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Giving voice, for the first time in English, to the Chinese 'comfort women'

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Book Review: Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves. By Peipei Qiu, Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei (University of British Columbia Press, 2013; $90.00 in Hardcover)

 

Between the years of 1931 and 1945, encompassing what in the West is known as the Second World War in Asia, the Imperial Japanese Army waged an aggressive war across the Asia-Pacific for the purposes of imperial expansion. To support its military conquests, the Japanese government established and coerced hundreds of thousands of women and girls from across Asia into a brutal system of military sexual slavery. Only about a third of the victims, euphemistically referred to as "comfort women," survived.

For over four decades, those who managed to escape alive kept quiet about their horrific experiences due to shame and social stigma. Then in 1991, Korean survivor Kim Hak-Soon, outraged by Japanese officials' denials of the sexual slavery system, courageously broke the silence by publicly coming out as a former "comfort woman." Other survivors from Korea, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Taiwan and beyond quickly followed suit. What evolved was an international redress and social justice movement that continues to this day.

But largely absent from the mainstream "comfort women" discourse have been the voices of Mainland Chinese survivors, which is ironic considering that recent research shows that they made up at least half of the nearly 400,000 victims of Japanese military sexual slavery. Their stories, their struggles post-conflict, and the formidable redress movement in Mainland China has been only marginally situated in the larger narrative.

Until now.

Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves is the first English-language book on the Chinese "comfort women." Authors Peipei Qiu, Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei have weaved together decades of research and over 100 survivor testimonies to create a comprehensive and heart-wrenching account of the Chinese experience of Japanese military sexual slavery.

Qiu begins the book with an overview of the development of the "comfort station" system, situating the experiences of Chinese sex slaves in the pan-Asia context while at the same time teasing out the unique conditions for victims considered by Imperial Japan as members of the "enemy" state. The second part consists of 12 survivor testimonies carefully selected for their geographic and socio-historic diversity. The final section looks at the postwar struggles of the Chinese survivors, and interjects redress efforts in Mainland China into the transnational "comfort women" movement.

While many books and articles have been written about the "comfort women," this work stands out for its thorough research and its refreshingly holistic approach to the subject matter. Professors Su and Chen from Shanghai Normal University, both founders of the Chinese "Comfort Women" Research Centre in Shanghai, spent more than two decades corroborating survivor testimonies with witness accounts, uncovered documents and collected data. Qiu, Professor of Chinese and Japanese on the Louise Boyd Dale and Alfred Lichtenstein Chair and Director of Asian Studies Program at Vassar College, triangulates an impressively broad range of research from English and Japanese sources to contextualize the work done by Su and Chen, as well as by others in Mainland China. But it’s more than just the breadth of research that stands out; it’s Qiu’s unbiased critical approach. She examines Chinese patriarchal socio-political ideology before, during and after the war, giving as an example the persecution of an identified former "comfort woman" and her banishment to a labor camp in Northeast China during the Cultural Revolution.

All of this hard work and thoroughness is reflected in what can only be described as a landmark resource for anyone studying Japanese military sexual slavery. It’s also an urgently needed body of evidence in the face of current Japanese denials of government and military involvement in the sexual slavery system, denials that are at the heart of political tensions that threaten the Asia-Pacific region today.

But the book’s relevance extends beyond any particular historical moment. It elucidates the links between militarization and sexualized violence and goes to the root of the patriarchy that facilitate the conditions in which such utter disregard for human dignity is possible.

Most importantly, the book commemorates the courage and determination of all those who have dared to speak out against injustice, even in the face of enormous pressure. In so doing, Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves honours the resiliency and compassion of the survivors who have given so much of themselves to transform unimaginable suffering into a safer, more peaceful and more just future for us all.

 

Thekla Lit is the President of the B.C. Association for Learning & Preserving the History of the Second World War in Asia (B.C. ALPHA) and Heather Evans is the Education Director at B.C. ALPHA.

B.C. ALPHA will be hosting Prof. Peipei Qiu for two Author Talks on Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves. The events will be held in both English and Mandarin on:

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