Taiwanese “Comfort Women” and Their Long Journey to Justice


Samantha Jiang


This blog post delves into the harrowing narrative of Taiwanese 'comfort women', who were tragically coerced into serving Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. Even in modern times, these women endure the weight of being neglected, stigmatized, and marginalized by society. Our mission through this blog post is to not only illuminate this grave injustice but also fervently advocate for their rightful acknowledgment and pursuit of justice.

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After China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War against Japan, which ultimately resulted in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the then province of Taiwan became a Japanese colony until the end of the Second World War in 1945. With the intention of gaining the same recognition as the Western powers, the Japanese leadership made a special effort to transform Taiwan into an ideal colony. Although these efforts advanced Taiwan in many ways, there were also countless cruel events initiated by the Japanese, such as the recruitment of the so-called ‘comfort women’. This blog post explores the problems with the term ‘comfort women’ as well as the origins, typical characteristics and societal perceptions of these women. Additionally, progress, failures, and the current situation on attaining justice for the victims will be presented and lastly, a small museum dedicated to spreading awareness about Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ will be introduced.

‘Comfort Women’: A Problematic Term

The term ‘comfort women’ comes from the Japanese language (慰安婦 ianfu) and is a euphemistic way to describe women who provided sexual services to the Japanese imperial military during the war. Many of the ‘comfort women’ came from the Japanese colonies and were enslaved as sex slaves against their will (Suzuki, 2011). For this reason, the term ‘comfort women’ will be used throughout the article to follow conventional usage but will be written in quotation marks.

When the Pacific War broke out in 1941, it is estimated that at least 2000 girls and young Taiwanese women were recruited to act as ‘comfort women’. Recruitment usually took place through intermediaries and district officials, where they brought economically disadvantaged women to foreign soil such as Southeast Asia or China. They were usually promised tasks such as maintaining the household or providing food in the canteen (Ama Museum, 2022).

The reason why the Japanese military hired sex slaves in the first place was to satisfy their soldiers during the war and to prevent military uprisings. This measure was implemented in response to the atrocious and horrific events of the “Rape of Nanking” (Argibay, 2003, p. 376), a large-scale assault and violation on the populace of Nanking, China by Japanese soldiers. Thus, Emperor Hirohito ordered the Japanese army to set up so-called ‘comfort stations’, a regulated system with the aim of providing comfort for the soldiers and preventing possible espionage activities (Ahmed, 2004). Another objective was to mitigate the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and instances of rape, but adherence to these rules was inadequate, to put it lightly. Consequently, the latter goal remained unattained (Yonhap, 2015).

Origins, Typical Characteristics and Societal Perceptions of 'Comfort Women'

Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ usually came from poor backgrounds and grew up in low-income families with many siblings. Some were put up for adoption at a young age for financial reasons or because of their gender and some experienced the fate of becoming foster daughters or child brides. Others, who were able to grow up in their own families, had to start working at a young age in order to support the family financially, but due to their low level of education (women generally had little access to education at the time) and social status, it was difficult to even find work. Not only Han-Chinese, but Minnan and Hakka ‘comfort women’ were forced or sold to work in sex-related industries as well, while others were left at home to run the household, among other things (Ama Museum, 2022).

After Japan’s defeat in the war, Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ experienced a lot of discrimination and were heavily stigmatized by society. Moreover, they suffered not only from psychological but also physical problems, which were for example caused by excessive rape, abortions, or the usage of knives on their bodies. Many of the victims became infertile after the war and suffered from recurring nightmares. They were ashamed of their scars and did not know how best to heal their traumas, but did not dare to talk about them for fear of being despised, as their marriages and family lives had already been severely affected by these traumatic events (Ama Museum, 2022).

Progress, Failures, and The Current Situation on Attaining Justice

In 1987, the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation (TWRF) was founded by a group of young lawyers, scholars, and feminists to prevent gender-based violence and achieve human rights-based gender equality. Thus, this organization is considered a pioneer in saving girls from human trafficking and ending trafficking in women, which formed a milestone in Taiwan's history of women's movements. Since 1992, the TWRF has been politically advocating for the surviving Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ by demanding apologies and compensation from Japan. Apart from their political commitments and activities, the TWRF also helped each victim with the psychological healing process by organizing several forms of therapy and workshops between 1996 and 2011, which proved to be successful and beneficial. During this time, the organization also communicated with the victims' families and was able to change their negative view of the issue into a supportive one. Thanks to this support, the surviving ‘comfort women’ finally found it easier to talk about their experiences and fight for justice themselves. In 1992, a small number of former Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ decided to speak out in a press conference about the violent sexual acts of the Japanese military, which inspired other survivors to share their experiences (Ama Museum, 2022).

