No Empire Without Collaborators

Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies From Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves
By Peipei Qiu with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei
New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 254 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Lihua Wang


Official memorials and events honoring World War II heroes have become routine around the world since 1945. The rape of women during the war, however, has often drawn only short-lived international attention. Atrocities such as the rape of Nanking by Japanese invaders in 1937, Russian soldiers’ massive rape of German women during the postwar occupation, and the forced prostitution of “comfort women” across East and Southeast Asia during the war are often overshadowed by today’s news. Thus, this year’s Russian celebration of the war’s end sparked global debates and protests over Putin’s policy toward Ukraine—but no discussion of women’s suffering. As an antidote to this gender-biased international news culture, it is worth reading Chinese Comfort Women by Peipei Qui with Su Zhiliang, and Chen Lifei.

Chinese Comfort Women is significant in several ways. It provides the first English-language testimony, from twelve ordinary Chinese women, about the sexual enslavement of Chinese women during the war. The women also describe the experience of growing up in a feudal society before and during the war. Finally, the book asks why these women did not receive justice under either socialist or neoliberal China in the years following the war. Highlighting the brutality of Japanese rapists, the book links Chinese patriarchal institutions and Japanese military masculinity. Examining this connection can help us to understand how and why women were treated as commodities: sold, bought, and tortured at the hands of both Chinese and Japanese men.

World War II in China began early, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the invasion of other parts of Chinese territory throughout the 1930s. Using data from Chinese archives and scholarly studies, Chinese Comfort Women describes the expansion of the war throughout almost a decade and a half, until the war’s end in 1945. The book then provides details about numbers and locations of “comfort stations” across Chinese provinces—situating the testimony of the women forced to become sexual slaves.

The personal narratives of twelve former comfort women are the focus of the second part of the book. They tell life stories dating back to their natal families. Although the women came from different locations, including Nanjing, Shanghai, Hunan, Hubei, Shanxi, Yunnan, and Hainan Island, their girlhoods exemplified Confucian ideology, which devalues and oppresses women. From the moment they were born, they were considered inferior to their brothers. Many former comfort women had already endured early experiences of being treated as commodities, as child brides. For example, Wan Aihua was sold as a child bride because her father was addicted to opium, and his habit put the family into debt. Because she was so young, before Wan was sold, her mother made her repeat her name, birthday, parents’ names, and the name of her village until she memorized them correctly.

As the women became daughters-in-law, their hardships grew. Confucian principles ordain a family hierarchy determined by gender, age, and generation. Lei Guiying remembers that her mother-in-law had two daughters, both of them older than she. When Japanese soldiers occupied Lei’s village, everyone attempted to hide, especially girls and young women, who feared sexual assault. The Japanese soldiers killed farm animals for their own food supplies, and the villagers had nothing to eat. Lei’s mother-in-law ordered Lei, who was only nine, to steal food from an abandoned grocery store in a nearby town. On the way, she encountered many Japanese soldiers and was a terrified eyewitness as the soldiers abducted fourteen and fifteen years old girls. She was “lucky,” she says, because she had not yet reached puberty. The women’s hardships within their patriarchal families diminished in scale, however, compared to their later experiences of rape, gang-rape, violence, and humiliation at the hands of Japanese soldiers.

Often, local administrators collaborated with the Japanese invaders to “recruit” and kidnap women. In fact, without the help of the Chinese men, the Japanese would never have been able to carry out large-scale abductions and rapes. Chinese Comfort Women examines the role of local patriarchal power at the village, township, and city levels. According to the authors, Chinese women were seized as sex slaves in two ways: either by the armed force of Japanese soldiers or by the drafting of women by local administrators.

Chinese Comfort Women provides details of the direct link between local Chinese governments and the establishment of comfort stations. A translated 1939 document from Wenshui County Office in Shanxi Province, for example, notes a “shortage” of military brothels and prostitutes in the county. To solve this “problem,” officials decided to draft one healthy, good-looking woman from each of the county’s 300 households. Another document orders the establishment of comfort stations in Fengyang county in Anhui Province in 1938. In some cases, local governments were responsible for providing medical checkups of the comfort women.

