Lives of Resilience: Reimagining Taiwan’s Comfort Women

Lives of Resilience: Reimagining Taiwan’s Comfort Women
Credit: Keith Menconi

What you need to know

'The history is indeed horrific; estimates vary, but the most commonly cited figure places the total number of comfort women at 200,000.'

When one women’s rights advocacy group sought to commemorate the estimated 2,000 Taiwanese women forced into sexual servitude by Japanese forces during World War II, they chose to do so with a museum that celebrates the lives of the survivors.

In December 2016, the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation (TWRF) opened the Ama Museum in Taipei’s Datong district to house hundreds of collected artifacts related to the comfort women system and the survivors themselves, and also to serve as a focal point for women's advocacy in Taipei.

Those memorialized in this museum, referred to euphemistically as “comfort women,” were coerced into brothels throughout Asia to serve the Japanese military.

While the issue is often a source of bitter anger directed at Japan and its government, the foundation’s executive director, Kang Shu-hwa, hopes to leave guests to her museum with a positive message.

“By the time they get to the end of the tour, everyone says that the feeling they are left with is not hate, but is instead warmth and tenderness,” she says. “I think a lot of people are surprised by this, and feel that this is one way in which our museum is different from other comfort women museums.”

The foundation refers to the women as Ama –Taiwanese for grandmother – as the survivors remained silent about their ordeal for most of their lives, and were only identified in old age.

The use of this term of endearment also reflects a broader goal. The museum does feature exhibits explaining the history along with the decades-long campaign to gain restitution from Japan’s government, but the real aim of the Ama Museum is to humanize the survivors and draw attention to their lifetime of resilience.

“I think when we are preserving the memory of these events, it’s very important that we help people consider what it has to do with their lives and the world we are living in today,” says Kang.

Through the example set by these former comfort women, Kang hopes to encourage visitors to think more about modern instances of violence against women, whether they take place as a result of war or in the home. “We want to impress upon our visitors the idea that this is not just an issue from 70 years ago,” she says.

Credit: Keith Menconi

Taiwan’s politicized past

The approach of the Ama Museum fits neatly with the mission of the foundation. Founded in 1987, TWRF has for many years fought against the sexual trafficking of women. It offers legal services and counseling to help women affected by domestic violence.

This approach reflects the highly politicized nature of the comfort women issue in Taiwan.

“Perhaps other countries would not need to adopt this approach in designing a comfort women museum, but here in Taiwan one issue is people have less exposure to the issue. At the same time, there are still many opposing views and controversies on this topic,” she says. “So if we use this approach, it can allow people that are unfamiliar with the topic to get a little bit more engaged.”

The history is indeed horrific; estimates vary, but the most commonly cited figure places the total number of comfort women at 200,000.

Most women came from Japanese-occupied countries including Korea, China and the Philippines. Of the 2,000 women from Taiwan, Kang says most grew up in poor families and many were lured away from home with promises of work. Accounts from survivors suggest that during their time detained at “comfort stations” often located far from their places of origin, the women were forced to provide sexual service more than 20 times a day.

Their suffering continued after the end of the war. The trauma left many women unable to bear children or suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

Today, this history remains marginal in Taiwan. Despite five decades of at times brutal colonial rule spanning most of the first half of the 20th Century, sentiment toward Japan has been relatively positive.

Memory of the Japanese colonial period is often colored by the subsequent four decades of autocratic rule following Japan's defeat in World War II and the transfer of governance of Taiwan to Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party (KMT). Given the KMT’s fervent anti-Japanese stance during that period, many associate the comfort women issue with KMT propaganda. Raising the issue is often viewed as a form of Japan bashing or as a way to signal support for Chinese nationalism. The churn of current cross-Strait politics, with the majority of Taiwanese opposing unification with China, adds yet another layer of complexity.

Kang views the politicization of the period as one of the museum’s biggest challenges. “I’ve always felt that we have a responsibility to cast off the political image that has obscured this issue,” she says. “We would like to encourage people to look at this topic from more of a human rights perspective, or as a women’s or gender issue.”

Credit: Keith Menconi

A tour through history

After more than a decade of false starts, the foundation managed to rent out a building in Taipei’s historic Datong district. The building housing their museum is a nearly century-old traditionally styled home, made up of two separate three-story structures connected by long hallways. The museum includes two exhibition halls featuring exhibits curated in English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese, a multi-purpose room for events and lectures, and a cafe staffed by women, many of whom have suffered from domestic abuse themselves and sought assistance from the foundation.

