its borders, and its women. Although a certain degree of popular support for the survivors now exists in Korea, after two decades of the support movement seeking to shift the national perspective on this issue, survivors still find themselves stigmatized, a source of collective embarrassment and shame. Many survivors who did have families have not come out publicly at the request of their children, who fear the stigma attached.

Yi Yong Nyeo, House of Sharing

A recent incident illustrates the perpetuation of this view on the “comfort women.” The Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council), the main activist organization supporting the survivors in their search for justice, has recently opened the War and Women’s Human Rights museum in Seoul, a tribute to the survivors which memorializes the victims and raises awareness about sexualized violence against women. For several years, the Korean Council sought permission to locate the museum in the Independence Park in the capital of Seoul, where freedom fighters against Japanese colonialism are honoured. The group of elderly surviving freedom fighters, all men, fought against memorializing the “comfort women” there, claiming that those women, whom they referred to as ‘prostitutes’, had nothing to do with Independence. Despite petitions and press coverage seeking for social support to locate the museum there, the issue was not resolved, and the Korean Council went with another location. (see article here)

Perpetuation of Systemic Oppression against Women

The lack of a clear understanding of the causes and consequences of the system of Military Sexual Slavery is indicative of the unchanging nature of gendered attitudes and expectations, which continue, both within Korea, Japan and around the world, to normalize violence against women, the sexual exploitation of women, and the denial of women’s human rights. Similar examples of systematic rape in war have happened and continue to happen at this moment, and despite advances in international law are popularly understood as an unfortunate side-effect of war, rather than a tool of war. (For more on rape as a war crime, see UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820) Due to the ongoing communal trauma experienced during Japan’s colonization of neighbouring countries, often the “comfort women” issue becomes subsumed as part of an ethno-nationalistic dialogue which views Japan only as a racist aggressor. The larger context of the intersectional discrimination experienced by the survivors, as victims of gender-based violence both before, during and after their tenure in the “comfort stations”, as victims of racist ideologies underpinning colonialism but also shaping their post-war experiences as racialized women unimportant on the international stage, and their continued poverty and marginalization within their own communities, is seldom popularly understood. Links between the “comfort women’s” experiences and systemic violence against women outside of war or recognized conflict are still difficult to make, including amongst many of the survivors, who are loath to be compared to other women forced into prostitution, as they strive to “prove” they did not choose to go to the “comfort stations,” often describing themselves as dirty, sullied, or broken.

There are many examples of the continuation of this ideology: the massive rapes as part of the Rwandan genocide, corrective rape targeted at women perceived to be lesbians, forced trafficking of women into prostitution, to name a few. But let us look in particular at the context of Japan and post-colonial Korea, where echoes of the ideology which underpinned the “comfort women” system can be seen to continue on:

1945: “Comfort Women” for US Soldiers

Upon Japan’s surrender to the US and Allied Nations, one of the first acts to prepare for occupation by US troops was the creation of domestic “comfort stations” for US soldiers. They were in use for several months, after which sensitivity to the possibility of bad press at home led the US military to shut them down. For more on this story, see this article.

Photo: Yokosuka City Council in Japan, US sailors gather in front of a Yasu-ura House ‘comfort station’ in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo. Picture: AP Source: AP

1950-1953: Korean War and Special “Comfort Units”

During the Korean War, the Korean government set up several “comfort units” with similar rationale and organizing techniques as the Japanese wartime “comfort stations”

  • Seven stationary locations: 3 in Seoul and 4 in Gangwon province
  • Mobile units
  • Hired women working in private brothels to “service” soldiers
1945 – Present: Kiji’chon/ Military Camp Towns around US Army Bases in South Korea

The US military has had a sustained presence in South Korea since the Korean War, with as many as 30,000-35,000 troops spread throughout the Korean peninsula. Special “tourism zones” of prostitution were set up, and continue to thrive, around US military bases.


  • (1945 -1948) Deregulation and privatization of sex trade and formation of Kiji’chon.
  • (1950 – 1970) Sex trade consolidates and expands. Problems with violence and STIs.
  • (1971 – 1980) Camptown Cleanup Campaign—On the insistence of the US military, the Korean government became involved in STI testing of women in Camptowns, and provided English and etiquette lessons.
  • (1980s – present) Influx of foreign women from economically disadvantaged countries through trafficking, especially from the Philippines.

Documentary Film: Women Outside: Korean Women and the US Military

1964-1975: Korean Soldiers in the Vietnam War

South Korea, as a close ally of the United States, sent troops to support the war in Vietnam. Records show that Korean soldiers, as with other nationalities of soldiers in Vietnam, raped civilians widely, as well as entering into sexual relationships with Vietnamese women. It is estimated that somewhere between several thousand and 30,000 children were born of these unions, and have grown up facing discrimination as a result of their mixed heritage in Vietnam. For the most part, these children have not had access or contact with biological fathers or their families in South Korea, and their mothers received no support from the Korean government. This is still a contested issue between Vietnam and South Korea. (To learn more, see, for example, Bipolar Orders: the Two Koreas Since 1989, by Hyun Gu Lynn.)

For more examples of this nature, including extensive sex tourism between Japan and neighbouring countries, visit the WGSAN website.

Regional Geo-Political Instability

Another continued outcome of the failure to address Japanese war crimes in the Asia Pacific War is continued strained relations between Japan and her neighbouring countries. Ongoing conflict over the handling of outstanding issues such as unresolved land claims between Japan and Korea, as well as sensitive issues such as the “comfort women” issue, continue to prevent regional unity politically, and also affect the ability of individuals from the countries involved to forge uncontested relationships. The historical amnesia perpetuated in Japan by the failure to educate about the history of Japanese Imperial aggression is a continued sore point, and many young Japanese, having not learned about the issues, do not understand anger directed at them by their peers, who carry the scars of intergenerational war memory and trauma in a way that they do not, due to the widespread silence and denial around these issues.

News report on disintegrating foreign relations between Japan and Korea

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