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 at2023.12.07

Introduction of Jan Ruff-O'Herne by the translator
『I was a sex slave for the Japanese military: A testimony of a Dutch woman about the Japanese Military 'Comfort Stations'* 』

* ‘Comfort Station’ which was called and written by Japan’s army was indeed sexual slavery facilities. However,

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

Ruff-O'Herne was the first European to publicly speak out that she was a so-called Japanese military 'Comfort Woman'. During World War II, the Japanese military occupied the Dutch territory of Java Island and imprisoned the Dutch settlers in concentration camps. A few months into the occupation, on February 26, 1944, unmarried women over 17 years of age at the concentration camp were forcibly rounded up and taken to various Japanese military ‘Comfort Stations’. The author, who was 19 at the time, was transferred to a 'Comfort Station' named 'The House of the Seven Seas'. The reason why the date can be stated with confidence is because the author kept the date and the names of her colleagues embroidered on her handkerchief. This handkerchief is now being preserved in the Australian War Memorial.

Seven young Dutch women, including the author, lived in 'The House of the Seven Seas' as sexual slaves for the Japanese Army for around three months. It was in 1992, a couple of months before the author turned 70 years old, that the author publicly spoke out about her experiences of the time, after remaining silent for the almost 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 military 'Comfort Station', and her daily life in it. 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 as Japanese military ‘Comfort Woman’, she was able to meet with other Dutch friends who had shared the same experiences with her as they contacted her for the first time in half a century. One friend said to the author, “When I first saw the news report about you, I wanted to avoid it.... But I soon came to admire you instead. I am still unable to tell my children about my story... Like you, I still vividly remember what happened back then.” Another friend even said, “I also have been asked to publicly speak about my experiences as you did. But I have been hesitant because I suspected it would be pointless if I alone were to speak about it. Yet, after learning the news that you spoke out publicly, I decided to join you.”

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 a nun who used to be her teacher and was also imprisoned along with her at the concentration camp. The nun remembered the exact number of the young women who had been forcibly rounded up from the concentration camp. This meeting with the nun is recorded not only in print but also in a video. Now, the author is not the only European witness who testified of the Japanese military ‘comfort women'. As she began to come forward, other witnesses appeared 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 military ‘Comfort Stations’ were wrong at the time. One person replied, “I didn't think that was a problem back then. It was just part of the military system. I heard that ’Comfort Stations’ were good for troop morale. The ‘Comfort Stations’ were given to us as a gift. I heard that’s what a war is. I was told that women are supposed to be raped in war, and it was our right to rape them.”

In fact, his reply using hearsay demonstrates a cowardly attitude to evade his share of the moral responsibility. Regardless, the reply was also a testimony showing how the Japanese Army leadership, which trained 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 sex worker, is "a person who is willing to sell one's body to provide sexual services for monetary consideration, but who 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 atrocious violence against persons’ bodies, even during wartime, is undoubtedly a serious criminal offense.

The author explains that there were two reasons why she decided to come forward to break her silence after 50 years. The first reason was that she was deeply inspired when she learned about the activities of the former 'comfort women' in South Korea. ”I watched them with pain in my heart as they sobbed for justice. All I wanted to do was to put my arms around them and hug them. I should be with them, were my thoughts. … I could see that the Asian ‘comfort women’ needed the support of European women. This had happened to Dutch girls too. Perhaps when a European woman came forward, Japan would take notice.”[2]

The second reason had to do with the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Seeing the news reports about the war, she thought, “[T]he world had not changed. Women were again being raped as if it were a natural consequence of war, as if war could make it right. It was always played down. … I could see that this was not something that only happened fifty years ago.[3]With that in mind, Ruff-O'Herne dedicated her life to activities on distinctly educating people that rape is a war crime. ”I had to tell my story so that in some way it might help to stop these atrocities from continuing. Rape in war must be recognized as a war crime.” At the age of 70,[4] she began to live her life guided by the new calling.

