Interview: SJ Friedman - Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women
Local author and philanthropist SJ Friedman talks to Hannah Hodson about an issue often overlooked when remembering the horrors of World War II. In her book Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women, she weaves together the harrowing stories of women forced into sex slavery during the Japanese occupation
Despite it being 70 years since the end of the Second World War, this August marks only the third International Memorial Day for comfort women. Friedman is the co-founder of the 852 Freedom Campaign, which aims to raise awareness of modern-day slavery issues and funds new initiatives to fight slavery. A former journalist working in Canada, Beijing and Hong Kong, she has dedicated 10 years to travelling the world and meeting with survivors and activists for her gut-wrenching book.
To begin, how did you first learn about the comfort women?
I was 15 turning 16 years old, a time of coming of age and exploring identity, and my mother read in a Korean newspaper of a ‘comfort woman’ survivor in Seoul coming forward with her story and she shared the news with me. ‘Comfort women’ is a horrific euphemism for forced prostitution victims of the Imperial Japanese military. I was shocked to learn of this mass enslavement of girls and women for the Japanese military. And I was even more surprised that there was no documentation of what happened to these women in my Euro-centric history books in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Interestingly, the shock I experienced is the same reaction that my Japanese exchange student friends had when they learned of military sexual enslavement (comfort women) and the Rape of Nanjing in 1937 and other egregious human rights violations committed by the Japanese military before and during WWII. There was no mention of this in their textbooks either.
This issue of comfort women and remembering history is critical to prevent history from repeating again. Sadly, the cycle of forced prostitution continues.
Why did you decide to write a book about this issue?
This book was quite heavy at times to write due to the nature of these stories of death, torture and sex slavery. The catalyst for the book happened when an editor reached out to me in 2001 after I wrote an opinion piece on ‘comfort women’ and their demands for a sincere apology. This editor asked me to submit a book proposal. That propelled me to start researching and I met Kim Soon-duk, a survivor, in 2001 in Washington, DC. Meeting Kim and hearing her story deeply impacted me.
I also felt I owed it to the women survivors who asked me to tell their stories to the world.
How did you collate all of the information? It must have taken a long time…
It took more than 10 years to gather information and interview survivors, activists and experts. I was working full-time and had other humanitarian projects on the go. I’ve attended many conferences on Japanese war crimes and have tracked this international movement of justice for comfort women for a decade. The Korean activists, for instance, started out with national influence, then began to network with other Asian NGOs, and then took their cause to the United Nations, the International Labour Organisation and helped organise a mock international tribunal with delegates from around the world including from North Korea.
During this time of writing, I have moved from Vancouver to Beijing to the US to Canada to finish the book, then to Beijing, and finally onto my current destination, Hong Kong.
This month marks the third International Memorial Day for Comfort Women, in the 70th year since the end of WWII. Why do you think it has taken so long to acknowledge the plight of these women?
These women suffered in silence from extreme shame; shame from their sexual enslavement and out of fear of being ostracized for being “tainted” as a sex slavery victim. Some of these survivors who spoke out in public waited until their partners were deceased, until they had no family members to bring shame upon. The Chinese comfort women victims were struggling to survive for decades and had to contend with the Cultural Revolution. I believe there are still hundreds of elderly women who were enslaved in the Japanese military sex slavery system and they’ll take their secret to the grave.
Shame seems to be a recurring theme – do you think that the stigma around rape is going away at all?
It’s improving for female victims in armed conflict and activism for comfort women survivors has brought a lot of awareness to the suffering of girls and women in war zones. But as for rape victims in Asia, the stigma seems to still be there.
The majority of the women interviewed are just looking for an apology from Japan, do you believe this will happen?
Every single military sex slave survivor who spoke out has demanded a sincere apology that brings healing and restoration from the Japanese Prime Minister and government. The current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is angering the victims again with his disingenuous statements of remorse. He has denied these comfort women were coerced into being military sex slaves, he has played down war time human rights violations, visited Yasukuni shrine (the equivalent would be a religious shrine to Hitler and the top Nazi war criminals) and has said in the same breath as his statement of remorse that the future generations of Japanese should not have to apologise anymore. This is a prime minister who has wept over the Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by the North Koreans. Why can’t he simply say a sincere sorry and admit these women were coerced into military forced prostitution?
You note that the US has not done enough to bring justice to former sex slaves. To what do you attribute this?
Several human rights lawyers and experts told me it boils down to racism. I’ll have to agree. Asian victims of military sex slavery were treated with tragic indifference compared to the small group of Dutch female victims, who were prisoners-of-war in Indonesia [former Dutch colony] that had their perpetrators brought to trial in Batavia after WWII and were convicted. Plus, Japan and the US have enjoyed a long friendly relationship as Japan was propped up almost immediately as a bulwark against communism in east Asia post-WWII.
As you note, Germany has apologised for its crimes against Jewish people, but Japan has failed to acknowledge its crimes regarding comfort women and other war crimes. Why do you think this is?
While writing the book in Vancouver, I often gazed at the black and white photo of Willy Brandt kneeling at the Holocaust memorial. It was so heartfelt. I was mesmerized by it. His genuine apology pierced the hearts of not only the survivors of the Holocaust but also their children. A moving apology that touches the hearts of comfort women survivors will also heal the next generation and heal nations still mired in generations of hatred for the Japanese.
How do you think the documentation of these stories can contribute to reconciliation across Asia?
We need to have a foundation of truth to draw upon before reconciliation and a healing process can begin. These stories of the women were largely untold for 50 years, until Kim Hak-soon first broke her silence and spoke out about being tricked into military forced prostitution as a 16-year-old. In one of the chapters, I document the heroic grassroots reconciliation efforts of a Japanese team as they visited a group of ‘comfort women’ survivors in Qinxian and Wuxiang areas in Shanxi province from 2008 to 2012. These elderly women survivors were almost forgotten by the rest of the world.
Do you think that comparisons can be drawn from the experiences of the comfort women, and women being sex trafficked today?
Eerily, the same methods of deceptive recruitment and even, at times, kidnapping were used on impoverished women and girls. These military comfort women were raped by up to 30 to 50 soldiers a day.
What do you hope to achieve with this book?
I hope this book catalyses a grassroots reconciliation process between China, Korea and Japan based upon a foundation of truth and common historical memory to dialogue people to people, government to government for justice for the almost forgotten elderly survivors of Japanese military sex slavery.