Stimulated and inspired by the writer Iris Chang,
a new work resulting from a visit to Wei Shao-lan will soon be released.
In recording the plight of Comfort Women during WW2
the writer Adeline Yen Mah expresses her sorrow
and regret on their behalf.
This Saturday, San Francisco’s Coalition Alliance of Justice for Comfort Women will be holding a ceremony for the two recently departed Comfort Women: Tang Gen-zhen and Wei Shao-lan.
曾特別回中國桂林拜訪過韋紹蘭的著名華裔作家馬嚴君玲(Adeline Yen Mah)也將從洛杉磯長島 (Long Beach)趕來叁加儀式。
The well-known Chinese-American writer Adeline Yen Mah, who had once flown to Guiling to interview Wei Shao-lan, will be flying specially from Long Beach to take part in the ceremony.
Adeline Yen Mah said she has translated her interview with Wei Shao-lan into English and will be publishing the work. Her interest in Comfort Women was first inspired by Iris Chang, renowned author of `Nanking Massacre’. By bringing the plight of Comfort Women to the world, Adeline is fulfilling a promise she had made to Iris Chang.
Fulfilling a daunting promise
By Adeline Mah
The name Guilin means forest of sweet osmanthus in Chinese. Situated at the border of Guangxi and Hunan Province, it is famous for its towering, cone-shaped karsts, magical limestone caves, dense green bamboo forests, terraced rice fields and the clear, meandering Li River.
But I had not come as a tourist. I was here to meet one of only 16 surviving Chinese Comfort Women, the sex slaves of Japanese troops during the Second World War. Young women and girls in the 13 Asian Pacific countries the Japanese army occupied were either duped by false promises of domestic work or kidnapped by Japanese soldiers, imprisoned in special quarters called “comfort stations” and raped. The Japanese military authorities planned, constructed and managed these brothels.
In coming to Guilin I was fulfilling a promise to my friend and fellow writer, Iris Chang, whose book, The Rape of Nanking, had been published in 1997, the same year as my memoir, Falling Leaves. Long before Iris’ suicide in 2004 at the age of 36, we had talked about working together to tell the important story of the Comfort Women, but life went on and I never followed up on our conversation. Now, with horrifying tales of kidnap, rape and sexual slavery emerging from the Middle East of Isis and the Nigeria of Boko Haram, it seemed the right time to go in search of the Comfort Women. Because, as the writer and philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
A waiting car took me from Guilin Airport to Li Pu, about two hours’ drive along a winding road. I left my luggage at a local hotel which reeked of cigarette smoke and quickly drove to the home of Wei Shao Lan, about 15 minutes away.
Wei Shao Lan came out to meet me. Tiny but still sprightly, she was now 97 years old. At five feet two inches tall, I towered over her.
We sat on low stools in her spacious living area. It had a stove and sink against one large window, a bed with a quilt neatly folded on one side, a large table and several low stools with backs.
Wei Shao Lan began her story, speaking in a Guangxi dialect which was difficult to understand. She was born in 1920, she told me, and was married with a baby daughter when Japanese soldiers came to Li Pu in November 1944.
“Everyone was scared, especially young women like me,” she said. “We had heard that Japanese soldiers were kidnapping and raping women.”
She was right to be afraid. From 1932 until the end of the war, the Japanese forced many thousands of Chinese women into military sexual slavery. After the Nanking massacre in 1937, in which Japanese soldiers murdered and raped more than 300,000 disarmed Chinese soldiers and civilians, the Japanese army even kidnapped young women from refugee camps. Other Japanese-occupied countries supplied women too. Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945, and thousands of Korean girls were recruited to work in China as domestic servants or nurses, only to end up in comfort stations.
Wei Shao Lan hid in a cave for several days with her mother-in-law. But she and her husband were farmers, and she began to worry about the pigs, so she crept out with the baby to feed them.
“Suddenly, I saw Japanese soldiers,” she said. “I tried to run but at that moment my baby began to cry. One Japanese soldier lunged at me with his sword and cut the strap on my back holding my baby. I had to carry her and could no longer run.”
Lan was driven in a lorry with six other women to a military barracks about 20 kilometers away. The next day, she underwent a medical examination before being placed in a room with another girl.
“I still remember the first soldier who raped me,” recounted Wei Shao Lan. “He had a moustache above his lip and wore a cap with a yellow star and a piece of cloth in the back. He threatened me with his sword and forced me to sleep with him. I was terrified. Afterwards, there were many Japanese soldiers of varying ages who took advantage of me.”
I had visited the Comfort Women’s Museum in Nanking – now Nanjing – just a few days before, and had already learnt much about this enforced prostitution. The museum had once been the East Cloud Comfort Station. Many other brothels were given similarly reassuring names – Japan-China Friendship House, Imperial Military Guest House, Military Personnel Club – to suggest normalcy, legitimacy and order.
