Carol Gluck | December 4, 2020 | NPR

A Twisted Title

The Japanese called them “comfort women” — a term derived from the Japanese word ianfu, combining the Chinese characters meaning “comfort or solace” (i-an) with woman (fu). The enslavement camps where they were forced to have sexual intercourse with Japanese soldiers were called “comfort stations” and were often the same garrisons where they were being held.

“Comfort women” is a linguistically warped categorization of the thousands of women and girls, many from poor communities, who were forced to serve as sex slaves. Manila-based attorney Romel Bagares, who has represented some of the women for 16 years, told NPR that the term “hides the untold abuse the victims suffered under the Japanese Imperial Army and denies the victims the dignity they deserve.” He says some advocates urge that the term be changed to “survivors of the wartime female slavery system.”

Pilar Quilantang Galang (left) and Belen Alarcon Culala support each other during a visit to the “Red House,” where the women were repeatedly raped as children by Japanese soldiers during World War II. “We had a deeply painful experience in this house,” says Galang. “No amount of money can erase the memories. Because money fades, but awful memories do not. They last forever.”

Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

Yet the women commonly use the term. Bagares says in some cases it’s a bid to “own it” and have it “signify protest.”

Japan rationalized the sex slave practice as a way to curb the rape of local women by Japanese troops following the event known as the Rape of Nanking in 1937, when their soldiers sexually assaulted tens of thousands of women in the city that was then the capital of China.

For decades, the survivors of the “comfort women” system did not share their stories. Their private pain, hidden in shame, was concealed from the outside world. But by the early 1990s, details of their experiences began to emerge in a series of lawsuits against Japan. They wanted Japan to offer a public apology and financial compensation for their suffering.

Isabelita Vinuya, Belen Alarcon Culala and Maria Lalu Quilantang clasp hands. The three women were repeatedly raped as children by Japanese imperial soldiers in their village of Mapaniqui.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

The women of South Korea were the first to organize “comfort women” into a national movement, adding the term to the jurisprudence of human rights for women in wartime.

Carol Gluck, a history professor at Columbia University who focuses on modern-day Japan, says, “Without the testimonies of the comfort women, we would not know what happened.”

But the larger-scale story of sexual enslavement inflicted on Korea, which was under Japanese colonial rule for 35 years, has eclipsed the experience of other so-called “comfort women.” Like the few remaining women in Korea, survivors in the Philippines — now in their 80s and 90s — are still demanding to be heard.

In the Philippines, their confinement ranged from a matter of nights to more than a year. When the war was over, these women were left with physical and psychological scars: post-traumatic stress disorder, sexually transmitted diseases and damaged reproductive systems. Many were treated as outcasts, at times shunned by their own families.

Organized in various and sometimes competing groups, the so-called “comfort women” of the Philippines have demanded official recognition and compensation from Japan as well as acknowledgment by the Philippine government of their continuing plight.

Of the approximately 400 women who were identified as “comfort women” in the Philippines, only 45 to 50 are believed to be alive today. Many are reluctant to speak about their experience owing to privacy, trauma and old age.

Here are some of their stories recorded by the NPR team — correspondent Julie McCarthy, photojournalist Cheryl Diaz Meyer and producer Ella Mage — and some of the controversies that persist to this day as the women demand justice.

Originally published by NPR. Read the the full article with photos here.