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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Ming Gao, Researcher, Monash University

In April 1941, a group of Japanese invading forces in China gang-raped Zhao Runmei in northern Shanxi province. The soldiers had first killed Zhao’s foster parents in front of her, stabbing her father’s throat with a bayonet and slashing the back of her mother’s head. And then the attack on her began.

Zhao was then taken to a blockhouse to be raped daily, a horror that lasted for more than 40 days. She was just 16 years old.

More than 80 years later, the children of 18 now-deceased Chinese “comfort women” – including Zhao’s family – have filed the first-ever lawsuit in China against Japan for alleged crimes committed during the second world war.

The plaintiffs are seeking financial compensation of up to two million Chinese yuan (around A$416,000) each and a formal public apology for the abuses the women allegedly endured, such as kidnapping, detention, rape, torture and the spreading of sexually transmitted diseases.

Aside from the legal and political implications of the case, it has also reopened a complex debate over identity and language. The term “comfort women” has long been used to describe these victim-survivors, but many reject the term and prefer what they believe is a more accurate description: sex slaves.

Rejecting ‘comfort women’ as a label

One thing we know for certain is the deceased women in Shanxi did not agree with being labelled “comfort women”, according to a book published by Zhang Shuangbing who has been campaigning for their justice for decades.

Another survivor of that time, Jan O’Herne, the daughter of a Dutch sugar plantation owner in Indonesia who was forced into a Japanese brothel during the war, likewise rejected the term “comfort women”. She advocated for the use of “sex slaves” or “war rape victims” instead.

While the term “sex slaves” may carry connotations of dehumanisation, many believe it is a more appropriate term for several reasons.

First, advocates in China and South Korea – the two countries believed to have the greatest number of wartime sex slaves – have increasingly used this term in their respective languages (xingnuli in Chinese and sŏngnoye in Korean).

In recent years, Su Zhiliang, a prominent professor of “comfort women”/sex slaves studies in China, has advocated for the use of the term because it more accurately conveys the nature of sexual abuse the women endured.

In recent times, the term sex slaves has also appeared more frequently in public discourse. The Chinese state news agency Xinhua uses the term because it reflects the “nature of the sin,” according to a statement reprinted by the State Council of China.

Similarly, the Korean Council, one of the most active NGOs seeking redress for Korean victims, also supports the use of the term sex slaves because it connotes “the essence of the crime of ‘slavery’”.

The term sex slaves (or sexual slavery victims) has also been widely adopted by the United Nations since its first investigative report on the issue in 1996. In the report, the special rapporteur on violence against women noted the Japanese government’s rejection of the term “slavery”, but added that she:

considers the case of women forced to render sexual services in wartime by and/or for the use of armed forces a practice of military sexual slavery.

Then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concurred in 2012 when she reportedly said “enforced sex slaves” is a more appropriate description.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the term sex slaves more accurately describes what these women experienced, as opposed to the misleading term “comfort women”.

The term “comfort women”, which comes from the Japanese word ianfu (慰安婦), which literally means “comforting, consoling woman”, papers over the true nature of the abuse.

The term sex slaves also feels more inclusive. It can be used to describe women from different cultural and national backgrounds with dramatically different experiences. It also broadens the scope of various types of sexual violence perpetrated against women during Japan’s colonisation and occupation of various parts of Asia.

The deceased Chinese women in the Shanxi lawsuit case illustrate this point. They did not fit neatly within the description of Korean “comfort women”. However, their experiences were similar – they were subjected to sexual abuse in military “blockhouses” and not permitted to leave. To escape, their impoverished relatives had to pay a ransom.

Debate is likely to continue

The Japanese government has vehemently rejected the use of the term “sex slave”, arguing

that claims such as ‘forceful taking away of comfort women by the Japanese military and government authorities,’ ‘several hundred thousands of comfort women existed’, and ‘sex slaves’ are not recognized as historical facts.

The Japanese government continues to use the phrase “comfort women” in its official statements.

In South Korea, the term “comfort women” also still predominates in official circles. The reasons are complex. For one, the term has become widely accepted in South Korea, making it difficult to change, and reaching an agreement with the surviving women on other terminology is not easy. It remains a topic of considerable debate.

As a scholar of modern East Asia and the former Japanese empire, I understand that each term carries unique connotations and historical baggage.

Regardless of how these women – and countless others who suffer wartime sexual violence today – are viewed, the issue will continue to resonate politically and historically. That, it seems, remains unchanged.

The Conversation

Ming Gao is affiliated with Australian Catholic University.

ref. ‘Comfort women’ or sex slaves? Why the debate over this WWII term remains so complicated –,2011:article/229377