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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : They Were World War II Casualties of a Different Kind : THE COMFORT WOMEN: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War by George Hicks ; W.W. Norton & Co. $25, 303 pages

November 29, 1995|RUTH COUGHLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the horror and tragedy that is Bosnia, we learned that thousands of women are being subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war. Regrettably, neither organized brutality nor grotesque prizes of war are new to this or any previous society, but when atrocities go unacknowledged and worse, unpunished, our sense of moral outrage is pushed beyond the limit.

George Hicks, whose books include "Hong Kong Countdown" and "The Broken Mirror: China after Tiananmen," in "Comfort Women" reports on the tens of thousands of young girls and women who were brutally forced into prostitution by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. His thoroughly researched book meticulously describes how and why nearly 100,000 women--about 80% of them Korean, with the remaining 20% composed of Chinese, Indonesian and Dutch women living in Indonesia--were forcibly coerced, and most often summarily abducted, into the "sexual service" of soldiers. "Sexual service" is far too delicate a phrase: What Hicks recounts through his research and in quoting two dozen or so comfort women who have survived can much more appropriately be described as an organized system of rape.

In a 1991 class action suit brought against the Japanese government (as yet unresolved), many women began to speak publicly about what had happened to them. While shame, humiliation and sheer hatred had silenced them for decades, they now had a forum. One woman, raped and hauled off to a comfort station when she was 15, told of being forced to have sex with as many as 20 men each day. Tomasa Salinog was taken away at the age of 13, after witnessing the decapitation of her beloved father, who had attempted to fend off her abductor. Groups of women, shipped from Nagasaki to Shanghai, were listed simply as units of war supplies; scores of them were sent to the front lines to face the same line-of-fire dangers as the soldiers who were constantly and reprehensibly raping them.

Jan Ruff tells of being violently taken away by an officer known as Mihashi: "As I lay there naked on the bed, he slowly ran the sword over my body. . . . I could feel the cold steel touching my skin as he moved the sword over my throat and breasts, stomach and legs. . . . The tears were streaming down my face as he raped me. It seemed as if he would never stop." When a doctor was brought in to examine her for venereal disease, he left the door to the examination room open so that other Japanese soldiers could watch not only the humiliating exam but also her subsequent rape by the physician. Before internment, Ruff had taken her preliminary vows to become a nun; when she was released from the brothel, the church ruled that her recent sexual experiences precluded her from ever donning the habit of a nun.

In a section delineating certain superstitions in the armed forces, Hicks tells us that the Japanese believed that sex before battle worked as a charm against injury; that a lack of sex could make a soldier accident-prone; and that it was a commonly held notion that any man who was a virgin should experience a sexual encounter at least once before his death.

Without question, Hicks is profoundly, even passionately, involved in his subject. In his scrupulous desire to report fully and precisely, however, Hicks sometimes sacrifices readability to minutiae. A 14-page chapter titled "The Shanghai Regulations and Their Variations" does seem to go on a bit, but these infrequent slow-downs are immensely compensated by the singularly moving sections containing the first-person voices of the comfort women themselves.

Hicks deplores what he deems to be Japan's lack of responsibility: "Part of the fuel of the fire of the comfort women issue derives from official attempts to cover up, as well as from continued failure to inform and educate young Japanese on the less heroic aspects of the Pacific War. . . . The appearance to outsiders is of national amnesia." He is no less harsh when discussing the failure of the Allies to put on trial those responsible for the comfort system.

While there is, as Hicks points out, as yet no monument to the unknown comfort woman as there are everywhere to the unknown soldier, we now have this valuable and scholarly work to commemorate those women who were wartime casualties of an entirely different kind.

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