No Comfort for the Women

Jan 06, 2009
*Special to asia!

For 50 years, Jan Huff O'Herne clung on to a secret she could not tell her family because she was too ashamed.

"It's a fear I can't possibly describe, a feeling I shall never forget and never lose. Even after more than fifty years I still experience this feeling of total fear going through my body and through all my limbs, burning me up.

"It comes to me at the oddest moments. I wake up with it in nightmares and still feel it just lying in bed at night. But worst of all, I have felt this fear every time my husband was making love to me. I have never been able to enjoy intercourse as a consequence of what the Japanese did to me."



Because of the trauma her body had gone through, O’Herne suffered four miscarriages and had to have a major operation before she could bring a baby to term.

O’Herne was the mother of two daughters and in a loving marriage, when she was asked to be a witness at an international hearing on Japanese war crimes. It was in that same year, 1992, when Korean "comfort women" came forth and demanded an apology and compensation from the Japanese government.

Watching them on television, O’Herne felt compelled to speak out and support them. The problem was that it meant her daughters would find out about her shameful past. It was then that O’Herne chose to write the letter to her daughter, Eileen.

After the hearing, O’Herne intended to return to anonymity in Australia, but she soon realised that testifying meant that the humiliation she had found so difficult to verbalise would have been exposed in the media. Deeply ashamed, she wondered how she would face the people she knew. When she walked to church for mass, they were waiting for her.

On the seat where she always sat, they had lain flowers. They put their arms around her and said, "Welcome home" and "Well done".

Encouraged, O’Herne decided she was going to speak out for the protection of women at war, and she has been doing that since then.

Following O’Herne’s testimony, the US Congress will be voting on a non-binding resolution, calling on Japan to "formally acknowledge, apologise, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces' coercion of young women into sexual slavery, and have this official apology given as a public statement presented by the Prime Minister of Japan in his official capacity".

Finally last September, lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, agreed to bring to vote that resolution—after it was shelved twice, in 2001 and 2005—because of politics. There is a strong pro-Japan lobby in Washington that includes former House Majority Leader, Bob Michel, who is currently senior advisor at Hogan & Hartson, the largest Washington D.C.-based law firm. Hogan & Hartson is paid US$60,000 to protect Japanese interests, something it's done for the past forty years.

Much of this has to do with America’s desire to use Japan as a buffer against China’s growing might, says Mindy Kotler, director of Asia Policy Point, a research centre on northeast Asia, in an interview with Harper’s Magazine.

"Any issue that the Japanese have defined as disturbing has been shunted aside to ensure that nothing upsets the alliance with Japan," Kotler says.

Tokyo's reaction to all this has been, to say the least, muddled.

First, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared in early March that there was "no evidence of coercion" of the "comfort women"— a complete turnabout from a 1993 statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, who admitted women were "recruited against their will, through coaxing, coercion" and "administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments".

The prime minister's words incensed China and South Korea, already riled up by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi's continued visits to the Yasukuni Shrine where Japan's war dead, including war criminals, are being honoured.

After Abe’s denial, conservative members of his Liberal Democratic Party announced new investigations into the issue of "comfort women" were to be launched.

The cabinet's eventual conclusion? "No evidence of coercion." This was a view shared by a significant number of Japanese scholars who maintain that the women were paid prostitutes.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi