China / Cover Story

Cold comfort for former sex slaves

By Peng Yining (China Daily) Updated: 2014-10-17 07:07
Cold comfort for former sex slaves
Fu Meiju (center) is one of the few surviving “comfort women”, a bland euphemism for brutal sexual slavery by Japanese troops during World War II, in South China’s Hainan province. Using a wheelchair, she now lives with her grandson, his wife and their children. HUANG YIMING / CHINA DAILY 
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Many women abused in military brothels by the Japanese army during World War II are now neglected by society and living in desperate conditions, as Peng Yining reports from Hainan province.

At 8 am in the jungle of Hainan Island, China's southernmost province, the sun was burning off the mist in a quiet village in Chengmai county, and even at that early stage of the day, the heat was beginning to make Li Meijin's tiled-roofed apartment unbearably hot and humid.

The surrounding countryside hasn't changed much in the 69 years that have passed since a 16-year-old Li escaped from a Japanese military brothel, running haphazardly through the same forest of giant banana trees and banyans.

Statistics published by the Comfort Women Issue Research Center at Shanghai Normal University show that during World War II, Japanese troops commandeered about 200,000 women in the Chinese mainland for use as "comfort women", a bland euphemism for brutal sexual slavery. Li Meijin was one of them.

Fewer than 20 of the former comfort women in China are still alive, but about 10 of them live in Hainan, including Li Meijin, who was abused by the Japanese troops for for about a month.

"One night, I heard a woman scream. The Japanese soldier got up off me and ran out, pulling up his pants," the 85-year-old said.

When she peeked through the open doorway, she saw a dead woman being carried out of a nearby building. "She was naked and ghostly pale under the moonlight," she said. "I was terrified. I knew I would soon be dead too if I stayed. I had to escape."

One night, while the soldiers who had just raped her were distracted, she fled into the jungle and ran as hard as she could. Although she survived, the gruesome experience left her with long-term gynecological problems and a severe backache that still troubles her.

"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," she said. "Ever since then, I've had a hard time getting out of bed because of the pains in my back and waist."

Desperate conditions

Most of the former comfort women still alive in China live in desperate conditions - physically, socially, and financially - and they long for attention, recognition, and support from society, according to Su Zhiliang, director of the research center at Shanghai Normal University.

Su said the abuse the women suffered in the camps left many of the survivors infertile and caused long-term health problems. About 40 percent of them never married, so they have no families to support them now that they are elderly and sick.

Fu Meiju, 85, was forced to act as a comfort woman for a month in 1945. Her six children are either dead or live far away, so Fu, whose lower limbs have been paralyzed for two years, lives with her 23-year-old grandson.

In the stifling heat of her 6-square-meter tin-roofed apartment, she cooled herself by using a piece of peeled bark from a banana tree as a fan. Despite the intense heat, the room has no air conditioning because Fu can't afford it. The plastic basket she uses as a toilet sits next to her wooden bed, the piece of only furniture in the room.

"Grandma's medical treatment costs a lot," said Wang Caiqiang, Fu's grandson, who makes about 10,000 yuan ($1,630) a year by tapping nearby rubber trees. He said Fu has severe arthritis, and her treatment and medicine cost nearly 1,000 yuan a month.

Wang Zhifeng was forced into sexual slavery for about two months at the age of 17. The Japanese soldiers beat her and whipped her with a wet rope when she resisted.

"Few people visit her or care about her now," Zhong Tianxiang, Wang's son, said. He said the central government doesn't have a support policy for former comfort women, and Wang's pension is only 100 yuan a month.

Until recently, the 86-year-old had to collect wood for fuel and cook her own meals. However, earlier this year, Zhong quit his job at a local carwash and moved back home to care for his mother.

"Nobody will take care of her if I don't," he said. "People have long forgotten the history. Many people don't know the Japanese were here in Hainan during World War II."

In 1939, the Japanese army landed in the island province and built at least 10 camps to house comfort women.

In Niaoyadong, a county of 4,000 people, 20 girls were forced to provide sexual services for the troops. The youngest girl was only 13, according to Chen Yabian, an 87-year-old former comfort women.

Li Xiaofang, a photographer and historical researcher who has been recording the lives of the surviving comfort women for more than a decade, said these elderly women suffered unimaginable tortures, both physical and mental.

"Now 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."

Living witnesses

He said some of the women whose lives he had been documenting have passed away recently, but the survivors are living witnesses to, and evidence of, the atrocities committed by the Japanese army. Their suffering and the desperate conditions in which they find themselves demand a formal apology and compensation from Japan.

"Also, the government should take responsibility for taking care of them," he said. "First we need to identify all the survivors and provide them with stable pensions and medical care."

Li Xiaofang said surviving comfort women in South Korea have been treated with due care and respect. They live in nursing homes built especially for them and receive regular treatment from medical professionals.

"There are more former comfort women here in China than in South Korea, and their experiences were equally miserable," he said. "They deserve more attention and support."

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