Refusing to be Forgotten

Photo by Stacey McDermott

TORU HASHIMOTO, the mayor of Osaka and co-leader of the Japanese Restoration Party, has been known for his provocative statements. In May, while speaking with reporters on Japanese wartime behavior, he endorsed rape and sexual enslavement, saying, “When soldiers are risking their lives by running through storms of bullets, and you want to give these emotionally charged soldiers a rest somewhere, it’s clear that you need a comfort-women system.” These comments drew international condemnation, but they also revealed the all-too-familiar interlocking of sexism, militarism, and sexual violence. Far too often, the idea of a greater “noble cause” is used to justify the sacrifice of women to a military sexual slavery system.

During World War II, historians estimate that 100,000 to 200,000 Korean women and girls, ages 11 to 30, along with women and girls from China, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Taiwan, were kidnapped or falsely promised jobs and taken to various locations to serve as “comfort women”—the euphemism for sexual slaves. They “served” an average of 30 to 40 soldiers a day and suffered through beatings, venereal disease, forced abortions, mental anguish, and often death. At the end of the war, these women and girls were killed, forced into suicide, or abandoned. Of the few who were able to return to their homeland, many suffered social alienation, humiliation, poverty, STDs, and endless mental anguish.

The Japanese government had largely denied the existence of Japanese military sexual slavery until 20 years ago, when it offered a statement of apology. The apology was seen as empty by many people, as Japanese politicians and revisionist historians not only reneged on the apology but sought to omit the tragedy from the telling of Japanese history. In response, surviving Korean “comfort women” or halmulni (a term of endearment and respect meaning grandmother) have gathered every Wednesday since 1992 in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul as a reminder that they demand to be seen, heard, and offered a genuine apology.

The voices of the Korean women have been ignored and their experiences erased from history. This theme sadly is also present in scripture. In Judges 11, Jephthah promises God that if he defeats the Ammonites, he will sacrifice whoever walks out of his house to greet him. It ends up being his daughter, whom he offers as a burnt sacrifice, as he had vowed. His daughter was sacrificed for the greater “noble good,” and Jephthah is later touted as a “man of faith” (Hebrews 11:32) while his daughter remains nameless.

The violence experienced by the “comfort women,” by Jephthah’s daughter, and by other oppressed and violated women is inscribed on their bodies—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—but they also carry a great testimony. Even though those in power have sought to silence them, they stand as a constant reminder of the ills and injustices done to them and offer an alternative history to what is officially presented. The halmulnis continue their weekly vigils, refusing to be forgotten and ignored—even as the Japanese embassy covers its windows and refuses to see them. In the broken bodies of these women, we are reminded of the broken body of Christ on the cross, as in the broken bread we are reminded to join in bringing hope into the world. It is a reminder that the true noble cause is to value the image of God that exists in all, especially those rendered powerless and voiceless.

Aimee Kang, office manager at Sojourners, is in process to be ordained as a United Methodist deacon.

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