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."