Taiwanese Comfort Women: Forgotten Stories of 2,000 Girls
Most stories of Comfort Women are about Korean and Chinese Comfort Women. This is largely because they comprised the majority of the girls taken, but it is essential to remember the diverse backgrounds of the girls taken by the Japanese military. Only recognizing the suffering of a specific group of Comfort Women is discounting the thousands of other girls who perished in Comfort Stations. Among the girls taken all over Asia, Taiwanese Comfort Women are largely forgotten. This article seeks to get a better understanding of Taiwanese Comfort Women, past and present. In addition, the article seeks to evaluate what differences exist between the public's perception of Korean and Taiwanese Comfort Women in respective countries.
Taiwan was part of the Qing empire until 1895, when it officially became part of Japan’s colonial empire, years before the annexation of Korea. Ms. Itoh Hideko, a member of Japan’s Diet uncovered telegrams proving the existence of Taiwanese Comfort Women in 1992. The telegrams were from Japan’s military commander in Taiwan which requested permits to transport fifty Taiwanese Comfort Women to Borneo. Soon after, a Taiwanese research center began to interview Comfort Women and uncover more evidence to finalize an estimate of around 2,000 Taiwanese Comfort Women, the majority of whom were taken in 1944, one year prior to the end of the Pacific War. Similar to Korean Comfort Women, Taiwanese Comfort Women were initially promised work such as housecleaning and laundry for soldiers. Many women opted into these jobs because they were pressured to earn an income for their families. Some women were forcibly taken when their husbands were conscripted into the army. Yoshimi Yoshiaki states that in the case of Taiwan, more than half of the young women were between the ages of 14 and 30. The Comfort Women were transported all over Asia, to Hainan Island, the Philippines, China, the Dutch East Indies, Burma, Singapore, Okinawa, and Timor. A Taiwanese woman describes the horrors in the Comfort Station:
“I was forced to receive over twenty soldiers every day, soldiers during the day and officers at night. Some Japanese soldiers were drunk and beat us. Filled with grief and hate, I cried every night. I contracted malaria in Indonesia, had appendicitis, and my right eye was blinded by shrapnel. My abdomen was injured, my womb removed. It was a living hell.”
Like the experiences of most Comfort Women after the war, the few Taiwanese Comfort Women who returned were either shunned into silence or kicked out of their houses and forced to live very difficult lives with injuries sustained from their time in Comfort Stations.
Nearly half a century later, after the telegrams proved the existence of Taiwanese Comfort Women, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan established a Taiwanese Comfort Women Investigation Committee. The committee then designated the main responsibility for Comfort Women to the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation (TWRF), an organization which was working to stop childhood prostitution and helping juvenile victims of human trafficking. Since the TWRF stepped into this role, they have been a prominent actor helping surviving Comfort Women and also lead spreading the Comfort Women's lost history around Taiwan. The TWRF also released the 2005 documentary “Silent Scars: History of Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Military – A Pictorial Book.”
On December 10 2016, World Human Rights Day, the TWRF helped open the first museum with stories of Taiwanese Comfort Women. Affectionately named the Ama Museum (granny museum), the museum showcases photos of Taiwanese Comfort Women of different time periods, demonstrating both their trauma and triumph. The museum is not only a preservation of the Taiwanese Comfort Women’s silent suffering but also a place for future generations to gather and hold seminars and conversations about sexual violence and gender equality. For example, the museum hosted an event called “Anne x Ama – Girls Under Fire in WWII” in 2018 in collaboration with Anne Frank House in the Netherlands. However, the Ama Museum has gone through a lot of financial hardship, with trouble keeping the museum open. It is currently closed, hoping to reopen.
The first statue for Taiwanese Comfort Women was erected in Tainan, Taiwan on August 14, 2018, on the international Comfort Women memorial day. Unlike other “statue of peace” erected all over the world, the Taiwanese statue depicts a girl with her arms raised to show resistance. The memorial has sparked tensions between Taiwan and Japan. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called the statue “extremely disappointing.” Comfort Women memorials have always been a source of diplomatic tension. When a monument honoring Comfort Women was erected in San Francisco, Osaka, a city in Japan, threatened to cut ties.
A few months after the grand opening of this memorial, Mutsuhiko Fujii, a member of a visiting Japanese delegation, was seen kicking the Comfort Women statue. After intense backlash, he quickly made a statement arguing that he was merely stretching his legs after his long flight.
Comfort Women all over the world share a universal experience of suffering and torture under the Japanese military. However, there are many differences which stem from their diverse histories and societal landscapes. Taiwanese Comfort Women are smaller in number and have less coverage compared to Chinese and Korean Comfort Women. While a lot of Korean Comfort Women issues are tied with Korea’s antagonistic relationship with its previous colonial ruler, Taiwan maintains an amiable relationship with Japan and Taiwanese citizens are less critical of Japanese governments. In addition, with Taiwan’s tense political battle with China as it attempts to remain a sovereign nation, fighting with Japan can look like allegiance to mainland China. Taiwanese residents are also extremely wary of political parties like the KMT or the DPP politicizing the Comfort Women to gain political support. These differences are the reasons why we must have an intercultural and nuanced perspective when dealing with Comfort Women, and remember that there are victims all over Asia who suffered as Comfort Women.