On the 17th of August 1999, with the help of the TWRF and volunteer Taiwanese and Japanese lawyers, nine former Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ decided to go to the Tokyo District Court to file a lawsuit. However, they lost every court case until 2005. The evasive behavior of the Japanese government regarding its responsibilities in the war resulted, among other things, in the founding of the “Women's International Tribunal for Japan's Military Sexual Slavery” in 2000. The tribunal, which took place in Tokyo, invited the surviving ‘comfort women’ and supporters from various nations such as Taiwan, China, Korea, countries from Southeast Asia, and the Netherlands (Ama Museum, 2022).

In July 1995, the Asian Women's Fund (AWF) was established with the objective of providing financial compensation by the Japanese government. The surviving ‘comfort women’ who accepted the offer also received a letter from the Japanese Prime Minister in which he apologized for the atrocities committed by the Japanese military and firmly assured them that such tragic events would never happen again. The organization had also been engaged in efforts to sustain awareness of the ‘comfort women’ issue and promote ongoing awareness through various organized activities. The fund was eventually dissolved at the end of March 2007 after completing its projects and the digital museum “The Comfort Women Issue and the Asian Women's Fund" was created afterward (Asian Women's Fund, Closing of the Asian Women's Fund, 2007).

Although some of the former Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ were interested in the fund and even accepted it, the TWRF had been opposing the fund since its establishment. The TWRF expected state compensation, but the AWF used donations made by the Japanese citizens as financial compensation. Hence, the TWRF pressured some of the victims to reject the offer by offering approximately NTD 500,000 to each victim after each of them signed an oath to reject the AWF’s benefits (Asian Women's Fund, 2002).

As for the Taiwanese government's efforts to attain justice, only former President Ma Ying-jeou made definite statements about restoring justice for the victims during his presidency. Even though his attempts and requests yielded no results and the Japanese government remained silent, neglecting to address the matter, he chose to participate in the unveiling of Taiwan's inaugural ‘comfort women’ memorial statue in 2018. His decision to attend persisted even after he had left his official position as President of Taiwan. His successor in office Tsai Ing-wen has focused more on addressing the injustices during the White Terror period than on attaining justice for the former Taiwanese ‘comfort women’, as she had largely avoided talking about the issue (Hu, 2021).

In 2020, the TWRF stated that only two of the publicly known Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ were still alive and called for the Taiwanese government to officially change the term ‘comfort women’ to ‘comfort women: military sex slaves’ in school history textbooks with the aim of building a national historical consensus and reshaping societal perceptions of the victims in Taiwan. In 2021, Scripps College alumna Emilie Hu argues in her article that “the Tsai Administration will likely be the last administration able to demand that Tokyo meet survivors’ demands while they are still alive” (Hu, 2021, S. 1). Furthermore, she argues that “politicization of the “comfort women” issue impedes the process of forming a national historical consensus on the issue and prevents the Taiwan government from attaining justice for the Taiwanese women who endured Japanese military sexual slavery” (Hu, 2021, S. 1).

As of 2023, all publicly known former Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ have passed away, which means the journey of attaining justice for the victims must now continue without them (Cai, 2023; Chiang, 2023).

The Ama Museum in Taipei, Taiwan

When I first visited Taiwan back in 2022, I attended a language and cultural program at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, which is located in the very south of Taiwan. Throughout my visit, I not only enjoyed exploring the city of Taipei but also seized the chance to conduct personal research for a seminar paper on Taiwanese ‘comfort women’. Aware of a dedicated museum in Taipei aimed at raising awareness and commemorating the victims, I made sure to include a visit in my itinerary. Most of the sources I referred to while writing the seminar paper and this article come from my visit to this museum.

The museum in question is called the “Ama Museum”. Why “Ama”? The term “Ama” (阿嬤) is a dialect term and is generally used to address women of previous generations in Taiwan. As already mentioned, the term ‘comfort women’ is a problematic one, which is why Taiwanese people refer to them simply as ‘Ama’. The museum was established in 2016 with the support of public donations and the TWRF but had to close in November 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic due to financial struggles. However, the museum was able to relocate to another place and therefore, reopen to the public in April of 2021. This information was given to me by a kind employee of the museum, who told me that she was uncertain about the museum’s future as it was rarely visited by anyone. Unfortunately, it appeared that my three university friends and I were the only visitors to the museum when we explored its exhibits.

To be quite frank, the museum left me feeling pensive all day. Although it was much smaller and more hidden than its original location, it still managed to curate an insightful exhibition that preserved the memory of the victims well by depicting information in the form of pictures, videos, and documents. It's disheartening to learn that the museum has faced financial challenges over the years. Nevertheless, I genuinely hope it garners the acknowledgment it rightfully deserves. Through my research and article, I aspire to shed light on this enduringly relevant issue and contribute to raising awareness among at least a few individuals. To add a small visual guide to this blog post, there is a slideshow attached below with some impressions from the Ama Museum in Taipei.

For all sources and further reading material on the topic, go to "Research" and select the post "Research and Taiwanese 'Comfort Women'".

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