East Cloud Comfort Station was an L-shaped complex consisting of eight two-storey houses built of brick and cement: tidy, clean and non-threatening. Inside was a foyer leading to a narrow hallway that led in turn to small rooms on each side. The door of each room was marked with a round number plate. Inside was a recessed bed, tatami mats, a table and chair.
Once captured, comfort women were assigned numbers and given Japanese names. Their pictures hung on the walls in the entrance hall so soldiers could choose from this “menu”.
The Japanese Military High Command issued strict rules which were prominently displayed. They covered permits, registration and payment, acceptable conduct, the use of condoms, opening times and the time allowed with a woman.
Photos at the museum showed Japanese soldiers dressed in cap and uniform swarming like bees around a honey pot in front of the entrance gate of comfort stations.
The women were expected to service multiple soldiers a day.
Wei Shao Lan was luckier than many. After about a week, an officer claimed her as his own and told the other soldiers to leave her alone. He gave her a single room and allowed her to keep her baby. She cooked for him and washed his clothes, but hoped all the while to escape.
Such an enterprise was fraught with danger. Sentries were stationed at all comfort stations. Any woman caught escaping was beaten severely or executed. The East Cloud Comfort Station even had a room for teenage virgins that had an upper “sleeping area” accessible only by a detachable ladder. Only high-ranking Japanese officers were allowed to climb the ladder to assault them. It would be removed when the officers left and any girl attempting to flee would risk breaking her legs.
Early one morning, about three months after Lan’s capture, she went to the toilet and noticed there were no soldiers around. She ran away with her baby, finally arriving home 36 hours later.
“My husband forgave me but my baby became sick and died soon afterwards,” she continued. Then she found out she was pregnant. “The Japanese had given me some pills but I was afraid of taking them and threw them away. Perhaps they were birth control pills.”
She gave birth prematurely to a son weighing only four and a half pounds. Villagers began to whisper that her child, Luo Shan Xue, was the son of a “Japanese devil”.
“Whenever he quarrelled with his little friends, they would call him `Son of Japanese!’” Lan recalled.
She went on to have two more children, but her husband treated her elder son differently. “He took him out of school after the third grade and would not take him to a doctor when he developed eye disease. As a result, he is blind in his right eye.”
Lan’s husband died in 1986 but Xue, who she believes is the only son of a kidnapped Chinese Comfort Woman still alive in China, was unable to find a wife. “Third grade education. Blind in one eye. Unknown Japanese father. No skills. He remains single to this day.”
The stigma was great for the women too. “For over forty years from 1945 until 1991, most Comfort Women who survived the war kept their experiences to themselves,” Professor Su Zhi-Liang, an expert on Comfort Women at Shanghai Normal University, told me. “They were ashamed of being raped by Japanese soldiers. Instead of sympathy, their relatives and neighbors often blamed them for `sleeping with the enemy’, believing that such women would bring bad luck wherever they went.”
In April of 2006, the Japanese government publicly admitted they had established a Comfort Station in Guilin. But when in December 2010 a television producer helped Lan and her son to fly to Japan to sue the Japanese government, their law suit failed.
So far, no law suit launched by Comfort Women against the Japanese government for compensation has been successful.
“The capture and enslavement of Comfort Women was a systematic, orchestrated policy emanating from the highest reaches of the Japanese State,” Professor Su told me. “It is impossible to say how many women were duped or kidnapped by the Japanese army and navy into sexual slavery. At a guess, the total number would be in the hundreds of thousands.”
That number has dwindled to a handful of survivors but the fight for recognition of their suffering continues. In Seoul, former Korean Comfort Women and their supporters have rallied outside the Japanese Embassy at noon every Wednesday since 1992 to demand redress. It has been listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest rally on a single theme. In 2011, to mark the 1,000th Wednesday demonstration, a statue of a young girl with clenched fists was erected at the rally site. It is known as the Statue of Peace.
In December 2016, a group of Korean citizens placed a replica bronze statue across from the Japanese consulate in Busan, Korea. In retaliation, Japan recalled its ambassador in Seoul for three months, as well as withdrawing the Consul General in Busan.
On my long flight back from Shanghai to Los Angeles, the stewardess handed me a newspaper. It reported that a Statue of Peace had also been erected in Germany’s south-eastern municipality of Wiesent, Bavaria. And since then, the US Supreme Court has refused to hear a legal case calling for the removal of a Comfort Woman statue in Glendale, California.
There is much still to do. To prevent the sexual enslavement of women from happening in the future, governments and armies who promote it must be held accountable and apologise to their victims. And if my visit to China, together with Wei Shao Lan’s testimony, can move readers to agree that sexual violence as a policy of war is a crime against humanity, I will have kept my promise to Iris Chang.