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  • Women’s Voices, Women’s Pain
  • Ustinia Dolgopol1 (bio)

I. Introduction

The feminist movement has brought to the forefront the necessity of listening to women’s voices and appreciating the distinctive insights of women. For centuries societies dominated by males have failed to document the experiences of women. Often there is a denial of the individuality and separateness of women’s experiences.

The history of the comfort women is the story of voices being denied and suppressed. It is also the story of oppression and subjugation. Between 1928 and 1945 approximately 150,000 to 200,000 2 women were taken by the Japanese and used as sex slaves. 3 There is little doubt that the inferior [End Page 127] status of women in Japan and elsewhere enabled the Japanese to believe that it was possible to undertake such actions with impunity. This belief was not dispelled by Allied action at the close of the war. Despite their knowledge of what had happened to these women, the Allied Forces and their respective governments remained silent, thereby compounding the harm 4 inflicted on these women. References to the “comfort women” in Allied documents either contorted the women’s experiences to make them appear responsible or focused on the Japanese military and the “amenities” provided to it, thereby making the women objects. 5

Because the voices of the comfort women have been denied for so long, the emphasis of this paper will be on their experiences. In the world of men, labels are ascribed to phenomenon, and analysis is considered all important. However, if the experiences of women are to have an impact on our understanding of our world and our history, it is important that events particular to women be chronicled. Therefore, the following paper will concentrate on the lives of the women. Much of the factual material resulted from an investigative mission sent by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) to the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Japan to interview the women and government officials. In order to give a “context” to the stories of the women, a brief overview of the events that took place in the Korean peninsula and the Philippines is necessary.


Relations between Japan and Korea have rarely been free of tension. Over the centuries Japan has tried to control or dominate Manchuria and the [End Page 128] Korean peninsula. 7 In recent times the government of Japan has apologized for its aggressive behavior toward the Korean people. Typical is a statement made in January 1992 by the then Prime Minister:

We must not forget that our two countries have been linked for thousands of years. Regrettably, during much of this time, my country has historically been the aggressor and yours the victim. I take this opportunity to once again express my most heartfelt apologies for the unbearable pain and suffering brought upon you by my country in the past. Especially with the matter of comfort women coming to light, I am filled with pain and remorse. 8

In 1905 Korea and Japan signed a treaty, making Korea a protectorate of Japan. The Korean Emperor ceded all sovereign power to the Japanese Emperor by treaty in 1910. The treaty stated that, henceforth, Koreans were to be Japanese subjects. Many scholars, Korean and Non-Korean, consider both of these treaties to be void under international law.

What distinguishes the period from 1905 onward in the minds of many Koreans is Japan’s attempt to subjugate Korean culture to that of the Japanese and to eliminate the distinctive identity of the Koreans. Through a series of decrees, Japan took control of the system of education, making Japanese the language of instruction and introducing measures for teaching Japanese to adult Koreans. Koreans were also forced to change their names so that they more closely resembled those of the Japanese. For Koreans this was a particularly onerous obligation as names denoted ancestry and clan affiliation; to change their names meant breaking with family tradition and fundamentally affected the way in which family honor could be maintained. 9

Korea was ruled through a Japanese Governor-General, usually a high...