Li Meijin sits in her tiled-roofed apartment early in the morning; the outside still quiet as the heat in China’s southernmost province, Hainan Island, slowly creeps up into the jungle surrounding her home.
Almost seventy years ago, Li, 16 at the time, ran through the same dewy forest, escaping from a Japanese military brothel where she’d served as a “comfort woman” for a month.
Li recalled her experience in an interview with the China Daily, “They raped me during the night, and beat me to do construction work during the day. The pain was so bad that I couldn’t even stand up, so I had to work on my knees.”
Various historical papers indicate that from 1932 through the end of World War II, Japanese troops captured an estimated 400,000 women. These women acted as sexual slaves, confined in military barracks, along the army trail, and even in their own homes.
About 200,000 victims came from Mainland China, girls as young as eight euphemistically dubbed “comfort women”.
Now, with the coming of the 70-year anniversary of World War II’s end, the former “comfort women” are still seeking reparations and apologies from the Japanese state—yet as Li Meijin sits in her apartment seemingly worlds away from the military barracks she once served in, such justice appears far from her reach.
With only 23 of the former Chinese “comfort women” still alive, the pursuit of reparations and apologies has struggled to maintain momentum in a global landscape constantly looking forward, rather than backwards to the traumas of history’s past. While the issue often emerges today in disputes between China and Japan, as well as Korea and Japan, it often remains a thorny geopolitical dispute, while the actual issues regarding the current welfare of the victims in China often fall by the wayside as the women remain neglected and mired in poverty.
Starting in the 1990s, organizers have sought to bring back these forgotten histories, following the lead of similar movements in South Korea, where Japanese soldiers found a majority of “comfort women”.
Chinese activists searched through provinces and cities to find former “comfort women,” in hopes that their testimony would provide unarguable evidence of the violence suffered under the military invasion.
The 1990s search for their testimony, however, proved difficult. Many women did not survive the war itself—dying from injuries, committing suicide, or murdered as a means to cover up war crimes. Many of those who survived were in their sixties and beyond by the 1990s, and had already passed away by the the time activists began to seek them out.
And of the survivors still alive, the stigma attached to being a former “comfort woman” was enough to make many avoid the term altogether. Some former “comfort women” were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution for “collaboration with the Japanese”, while others were ostracized in their villages for being so “dishonored” that no man would marry them (around 40 percent of Chinese comfort women never married).
Li Xiaofang, a photographer and historical researcher who has recorded the lives of former “comfort women” for the last decade, recalled one of his visits to a former “comfort woman”.
“They are still isolated and neglected,” he said. “In August I went to visit a surviving comfort woman. People told me she had been dead for a long time, but I eventually found her alive and living on her own in a village. No one cared about her.”
The notion of forgetting echoes throughout the stories of surviving “comfort women”. In almost every interview conducted with the women and activists, the desire to bring back memories, to turn the “forgotten” into the “remembered” is apparent.
Peipei Qiu, a professor at Vassar College who recently authored Chinese Comfort Women, said in an interview that she wrote her book because, “These women’s suffering cannot and should not be forgotten.”
Yet for 86-year-old Wang Zhifeng, her suffering at the hands of Japanese soldiers–they whipped her with a wet rope when she resisted rape–seems far from the minds of the public.
Her son, Zhong Tianxiang, said, “Few people visit her or care about her now”. Zhong, who recently quit his job to move home and care for his mother, added that the central government doesn’t have a support policy for former “comfort women.”
Indeed, the Chinese government has done little to aid the surviving “comfort women.” Despite openly criticizing the Japanese government for denying involvement in wartime crimes, the Chinese government remains largely silent in the movement for reparation and apology, a silence stemming from the government’s policy of “don’t support, don’t discourage”, when it comes to activism related to Japan.
As Tong Zheng, voice of a militant anti-Japanese organization explained to the Financial Times, the government walks a middle ground when dealing with such movements—though activists avoid the harsh sentences often given to those who champion domestic causes, the government does not endorse their work either.
“If they [the Chinese government] oppose us too much, they become race traitors,” Tong says. But he adds that Beijing would not hesitate to shut down protests against the Japanese lest the rallies shift into protests against the Chinese government as well.
In addition to concerns of protest, the government likely also hopes to preserve trade ties with Japan, a shaky relationship begun in 1972 when the Chinese government waived certain claims to reparations in return for Japanese aid and investment.
Though “comfort women” receive little support from the government as a result of such diplomatic concerns, Peipei Qiu explains, “at the grassroots level, the confirmed ‘comfort station’ survivors have received warm support…and a small amount of monthly aid from private donors distributed through the Research Center for Chinese ‘Comfort Women.’”
Historian Su Zhiliang and his wife founded the Research Center to collect testimonials and donations for the elderly comfort women. Recently, the Center has also begun paying for funerals.
For many activists, such funerals mark the worry that these women will never see reparation or an even a substantial apology for the crimes committed against them.
In 2011, Japanese courts rejected the last of eleven lawsuits brought on by former Chinese “comfort women,” saying that the current Japanese government is not liable for wartime actions. The cases cannot be tried in Chinese courts because the plaintiff is the Japanese state.
Zhang Zhuangbing, who has dedicated his life’s work to championing the cause of “comfort women,” said, “They gave their story, took their own pain and spoke it out…So not being able to do anything for them is very sad.”
“It’s a historical responsibility. There hasn’t been a fair accounting for these victims, no accounting for their families,” he adds.
For Zhang Xitu, a “comfort woman” captured at age 16, the fight for justice continues.
After her father sold the family sold sheep in order to secure her freedom, Zhang remembers, “We had nothing. What kind of life was this…When I was young I felt my sin grow bigger with every day I lived. I want the Japanese to pay the money.”
And while the movement has found little success in the courts, activists and surviving “comfort women” have created an archive of the wartime atrocity, leaving behind a historical legacy many hope will one day help bring justice to the victims of crimes so unspeakable, one must still use the euphemism “comfort women” when describing the trauma.