Let Us Heal: On Surviving and the Controversial ‘Comfort Woman’

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Culture & Conversation Violence

Let Us Heal: On Surviving and the Controversial ‘Comfort Woman’

Kristance Harlow

Any attempt to control the narrative of a survivor is harmful to their recovery because it invalidates their truth.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

Grief is an innate human response to loss.

When someone you love dies, there are rituals like funerals, viewings, and memorial services that provide social support for people who are reeling from the loss. Bereavement rituals hold space for mourners to process their grief in a compassionate environment.

We grieve over many things. Death is just one of them. We might grieve over losing our job, losing a well-loved item, ending a key relationship, losing our bodily autonomy to coercion, or being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

I have experienced a lot of loss in my life, and to work through those emotions I’ve become familiar with the importance of grief. Knowing this, when I heard about the Japanese government’s ongoing disapproval of a public memorial in honor of “comfort women,” whom Japanese soldiers took as sex slaves during World War II, I was both exasperated and baffled.

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Erected on December 28, 2016, by South Korean civic activists, the statue is located across from the Japanese consulate in Busan. The “comfort woman” statue exists in other locations around the world, including in Seoul and here in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to hear a years-long lawsuit in which the plaintiffs sought to get a statue taken down in Glendale, California. One of the plaintiffs, the Global Alliance for Historical Truth, claims that so-called comfort women were not sex slaves.

For its part, the Japanese government says that a 1965 deal settled the issue of South Korean “comfort women.” Japan and South Korea struck another deal in 2015 to set up a fund for victims. However, this isn’t enough for activists. And, speaking from my own experience as a survivor of assault, no amount of money will ever be enough.

In Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence, the author Judith Herman explains that resistance to the grieving process shows up in many forms: “most frequently it appears as a fantasy of magical resolution through revenge, forgiveness, or compensation.” Although compensation is just, it is not the end-all, be-all that the Japanese government claims it should be.

As one of the women said after the 2015 deal was announced: “We are not craving for money.” Lee Yong-soo said, “What we demand is that Japan make official reparations for the crime it had committed.”

The Imperial Japanese Army was notoriously brutal during the World War II. Residents of occupied territories were systematically massacred and enslaved. Japanese troops kidnapped girls and forced them into sexual slavery as “comfort women.” Victims were brutalized en masse; sometimes many young girls were taken and raped throughout entire nights. Others were subject to repeated abuse over the course of many years.

In a warped attempt at reason, “comfort stations” were set up to prevent the rape of local women. This logical fallacy was used to justify keeping women imprisoned for the sexual satisfaction of the Japanese army. Girls as young as 10 were raped multiple times a day by soldiers who would line up at the doors to wait for their turn to be a perpetrator.

It occurred not only to Korean women, but also to women of other nationalities. The Research Center for Chinese “Comfort Women” in Shanghai estimates that more than 400,000 women across Asia were victimized during World War II.

Ha “Ama” Sang-suk was only 16 when she was kidnapped and forced into sex slavery in Wuhan, China. In an interview with Arirang TV, Sang-suk said that she never wrote a single letter home to South Korea and she never went back, claiming it was not possible to carry the weight of her humiliation that far. Her children didn’t learn about their mother’s painful past until they were adults. It was then she spoke to them about her trauma.

Stories like Sang-suk’s tell us that trauma doesn’t begin and end with the victim; traumatic losses can be felt by entire families, communities, and cultures.

When cultures and governments do not recognize trauma, there is no public space for grieving. That then can have a direct and measurable negative impact on the survivors, their children, and other victims of sexual violence. Denying these traumatic echoes can contribute to the lasting pain of all abuse survivors.

Psychologists have long speculated that the post-traumatic neurosis of parents could be transmitted to their children. After the Holocaust, this area of research became more robust as clinicians focused on behaviors of survivors and their offspring. Such massive trauma may be experienced by third-generation survivors. In 2015, researchers found that traumatic events have the potential to change someone’s DNA and those genetic alterations can be passed on to their children.

Public memorials often help traumatized people grieve because they offer a way to bring internalized suffering into the open. Many people who are grieving or who experienced trauma have strong feelings of shame and guilt. Raising public consciousness with a memorial helps victims merge the public and private spheres of trauma.

For example, when U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War returned home, they often faced a second round of trauma from communities that ostracized them because the war was so unpopular. Veterans needed to grieve in a more holistic way than could be achieved through anti-war protests or romanticized parades glorifying war. After the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., went up, some vets who repeatedly visited the memorial saw their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms improve.

A memorial, one that exists to honor both bravery and vulnerability, is also a way of establishing a safe place for others to bear witness. Sharing in the knowledge of atrocities is something researchers have found can help survivors come to terms with their lives.

Photographs at Shanghai’s Research Center for Chinese “Comfort Women” show soldiers with women who were forced to stand naked as other conspirators snapped photos to show off their conquests. Although there is something jarring about visual documentation of violence, choosing to display the photographs in a public forum can, if survivors are making the decision, wrest control away from the perpetrators.

When I was trapped in an abusive relationship, near the end I began to take pictures of my own injuries. I did it to counter my denial. It was an act of resistance to document the violence inflicted on me. I became responsible for accepting reality, which in turn allowed me to escape the situation.

Domestic abuse is one of the most common causes of post-traumatic disorders for women, as it occurs in a space where secrets prevail and privacy reigns supreme. Many survivors choose not to speak out. Compassionate observers often are quick to point out that what happened to survivors was not our fault because we were victims, and that there is nothing shameful about surviving. But merely steering clear of victim-blaming doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the shame and guilt often felt by survivors.

Any attempt to control the narrative is harmful to their recovery because it invalidates their truth. If survivors or their advocates enact a memorial, they are saying this is an acknowledgement of our pain and recovery: Let us heal.

But attempts by the Japanese government, or groups in the United States, to fight the monuments only double down on unresolved pain by essentially saying, We will only listen to your story if it fits within the confines of this script we’ve outlined. Survivors must be free to speak to the complexity of their experiences and the contradictions of their feelings.

In my experience as a person with PTSD and a survivor of domestic abuse, telling my story in my own words and on my own terms has helped me heal. Writing about my trauma creates a memorial and carves out a space to remember and grieve. I am learning to compartmentalize the pain in a healthy way, something I could not do before. Memorials, like the comfort woman statue, can have the same effect.

Humans have long been subject to oppression and exploitation at the hands of those in power. It continues to happen today as it has for hundreds of years. The history of human exploitation is as disturbing as it is important. When traumatic memories are not shared, they can manifest in other ways. Herman says that “we need to understand the past in order to reclaim the present and the future.”

What is undeniable is that this happened and the aftermath continues decades after the war crimes were committed. War tribunals and continued debate about who will take the blame may result in some form of justice, but with every new trial survivors are forced to relive what happened and that can re-traumatize. It’s time that politicians stop standing in the way of grieving and recovery. We must put more energy into caring for victims and supporting them, and that means allowing memorials to exist without opposition.