The museum does not shy away from the horrific nature of this history, nor the trauma faced by survivors: The first exhibition hall provides an in depth treatment of the system of sexual slavery that developed across Asia during the war, and how it was experienced by those in Taiwan. But the trauma and the struggle is only part of the story the museum seeks to present.

The tour begins with a display called “Her Moments” that sets the tone. It comprises a hallway filled with pictures of the survivors taken throughout their lives. As visitors walk down the hall they pass by images of smiling women at dinner, a pair of women on holiday, a stern faced women smoking a cigarette. Further down the hall hang black and white portraits of the survivors when they were still young, their hair and clothes styled in the fashions of mid-20th Century Taiwan.

The display serves as a reminder that the lives of these women amounted to more than suffering. This theme is continued throughout the museum, where the survivors are the stars of the show, their lives displayed affectionately through photos, video interviews and personal artifacts. In these displays, the women are cast not as the powerless victims of a monumental atrocity, but instead as leading figures in their own human rights struggle, that is the struggle to press the Japanese government for an apology and compensation.

Campaigning and healing

Due to the stigma associated with their ordeal, the vast majority of Taiwan’s comfort women have never come forward, but in the early 1990s the TWRF began identifying survivors and eventually found 59 women. During that time, the foundation began in earnest to lobby for a formal apology and redress from the Japanese government, and later launched an unsuccessful lawsuit in Japan seeking compensation.

The museum’s second exhibition hall features a series of displays reviewing the history of the now more than two-decade-old movement to gain redress. These include striking images of the survivors, many of them already octogenarians, leading protest marches or attending legal proceedings in Japan.

While apologies and compensation have been issued in the past by Japan, Kang and many other campaigners are unsatisfied. Compensation has been provided by private donors rather than by Japan, signaling that the Japanese government is not yet willing to take full responsibility for the country’s wartime policies. “These victims want their reputation and dignity to be restored. That can only arise from the Japanese government adopting a truly reflective attitude on this topic,” she says.

The foundation has provided psychotherapy for the survivors including “wellness workshops,” in which survivors had the opportunity to express themselves through various forms of art. The artwork is displayed prominently in several exhibits, offering a glimpse into the women’s journey as they worked in the final years of their lives to heal the psychic scars of their ordeal.

Through the therapy and their activism these women gained the ability to stand up for themselves and find their voice, says Kang. In one of the earliest public appearances made by comfort women in Taiwan, the three survivors who attended delivered their remarks behind a barrier that obscured their identities. Only a few years later, dozens had come forward to publicly lead demonstrations, lending their faces and their names to the campaign for restitution.

Kang hopes the survivors can serve as an example to others who have suffered sexual or domestic violence. “A lot of people are just like these Ama in that they don’t want society to know what happened to them. They also face scrutiny from society,” she says. “So we think that through the courage and strength of these Ama, we can encourage others to speak up.”

The museum asks guests to consider how they might personally contribute to the cause of preventing violence against women: The tour hits its emotional climax with a memorial called the “Song of the Reed Walk” that fills one of the linking hallways with 2,000 cylinders suspended from the ceiling representing the Taiwanese victims. Among them, 59 golden cylinders containing lamps each project the names of one of the identified survivors onto the floor. The rest are translucent, representing those who have never been identified and remain nameless.

Visitors are encouraged to place the projected names in the palm of their hands. “We would like guests to have the feeling that when they place these Ama in the palm of their hands, they really have the ability to reach out and touch them, and to look after them.”

“If you know this history, perhaps you will think about what you can do, how within your own life you might adopt an attitude to oppose violence. This is what we’re trying to pass on to our visitors,” she says.

Past the politics

Outside the walls of the museum, politics continue to cloud the comfort women issue in Taiwanese society, and it remains to be seen how much traction the museum will gain. Still, Kang is encouraged by the response to the museum so far. Despite difficulty gaining funds prior to opening, she says the museum has surpassed her foundation’s visitor expectations, and that public lectures held at the museum on the comfort women issue have also been well attended.

Perhaps their approach will garner more support regardless of Taiwan’s fraught domestic politics. By focusing on the lives of the women, the Ama Museum manages to largely sidestep the political issue, and creates a more human connection between visitor and victim. In doing so the museum stands for a broad ambition to foster more thoughtful reflection on instances of violence faced by women, and a sense of shared responsibility in ending them.

Ama Museum:

  • Address: 103, Taipei City, Datong District, Section 1, Dihua St, 256號號
  • Admission: Free
  • The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. Closed on Mondays.
  • Hours: 10am - 5pm
Credit: Keith Menconi

Editor: Edward White