I was a sex slave for the Japanese Army: The Japanese Army's 'comfort stations' testified by a Dutch woman

Posts Choi Jae-inThe translator of 『Fifty Years of Silence』 by Jan Ruff O'Herne

  • Created at2019.08.29
  • Updated at2020.12.05

Introduction of Jan Ruff O'Herne by the translator 
『I was a sex slave for the Japanese Army: The Japanese Army's 'comfort stations' testified by a Dutch woman』


On August 19, 2019, the author of the book 『Fifty Years of Silence』, Jan Ruff O'Herne, passed away at the age of 96. Having lived a tough life with bravery and grace, the author has made a great achievement in history. Through this article, I would like to intoduce Ruff O'Herne and her book.

Ruff O'Herne was the first European woman to publicly speak out that she was a so-called 'comfort woman' for the Japanese Army. During World War II, the Japanese Army occupied the Dutch territory of Java Island and imprisoned the Dutch people living there in concentration camps. A few months into the occupation, on February 26, 1944, unmarried women over 17 years of age held at the concentration camp were forcibly commandeered and taken to various 'comfort stations' for the Japanese Army. The author, who was 19 at the time, was transferred to a 'comfort station' named 'The House of the Seven Seas'. The exact date can be confidently written because the author herself kept the date and the names of her colleagues embroidered on her handkerchief. This handkerchief is now being kept at the Australian War Memorial.  

Seven young Dutch women, including the author, lived in 'The House of the Seven Seas' as sex slaves for the Japanese Army for about three months. It was in 1992, a couple of months before the author turned 70 years old, the author publicly spoke out her experience at the time, after remaining silent for about fifty years. The English title of the book is 『Fifty Years of Silence: The Extraordinary memoir of a war rape survivor』. However, despite 50 years having passed, the book gives rich descriptions of the processes in which she was taken to the concentration camp and the Japanese Army’s 'comfort station', and her daily life inside them. This book represents a precious historical record that enlightens the past amid the Japanese politicians' claims that Japanese Army never forcibly took women to use them as 'comfort women'. 

After revealing her experience of ‘Japanese military sexual slavery’ (called ‘comfort women’), she was able to meet with her fellow Dutch friends who had shared the same experience as she had as they contacted her for the first time in half a century. One friend confessed to the author, “When I first saw your news, I wanted to avoid it. ... But I soon came to admire you instead. I’m still unable to tell my children my story... Like you, I still vividly remember what happened back then.” Another friend expressed, “I've been asked to publicly present my experience, like you did. I've been hesitant though, since I suspected it would be pointless to speak about it alone. Yet, after learning the news that you spoke out publicly, I decided to help, also.”

The author visited Java Island for the first time in 50 years and visited the Catholic school that she used to attend. There, she met again with the nun who was her teacher and was also imprisoned along with her at the concentration camp. The nun remembered the exact number of young women who had been forcibly commandeered into the concentration camps. This meeting with the nun is recorded not only in print but also in images. Now, the author is not the only European witness to testify of ‘comfort women'. As she began to speak out, other witnesses came forward from here and there to corroborate the story.

The author’s meetings with elderly men who had been former members of the Japanese Army were particularly impressive. She asked them if they thought the Japanese Army’s 'comfort stations' were wrong at the time. One person replied, “I didn't think that was a problem at the time. It was just part of the military system. I heard that sexual slavery facilities were good for troop morale. The comfort stations were given to us as if they were gifts. I heard that it was the war. I was told that women were to be raped in war, and rape was our right.” Actually, the person’s reply demonstrated a cowardly speech in which the person surreptitiously circumvented one’s moral responsibility by using the expression "I heard…" and the like. Regardless, the reply was also a testimony demonstrating how the Japanese Army leadership training the soldiers at the time treated and used women. Also, it was one of the author’s accomplishments that she could draw out such statements from former members of the Japanese Army. 

Many Japanese people consider that 'comfort women' were prostitutes. However, a prostitute, or a woman who sells sex, refers to "a person who is willing to sell one's body to provide sexual services for financial gain, but is free to say 'no' whenever one does not want to" [1] According to Ruff O'Herne's testimony, the Japanese Army took women by force. At the time, the Japanese Army systematically abducted people, and the 'comfort women' were kidnapped and detained to be abused and raped. Such brutal violence against persons’ bodies, even during wartime, is undoubtedly a serious criminal offense.

 

 


The author explains that two reasons prompted her to come forward to break her silence after 50 years. The first reason was that her heart was inspired by learning about the activities of the former 'comfort women' in South Korea. “Every time they raised their voices to shine light on the truth ... I wanted to reach out to them and embrace them. I wanted to be with them.... I thought 'comfort women' survivors in Asia needed to be supported by European women, as what they experienced also happened to Dutch girls. I also thought that Japan would not ignore the issue if European women came forward.”

The second reason had to do with the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Seeing the news about the war, the author thought, “The world hasn't changed much. People still think that war can justify rape. Rape crimes during wartime are still always being trivialized. What I had suffered doesn’t exclusively belong to the past affairs." With that in mind, Ruff O'Herne dedicated her life to activities on distinctly educating people that rape is a war crime. “I must tell my story. I must tell my story through my own mouth to prevent further atrocities that had once been inflicted on me. I must let the world know that even rape perpetrated by soldiers during wartime is a crime.” At the age of 70, she began to live her life guided by the fresh calling. 

