Activists seek redress for sex slaves

Times Staff Writer

Energized by a recent House resolution urging the Japanese government to formally apologize for its wartime sexual enslavement of at least 200,000 Asian girls and women, human rights activists meeting in Los Angeles this week said their next goal is to get parliaments around the world to take similar action.

During a three-day conference that concludes today, representatives from Asia, Europe, Australia and North America said the passage of House Resolution 121 in July marked a turning point in their 16-year struggle to seek justice for surviving sex slaves.

“It gave us hope and encouragement,” said Chung Noh Gross, a speaker from Berlin. “Now, we must work together to get similar measures through the European Parliament.”

“HR 121 is the biggest reason why we came to the conference,” said another panelist, Haruko Shibasaki of Tokyo-based Japan Action Network for the Military Sexual Slavery Issue. The group has been active since the early 1990s in educating Japanese about the country’s wartime past.


The Los Angeles event, which brought activists, scholars, lawyers and religious leaders to UCLA, will end tonight at the university’s faculty club with a dinner honoring four survivors who traveled from the Philippines and South Korea. It also will honor Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), author of HR 121.

During the conference, which was conducted in English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, attendees heard reports from around the world.

Reporting on China, Peter Li, president of the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia, said that in July, a museum honoring the sex slaves opened in Shanghai, where the first brothel, or “comfort station,” was set up in the early 1930s.

He also said research at Shanghai Teachers University indicates that the actual number of sex slaves may have been closer to 400,000 rather than the 200,000 previously estimated by a United Nations human rights agency. The U.N. figures did not take into account China, whose survivors came out publicly much later than some of their Asian neighbors.


“There were 200,000 comfort women from China alone,” Li said, adding that Shanghai had 160 such facilities.

About 75% of the Chinese sex slaves perished in captivity, he said. Those still living are between the ages of 78 and 90 and so frail that organizers could not get even one survivor to fly to Los Angeles for the event.

From South Korea, the Rev. Seung Yun, a deputy director of the House of Sharing near Seoul, said that even after 60 years, survivors have nightmares about being attacked by Japanese soldiers.

“Sometimes, I can hear them screaming in the middle of the night,” Yun said. “They all sleep with their lights on and doors locked -- even though they hardly have anything that anybody would want to steal.”


Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, one of several keynote speakers, said Friday that the U.S. government bears some responsibility.

Even though U.S. officials knew about the wartime brothels, the government chose political expediency over redressing human rights violations because Japan was a U.S. partner in the Cold War, said Kim-Gibson.

“Japan was not only not punished, it was given helpful hands to flourish economically, all for the sake of the Cold War,” she said. "...I cannot imagine the U.S. government dismissing 200,000 girls and women who were forced to become sex slaves by the Japanese government, were those women white. Yes, the neglect of the comfort women was an expression of at least triple discrimination -- gender, race and class.”

Another keynote speaker, Rep. Eni F. H. Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa), a supporter of HR 121, suggested that activists now look to the next level for an international treaty or convention.


Bashing and condemning Japan will not help, he said. “We can’t force Japan to provide reparations.”

Thekla Lit, co-chairwoman of the Canada Assn. for Learning & Preserving the History of WWII in Asia, took issue with the congressman.

She said it was necessary to continue to criticize the Japanese government to raise public awareness in Japan. “HR 121 is just the beginning,” she said.