WWII “comfort women” testifying against Japan

Jan Ruff O’Herne refused to submit to the Japanese soldiers who raped her more than 60 years ago.

She shaved her head to make herself unattractive. She hid — once in a tree. She huddled and prayed with other captive “comfort women” — a euphemism for the up to 200,000 women who historians say were forced to have sex with millions of Japanese soldiers during the war. She punched and kicked and screamed, even though it invariably meant she received a worse beating.

“Never did any Japanese rape me without a fight. I fought each one of them,” she said Thursday at a hearing of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. Three former comfort women pleaded with lawmakers to adopt a resolution urging Japan to formally apologize.

The memories of being raped and beaten day and night, even by the doctor who examined her for venereal disease, “have tortured my mind all my life,” O’Herne said. “I have forgiven the Japanese for what they did to me, but I can never forget,” said the former Dutch colonist born in Java who now lives in Australia.

O’Herne and two South Korean victims appeared in support of a nonbinding resolution that urges Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner” for the women’s ordeal.

The resolution does not recommend that Japan pay reparations. It does urge Japan to reject those who say the sexual enslavement never happened and to educate children about the comfort women’s experience. It was unclear when the subcommittee would meet again to consider the resolution.

Supporters want an apology similar to the one the U.S. government gave to Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II. That apology was approved by the Congress and signed into law by President
Ronald Reagan in 1988.

Japan objects to the resolution, which has led to unease in an otherwise strong U.S.-Japanese relationship. Its leaders repeatedly have apologized. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, for instance, said in 2001 he felt sincere remorse for the comfort women’s “immeasurable and painful experiences.”

In a letter to the subcommittee, Japan’s ambassador to the United States said his country has recognized its responsibility and acknowledged its actions. “While not forgetting the past, we wish to move forward,” Ryozo Kato wrote.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (news, bio, voting record), R-Calif., said Japan has done what the resolution demands. “The issue of an apology has been fully and satisfactorily addressed,” he said, adding that Japanese citizens should not be punished for the actions of earlier generations.

The State Department expressed sympathy for the victims, but said in a statement that Japan had taken steps to address the issue.

A sponsor of the resolution, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., said many believe the measure focuses on the past to the detriment of the crucial U.S. alliance with Japan. Such worries, he said, are unfounded.

“Reconciliation on this issue will have a positive effect upon relationships in the region as historical anxieties are put to rest,” said Honda, a Japanese-American who was interned in a U.S. camp as a child.

Japan acknowledged in the 1990s that its military set up and ran brothels for its troops. But it has rejected most compensation claims, saying they were settled by postwar treaties.

The Asian Women’s Fund, created in 1995 by the Japanese government but independently run and funded by private donations, has provided a way for Japan to compensate former sex slaves without offering official government compensation. Many comfort women have rejected the fund.

Often through tears, the three women at the hearing spoke of their anger, shame and defiance, and of the physical and mental scars that remain.

“I am so embarrassed. I am so ashamed,” said Lee Yong-soo, speaking through an interpreter of her rape and torture. “But this is something I cannot just keep to myself.”

“I will not leave the Japanese government alone until they get down on their knees in front of me and give me a sincere apology,” she said.

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