Afterwards, she tirelessly shared her story, demanding that the Japanese government acknowledge that it systematically operated ‘comfort women’ during wartime and offer an apology. She wrote books, gave interviews, and delivered speeches all around the world. In the process, she received many significant awards, including the Order of Australia, as well as medals from the Queen of England and the Queen of the Netherlands. The Western countries she stayed at during her lifetime honored her with the highest awards. She also received a medal from the Catholic pope. These great awards signified that every country and all of the believers shared the pain and sorrow that she had suffered. They must have offered tremendous comfort and strength for her, who had lived her life hiding her pain for half a century. 

This book begins with a story of the author reminiscing about her childhood while showing her granddaughter an old photo album. The author was born as a third child among five children to a fourth-generation Dutch family who settled in Java Island. She amusingly tells the stories about her growing up roaming around the beautiful mountains and rivers of Indonesia, about the great love she received from her grandfather, parents, and Indonesian domestic workers, and about the severe and strict teaching she received whenever she misbehaved. It is also the anecdote that highlights how the Japanese Army crushed precious young women, who were living while loving and encouraging each other, as if they were objects.

Shortly after Ruff O'Herne was released from the comfort station, she was able to gradually soothe her injured body and mind by having a romantic relationship with a British soldier. Even after she told her lover what had happened to her, his attitudes remained unchanged. Instead, her lover told her, "I love you, Jan. You're beautiful." These words are said to have been very important and necessary for her to hear at the time. The two of them got engaged two months after they met, and they moved to Britain where they got married. The couple spent 14 years in Britain before emigrating to Australia. Although there were several reasons for the move, the author wanted a sense of relief above all, to be assured that no one in Australia would know about her past secrets because "Australia is far from the Netherlands." She was still living “with the burden of shame as a rape victim”. 

The painful experience the author conveys in this book are not only limited to the story of the three months during which she had been a sex slave for the Japanese Army. As the English title of this book implies, one of the main themes is also the story of her situation and pain that entailed her to remain silent for 50 years. The author recalls that she had cold sweats and trembled with an anxiety and fear that grappled her as the darkness approached every evening. She revealed that she could never spend a day in complete peace. 

The author had two daughters after marriage and made a happy family. She led a seemingly smooth life as a teacher and a choir member, eagerly engaging in social activities. Yet, her body and mind could not get over the agony of the time, and she suffered from physical pain and anxiety all her life. This is also an element commonly expressed by other former 'comfort women'. All people, not just the ‘comfort women’ victims, who suffered physical and emotional pain while experiencing war live with varying degrees of those scars for the rest of their lives. Among the elders in my own family, there were those who secretly endured the painful memories of war all their lives and only spoke out about them at their sickbed shortly before dying. World War II ended in 1945 according to official records, but the wounds of the body and mind did not disappear for the victims such as the author. 

The stories of those who lived in pain all their lives due to war should be shared extensively. Although war can end either in terms of international law or in writing through a cease-fire or a peace treaty, the scars and pain left for each individual do not disappear. This book will hopefully be widely read, especially among youth, because I believe that peace can be firmly established in the future only upon concrete understandings about war. 

While reading this book, readers may find some parts objectionable. For example, the parts that disturbed me were some of the author's descriptions of Indonesians. The majority of Indonesians the author had close contact with were those employed for housekeeping. The author thought of them as her family, and also expressed deep affection and kindness towards them in her book. 

However, such an outlook is from the perspective of a kind and young Dutch person, after all. From Indonesian people’s point of view, the Dutch would not have been viewed in an entirely favorable light. The author’s thought failed to go that far. For example, the author describes the conditions in Indonesia after the end of World War II by noting that, “Indonesian people did not want to go back to the Dutch system of rule. Encouraged by the anti-Netherlands propaganda instigated by Japanese people during the war, Indonesian people became hostile and violent toward us, and even tried to kill us.” This reveals that the author thought that Indonesian people were trying to break away from Dutch rule because of the propaganda used by Japanese people. The author recalls that "the two cultures coexisted side by side, in harmony" during the times when Indonesia was a Dutch colony. Many Indonesians would probably disagree with this idea. 

No writer, or any book can be perfect. Nor should a reader agree with all the thoughts of a writer. I even believe this book's strength lies in its honest narrative that exposes its limitations like that. All people are bound by the flaws of the era they live in, or the flaws of the groups they belong to, while failing to perceive those flaws through one’s eyes. The author of this book expressed her positions candidly and sincerely, rather than sugarcoating them with sophistication. This book will therefore offer the readers a chance to think about the many faces of imperialism. 

When this version of the book was released in 2018, I mentioned in the epilogue that "I'm happy to release the Korean version of this book while the author is still alive." A year later, I heard the author had passed away, and as I am writing this essay now, I feel regretful as it would have been nice if the author had visited South Korea. The author used to refer to South Korean former 'comfort women' as "the friends who I love very much". At least, the portrait of the author joined South Korean former 'comfort women' at the Wednesday Demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on August 21. 

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Jan Ruff O'Herne for finding the courage to tell the truth. May Jan Ruff O'Herne rest in peace.

Footnote

  1. ^ Sue Lloyd-Roberts, 『The War on Women 』 by KL Publishing Inc., 214 pages

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