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An Attempt to Heal Old Wounds

Crimes * Activists seek some form of justice for the 200,000 girls sexually abused and murdered by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

February 07, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We will never see their faces, hear their cries or know their names. But Japanese journalist Yayori Matsui is among activists determined to keep the memories of 200,000 murdered girls alive. And to change the attitudes that made possible the tragedy of their brief lives and brutal deaths during World War II.

Matsui, chairwoman of the Violence Against Women in War Network in Japan and a chief organizer of the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery (held Dec. 7-12 in Tokyo), told an audience at UCLA on Monday that not even the passage of 50 years has healed the wounds left by Japan's use of young girls as sex slaves, called "comfort women," to service soldiers at the battlefront.

The children and teens, some as young as 10, were kidnapped from their homes and carted off to front lines from the late 1930s until 1945. They were abducted in China, the Philippines, North and South Korea--anywhere the Imperial Army of Japan had colonized or was in command, Matsui said.

Most were then murdered by those who had raped and mutilated them. A few survived and returned to their homelands, where they were not usually welcomed. In that time and place, a "ruined" woman was taboo no matter under what conditions she'd achieved that status.

Japan's own little girls were spared, she added, although the government rounded up native prostitutes and transported them to the war zone. The "comfort women" were the Japanese government's way to help enable soldiers to win the war. They were literal slaves, forced to "pleasure" up to 50 soldiers per day at battlefronts, in conditions too degrading to imagine.

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Those conditions were graphically described and cataloged at the December tribunal in Tokyo. It was a groundbreaking "people's court," an unofficial attempt by women's rights groups worldwide to finally make Japan accountable for a war crime that has never been officially addressed, or even acknowledged--and for which no punishment or apology has ever been exacted.

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The judges' findings will not be released until March 8, which is International Women's Day.

It is an extremely delicate situation. The time for trying war crimes has long since passed. And the government of Japan is reluctant to revisit the issues and not well-disposed toward activists who try. In the years since the war, nations have come together to cement relationships and forge new bonds. Japan has progressed and prospered.

Why did Matsui and the other women's rights activists want to reopen wounds so long kept hidden? There are many reasons, she said. The dead women need not to have died in vain. The few surviving comfort women need the validation they deserve. And women around the world, even now, need the atmosphere to change.

As has been evidenced in Bosnia and other recent conflagrations, she said, it is still the women and children who are brutalized by the military and ignored by the rest of the world whenever countries go to war.

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