Evidence of local collaboration with the Japanese invaders is also provided by the women’s testimony. Zhou Fengying recalled a painful memory. On a spring day in 1938, a group of Japanese soldiers appeared in her home village, accompanied by a local male collaborator. She was captured and her feet were tied together. She was only one of many village girls taken from their homes. Chen Yabian had a similar experience. She was forced by four Chinese collaborators to be transported to a labor camp. Several weeks later, she was transferred to a comfort station. Lu Xiuzhen stated that her station was managed by local Chinese. As Sarah Kovner maintains in Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan (2014), “There can be no empire without collaborators.”

Japanese soldiers raped women both individually and in gangs. Wartime gang rape has been defined, by the lawyer Rhonda Copelon, as a distinct form of brutality (see “Surfacing Gender: Reconceptualizing Crimes against Women in Time of War,” in Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina [1994]). Genocidal rape, Copelon writes, takes place in a setting of imprisonment and/or in rape camps. This is clearly the experience of the Chinese former comfort women. Huang Youliang describes the agony of being gang raped outside of her home in 1941. When Huang was only fifteen years old, Japanese soldiers invaded her village. She could not run fast enough and was caught by a group of Japanese soldiers. She was first violently grasped by her arms, then another soldier ripped off her shirt and skirt, and the rest raped her. Yin Yulin remembered being forced into a small block house, where a crowd of Japanese soldiers was waiting. She was gang raped, and her body ached so much she did not even have the strength to cry. Lin Yajin described a “normal day” at the comfort station: three or four rapists would arrive together, all naked. One would rape her while the others watched.

It is difficult to document the frequency of genocidal rape in China during the war. Mass rapes took place in organized spaces that were not always defined as “rape camps.” Comfort stations in China were identified as business spaces and equated with brothels, as the authors point out. However, this interpretation not only denies sexual aggression by Japanese soldiers but also makes wartime genocidal rape irrelevant to China. In reality, the comfort station was a patriarchal institution created to legitimize wartime rape.

The comfort stations were owned and operated by both institutions and individuals. The largest number were owned by the Japanese military. Local Chinese administrations also claimed their portion of ownership. Individuals owners of the stations were Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese men, who were under the supervision of military authorities. While there is a lack of documentation regarding how much profit business owners made, some former comfort women remember Japanese soldiers purchasing tickets at comfort stations. However, none of the women who testify in Chinese Comfort Women received any form of payment.

All the comfort women suffered. Their pain included both psychological abuse and physical violence: they were beaten, burned with cigarettes, and locked in dark spaces. Some had broken bones. Zhu Qiaomei was kidnaped by Japanese soldiers when she was pregnant, and raped before and after she gave birth. A repeat rapist would sucked her breast milk dry each time he raped her. After five months in a comfort station, Lin Yajin was ill. “My injured chest bones hurt, my private parts festered, I urinated blood, and my whole body was swollen and ached like hell,” she says.

Until the 1990s, the women’s suffering, misery, and abusive experiences received neither national attention nor international concern. The third part of Chinese Comfort Women explains this piece of the puzzle. After 1945, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) did not classify the comfort-women system as a war crime. In China, the nationalist and socialist governments failed to recognize individual and gang rape as crimes, due to the small number of cases brought to the courts. Thus, former comfort women were not offered any official assistance or compensation. They continued to suffer from poverty, poor health, and discrimination. In postwar China, they kept silent.

Finally, in the 1990s, a movement calling for redress for the survivors of the Japanese rape campaign was launched by activists, lawyers, and public intellectuals. In collaboration with Japanese advocates, the movement filed five lawsuits in Japanese courts between 1995 and 2001. In December 2000, the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery was held, a landmark for international efforts by women’s organizations. Six surviving comfort women, including two, Wan Aihua and Yuan Zhulin, whose accounts are in this book, participated in the Chinese delegation.

It will be interesting to watch the news of China’s official celebration of the seventy-year anniversary of the war’s end, on September 3, 2015, to observe whether the government finally recognizes the suffering of former comfort women.

Lihua Wang, PhD, is a visiting assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her article, “Neoliberalism and the Feminization of Family Survival: The Happiness Project in Four Chinese Villages” received an Outstanding Author Contribution Award from the Emerald Literati Network Awards for Excellence in 2013. She is the editor of Globalization and its Chinese Discontents: Feminist Critiques (2008) and co-editor of Women, War, and Violence: Personal Perspectives and Global Activism (2010).

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