Taiwan’s complex relationship with Japan affects recognition of ‘comfort women’

Kang Shu-hua, executive director of Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, said she hopes people will see the museum as the memory of a quickly fading past and a reminder to shun violence.
Kang Shu-hua, executive director of Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, said she hopes people will see the museum as the memory of a quickly fading past and a reminder to shun violence.
(Ralph Jennings / For The Times)

Twelve years ago, a group of activists in Taiwan realized that just a few survivors were left among the island’s women taken as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II, and they resolved to open a museum about their ordeal.

The “comfort women” issue has aroused passionate public anger in South Korea and other Asian countries formerly occupied by Tokyo’s forces. But museum organizers in Taipei say it’s been a long, lonely quest to get Taiwanese to remember these 2,000 women — if they know about them at all.

For years, the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation struggled to find a space for the Ama Museum. The group eventually rented an 80-year-old brick-and-log Chinese-style house and managed a soft opening this month. Yet while even President Ma Ying-jeou showed up for the inaugural event, fundraising has been slow; the group has collected just 10% of the $615,000 needed to operate the museum for its first year.


“Taiwanese people take this as a political issue or a matter of hatred for Japan, so the issue is easily ignored or misunderstood,” said Kang Shu-hua, executive director of the foundation, which for the last quarter-century has worked to advance women’s rights and combat domestic violence. “Fundraising is quite difficult.”

Taiwanese lived under Japanese rule for 50 years, but there is little palpable resentment among the island’s 23 million residents toward their former colonizer. Some local men served alongside Japanese troops.

Taiwan’s more amiable and complex relationship with Japan sets it apart from neighbors such as mainland China and South Korea, where hostility toward Tokyo still runs high seven decades after the war ended.

In recent years, mainland Chinese leaders have aggressively pushed Japan for apologies and compensation for wartime wrongs. South Korea also has pressed the issue of sex slaves strongly and last year extracted an apology from Tokyo as well as more than $8 million earmarked for a government foundation in Seoul.

Although Taiwanese have textbook knowledge of World War II, only a few lines in the official curriculum mention “comfort women.” An estimated 200,000 women were forced to work in Japan’s brothels before and during the war.

“Taiwanese in general terms don’t pay much attention to the issue,” said Alexander Huang, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “Some people probably consider that it would irritate the Taiwan-Japan relationship.”


Japan took over Taiwan in 1895 when China’s Qing Dynasty lost a war with Tokyo, and remained in control until 1945. Older Taiwanese often point with pride to colonial Japan’s enduring infrastructure improvements such as railways, urban planning and sturdy, colorful architecture.

Younger Taiwanese, meanwhile, have a strong affinity for Japanese pop culture, from children’s books to cartoon celebrities such as Doraemon and Hello Kitty. Japan is also the top tourist destination for Taiwanese tourists.

After Japan’s surrender in World War II, Taiwan was returned to the control of the Chinese government, then led by Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party. But a civil war soon broke out in China, with Chiang’s forces defeated by Mao Tse-tung’s Communist troops in 1949. Chiang and his government fled to Taiwan, and the island has been governed separately from the mainland ever since.

For some Taiwanese, expressing outrage over Japan’s World War II conduct implies a political affinity toward or allegiance with mainland China. That doesn’t sit well with many Taiwanese, because Beijing’s Communist leaders insist that Taiwan is part of China and must be formally reunified with the mainland some day. Opinion surveys in Taiwan show a majority of people oppose formal unification.

Japan took the Korean peninsula as a protectorate in 1905, 10 years after taking control of Taiwan. Koreans made up most of the women Japan took as sex slaves.

The Taipei foundation conceived of the museum in 2004 as the victims were dying of old age. The organization has helped former sex slaves come to terms with their past and seek justice by helping nine prepare to sue for compensation in Tokyo, a lawsuit they lost in 2005 after 15 years of effort.

Today, just three of the women are alive; two are 92 and the other is 87. Alongside photos, documents and videos, the museum eventually may present audio recordings of their stories. One, who lives in Taipei, was taken to the Philippines, another World War II battleground. The two others are Taiwanese Austronesian aboriginal women who still live on the island’s east coast.

“When the women were very young, they would be sold off,” Kang said. Some were sold by their families and others were forced by local officials, who in some cases raffled off the women to troops.

Many of the women were poor. “It was a class problem and a gender problem,” Kang said.

The museum informs visitors that Japanese troops took girls as young as 13, but the average age was 20. A few troops treated the women kindly, Kang said, but others were violent. Some women were forced to have sex with more than 20 men in succession.

Although many Taiwanese have a favorable attitude toward Japan, Ma’s Nationalist Party administration has over the last eight years pursued closer relations with Beijing while distancing itself a bit from Tokyo. The Nationalist Party’s core supporters are people who themselves or whose families escaped to Taiwan with Chiang’s forces, and those people remember Tokyo as an aggressor.

After Japan’s apology to South Korea, Ma demanded in December that Japan apologize to Taiwan over the issue. At the museum’s inauguration, he repeated the call. “The … government has always said that Japan should apologize to Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ and offer compensation to them,” Ma said, according to Taiwan’s official Central News Agency.

But analysts do not anticipate an upswell of Taiwanese public opinion over the matter, nor do they expect Tokyo will offer compensation on the scale given to South Korea.

“For most Taiwanese, this is book knowledge rather than something over which they would feel a personal sense of outrage,” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center think tank in Honolulu.

Kang said she hopes people will see the museum as the memory of a quickly fading past and a reminder to shun violence.

Young people show signs of support and interest. In August and September, a documentary about the sex slaves earned about $60,000 from Taiwan ticket sales, largely to youths, Kang said. Crowd-funding has also brought in donations for the museum.

Lin Si-yu, a 24-year-old Taipei service worker, donated about $30 to the museum. Her high school textbooks, she said, included just one line on “comfort women.”

“Taiwan is a small island with a complex history, given that a lot of countries took [us] over, and this issue wasn’t written up in the textbooks,” she said. “I think Japan is great and I go there to have fun, but Japan still needs to face up and apologize.”

Jennings is a special correspondent.