'Comfort woman' shares her painful past

GEOFFREY YORK

From Monday's Globe and Mail

July 9, 2007 at 7:20 AM EDT

SHANGHAI X At the age of 81, stooped and frail, Lin Yanjin is one of the last remaining witnesses to the truth about Japan's wartime sex slaves.

 

For five months in 1943, she was raped every day by Japanese soldiers who occupied the Chinese island of Hainan. She remembers the beatings and cigarette burns that left her swollen and in constant pain. She was 17 years old.

 

Yet the details of her story - and many similar accounts - are increasingly denied and dismissed by political leaders in Japan, where nationalism and patriotism are a rising force.

 

Even the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, recently claimed that the "comfort women" were not coerced.

Visitors look at portraits of women forced to become comfort women by the Japanese military during the Second World War  at the historical museum of sexual slavery in Gwangju, South Korea.  Han Jae-ho/Reuters

Visitors look at portraits of women forced to become comfort women by the Japanese military during the Second World War at the historical museum of sexual slavery in Gwangju, South Korea. (Han Jae-ho/Reuters)

 

Last month, 44 Japanese members of Parliament bought a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post to allege that the comfort women of the 1940s were licensed prostitutes who were often better paid than Japanese military officers.

 

For the survivors of the system of sexual slavery at Japanese military bases, the latest denials have added a deep insult to a horrific injury.

 

"I was very angry when I heard such news," Ms. Lin said. "The Japanese government is still denying it. But it really happened. It happened to me in Hainan. And I'm still suffering from the violence they did to me."

 

An estimated 200,000 women - mostly Chinese and Korean - were forced into sexual servitude under Japanese wartime occupation. Of the Chinese victims, only 47 are still alive and willing to speak out. Every year, more of the survivors are dying.

 

The death of 83-year-old Yuan Zhulin in early 2006 meant the loss of another witness. In 1941, when she was a 21-year-old woman in a Japanese-occupied region of southern China, she was recruited by Japanese soldiers who told her that she would work as a hotel cleaner.

 

Instead, she was transferred to a "comfort station" at a Japanese military base. She tried to resist, but soldiers forced her into the station with bayonets and she was beaten by the Japanese owner of the station.

 

Ms. Yuan had a two-year-old baby at the time, but she was forcibly separated from the child, who starved to death as a result. After the war, her injuries left her unable to have any more children.

 

"My mother was definitely coerced to be a comfort woman," said her adopted daughter, 60-year-old Chen Fei. "To the last possible moment, she fought against the Japanese military."

 

Her mother believed that China and Japan should learn from their history, Ms. Chen said. "The Japanese government is refusing to admit what it did," she said. "It refuses to show any repentance. This is a violation of historical facts. I'm very angry and frustrated by it."

 

Ms. Chen and Ms. Lin spoke to a group of Canadian high-school students in Shanghai on Saturday. It was the 70th anniversary of the beginning of Japan's full-scale invasion of China's biggest cities in 1937.

 

The women spoke at Shanghai Normal University, where China has opened its first official archives on the ordeal of the "comfort women," as the sex slaves were euphemistically known in Japan.

 

The archives, which opened last week, includes a Japanese soldier's condom and other evidence gathered from the remains of the comfort stations in China.

 

Its director, history professor Su Zhiliang, says the Japanese military created about 160 comfort stations in Shanghai alone. Using old photographs and documents, he has tracked down the exact addresses of many of them. Some of the Chinese comfort women were girls as young as 12 years old, he said. The girls and women were forced to provide sex to as many as 50 soldiers a day.

 

Ms. Lin was a peasant woman, working in a rice paddy, when she was abducted by Japanese soldiers and taken to a military base in 1943.

 

"We were treated worse than pigs and dogs," she said. "We were not given clothes. We were violated in the daytime and the nighttime."

 

As she told her story to the Canadian students, Ms. Lin spoke in a weak and trembling voice. At first she was expressionless, but later she wept repeatedly. Many of the students cried, too, as they listened.

 

"When they raped me, I resisted strongly, but they were too strong," she said. "They beat me and burned my face with cigarettes. My whole face and body was swollen. I wanted to run away, but there was no way to escape. I cried all day."

 

After she had survived five months in captivity, her parents managed to bribe some Chinese security men, giving them chickens in exchange for their help in obtaining their daughter's release from the military base.

 

Even two months after her release, she was still seriously ill, with blood in her urine. But her ordeal was not over. Japanese soldiers often came to her village, and some of them raped her again.

 

After the war, it was many years before she was able to marry. "I felt very ugly, because of the violence against me," she said. "I felt that I could not think of love."

 

When she eventually married, she became pregnant but miscarried and was never able to have a child, though she adopted a son. "My womb was never able to recover from the trauma of what was done to me," she said. "I still feel the pain today, physically and emotionally. My whole life was destroyed by what I suffered. I still feel very bad. I feel that no man can ever like me."

 

For most of her life, Ms. Lin has lived in poverty in a shabby hut in the hills of Hainan. In recent years she has received a small income supplement from the researchers at Shanghai Normal University.

 

Her family members did not want her to travel to Shanghai to describe her wartime suffering. The ordeal of the comfort women is still a taboo subject in Hainan's villages - a source of shame for the villagers. It took courage for her to speak out, her supporters say.

 

"I just want to have peace of mind," Ms. Lin said. "I insist that the Japanese government should apologize and pay compensation, so that I can console my mind."

 

The students, from schools near Vancouver, were moved by her words. "It's very important that everyone should know about this, because otherwise history could be repeated," said Sara Carlyle, a Grade 12 student at North Delta Secondary School in Delta, B.C.

 

She told Ms. Lin: "You are our inspiration. These things will not go in vain. They will be known, and they will make a difference."

 

Megan Lum, a Grade 10 student at Fleetwood Park Secondary School in Surrey, B.C., said it was "heartbreaking" to hear Ms. Lin's story.

 

"What happened was horrible," she said. "It's even more horrible that we don't know about it and it's not taught in school."

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