Afterwards, she tirelessly shared her experiences, demanding that the Japanese authority acknowledge and apologize for systematically operating the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ in the past. She wrote books, gave interviews, and delivered speeches all around the world. While carrying out these activities, 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 meant that the entire country and the all believers shared the pain and sorrow that she had suffered. They must have offered tremendous consolation 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 remembering her childhood while showing her granddaughter an old photo album. The author was born as a third among the five children of the Dutch family who have settled in Java Island for four generations. She amusingly tells the stories about her growing up roaming around the beautiful mountains and rivers of Indonesia, being loved by her grandfather, parents, and Indonesian domestic workers, and getting harsh and strict lessons for her misbehaviors. These anecdotes highlight how the Japanese Army crushed precious young women who were living a life of love and encouragement like menial objects.

This book begins with a story of the author remembering her childhood while showing her granddaughter an old photo album. The author was born as a third among the five children of the Dutch family who have settled in Java Island for four generations.
She amusingly tells the stories about her growing up roaming around the beautiful mountains and rivers of Indonesia, being loved by her grandfather, parents, and Indonesian domestic workers, and getting harsh and strict lessons for her misbehaviors. These anecdotes highlight how the Japanese Army crushed precious young women who were living a life of love and encouragement like menial 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 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, Ruff-O’Herne said, were very important and she needed to hear them 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 hidden secrets because "Australia [is] so far away from Holland." She was still living with “the shame of having been a war rape victim”[5].

The three months of agony she endured as a sex slave for the Japanese military wasn’t the only source of the pain the author conveys in this book. As the English title of this book implies, one of the main themes is also the story of the situation and pain she had to endure in silence for 50 years. The author recalls that she had cold sweats and shivered with an anxiety and fear that grappled her as the darkness approached every evening. She said that she could never spend a day in complete peace.

The author had two daughters after marriage and had 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. These are commonly shared experiences of the other 'comfort women' survivors as well. Not only the victims of ‘comfort women’ but also people who suffered from physical and emotional pain during the war live with varying degrees of suffering for the rest of their lives. Some of the elders in my own family have secretly endured the painful memories of war all their lives and finally revealed 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 of the victims such as the author never healed.

The stories of those who lived in pain all their lives due to war should be shared widely. A war can end in terms of international law or in writing through the truce agreement or the peace treaty, but the scars and the pains of the individual victims do not disappear. I hope this book will be widely read, especially among teenagers, because I believe that peace can be firmly established in the future only through concrete understandings of war.

While reading this book, readers may find some parts to be objectionable. For me, the disturbing parts were some of the author's descriptions of the native Indonesians. The majority of Indonesians the author had close contacts 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 the Indonesian point of view, they may not always have viewed the Dutch favorably. The author’s probably didn’t think that far. For example, the author describes the conditions in Indonesia after the end of World War II by noting that, ”The Indonesians did not want to return to Dutch rule and, spurred on by the Japanese anti-Dutch propaganda during the war years, they turned against with violence and tried to kill us.” [6]This shows that the author thought that Indonesian people were trying to break away from Dutch rule only because of the Japanese propaganda. The author reminisces of Indonesia under the Dutch colonial rule as the time when "the two cultures coexisted side by side, in harmony". Many Indonesians probably wouldn’t agree with this opinion.

Neither any writer nor any book will be perfect. A reader doesn’t need to agree with all opinions of the writer to appreciate the book. I even believe this book's strength lies in its honest narrative that exposes its limitations like that. Everyone is bound by the limitations of the group or the time he belongs to that are difficult to perceive at the time.
The author of this book expressed her positions candidly and sincerely, rather than sugarcoating them with sophistication. The readers will have a chance to think about various faces of imperialism through this book.

When the Korean 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." The author passed away a year later, as I was writing this essay. It is regrettable as it would have been great if she had a chance to visit South Korea before she died. The author used to refer to the South Korean ‘comfort women’ survivors as "the friends whom I love deeply". The author - at least her portrait - was with the South Korean former 'comfort women’ survivors 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 her the courage to tell the truth. May Jan Ruff-O'Herne rest in peace.


  1. ^ Sue Lloyd-Roberts, 『The War on Women 』 by KL Publishing Inc., 214 pages
  2. ^  Ruff-O’Herne, Jan. Fifty Years of Silence, 1994, William Heinemann, 2008, 165-66.
  3. ^ Ibid, 166.
  4. ^  Ibid, 166.
  5. ^ Ibid, 156.
  6. ^ Ibid, 135.

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