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Why These World War II Sex Slaves Are Still Demanding Justice

Fedencia Nacar David holds her photo for an application to work as a maid. She was 15. A year before, a Japanese soldier sliced her ear and threatened to behead her if she didn't go to a garrison with him; she was raped over 10 days. "It still hurts," she says. "I was innocent. Why did that happen to me?" She kept her past from her children until "comfort women" began speaking out in the 1990s.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

Editor's note: This story contains graphic descriptions of sexual and physical violence.

Narcisa Claveria will turn 89 this year, two days before Christmas. Stepping onto the veranda of the family apartment, she takes a moment to check on her 92-year-old husband, who eyes visitors with a weary look. The couple lives in the hill town of Antipolo, an hour outside Manila, in the Philippines. Outwardly, she is grandmotherly, sweet and tranquil.

But when memories from 75 years ago are tapped, her mood changes.

Narcisa begins to cry as she thinks back to her childhood in the Philippines during World War II. "If I could prevent the sun from setting, I would, because whenever night fell, they would start raping us," she says. She was 12 years old at the time.

Narcisa Claveria, watches husband, Anaceto, and their great-grandson as he wakes up from a nap. At age 12, Narcisa was dragged from her home by Japanese soldiers and forced to serve as a sex slave in a garrison for 1 1/2 years. At a time when the experience was seen as a mark of shame, her husband encouraged her to share her story and told her: "I am not repulsed by you."

Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

Narcisa is one of the last survivors of a system of sexual servitude set up by the Japanese imperial troops during World War II. They used abduction, coercion and deception to force women and girls to provide sexual gratification to military personnel. Researchers cited in court cases say that large numbers of them did not survive.

It was a far-ranging system of sexual enslavement. Historians estimate that some 200,000 women were victimized by Japanese soldiers in parts of Asia occupied by Japan, prominently Korea. But also Singapore, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan.

Images of the estimated 1,000 Philippine "comfort women" who were enslaved and sexually victimized by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II fill a wall at the offices of Lila Pilipina. The organization of World War II victims of sexual war crimes has helped the "comfort women" in their fight for compensation. Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

And in the Philippines as well. There were "probably about a thousand women and girls taken and put into military sex-slave camps" during the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945, according to writer and researcher Evelina Galang.

Over a period of 18 months, NPR identified and conducted interviews with at least two dozen survivors across the Philippines. In several instances, close family members shared stories told to them by the women who were too infirm to talk. Their portraits are not only the tale of their grievous bodily violations but a tableau of life in war.

A Twisted Title

The Japanese called them "comfort women" — a term derived from the Japanese word ianfu, combining the Chinese characters meaning "comfort or solace" (i-an) with woman (fu). The enslavement camps where they were forced to have sexual intercourse with Japanese soldiers were called "comfort stations" and were often the same garrisons where they were being held.

"Comfort women" is a linguistically warped categorization of the thousands of women and girls, many from poor communities, who were forced to serve as sex slaves. Manila-based attorney Romel Bagares, who has represented some of the women for 16 years, told NPR that the term "hides the untold abuse the victims suffered under the Japanese Imperial Army and denies the victims the dignity they deserve." He says some advocates urge that the term be changed to "survivors of the wartime female slavery system."

Pilar Quilantang Galang (left) and Belen Alarcon Culala support each other during a visit to the "Red House," where the women were repeatedly raped as children by Japanese soldiers during World War II. "We had a deeply painful experience in this house," says Galang. "No amount of money can erase the memories. Because money fades, but awful memories do not. They last forever."

Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

Yet the women commonly use the term. Bagares says in some cases it's a bid to "own it" and have it "signify protest."

Japan rationalized the sex slave practice as a way to curb the rape of local women by Japanese troops following the event known as the Rape of Nanking in 1937, when their soldiers sexually assaulted tens of thousands of women in the city that was then the capital of China.

For decades, the survivors of the "comfort women" system did not share their stories. Their private pain, hidden in shame, was concealed from the outside world. But by the early 1990s, details of their experiences began to emerge in a series of lawsuits against Japan. They wanted Japan to offer a public apology and financial compensation for their suffering.

Isabelita Vinuya, Belen Alarcon Culala and Maria Lalu Quilantang clasp hands. The three women were repeatedly raped as children by Japanese imperial soldiers in their village of Mapaniqui.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

The women of South Korea were the first to organize "comfort women" into a national movement, adding the term to the jurisprudence of human rights for women in wartime.

Carol Gluck, a history professor at Columbia University who focuses on modern-day Japan, says, "Without the testimonies of the comfort women, we would not know what happened."

But the larger-scale story of sexual enslavement inflicted on Korea, which was under Japanese colonial rule for 35 years, has eclipsed the experience of other so-called "comfort women." Like the few remaining women in Korea, survivors in the Philippines — now in their 80s and 90s — are still demanding to be heard.

In the Philippines, their confinement ranged from a matter of nights to more than a year. When the war was over, these women were left with physical and psychological scars: post-traumatic stress disorder, sexually transmitted diseases and damaged reproductive systems. Many were treated as outcasts, at times shunned by their own families.

Organized in various and sometimes competing groups, the so-called "comfort women" of the Philippines have demanded official recognition and compensation from Japan as well as acknowledgment by the Philippine government of their continuing plight.

Of the approximately 400 women who were identified as "comfort women" in the Philippines, only 45 to 50 are believed to be alive today. Many are reluctant to speak about their experience owing to privacy, trauma and old age.

Read the full article here.

© 2020 NPR

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