This tiny island nation of Singapore was the stage of the largest surrender of British-led forces ever recorded in history. Prior to the Japanese occupation, the British had considered Singapore ‘an impregnable fortress’. This arrogance would be later be cited as a contributory factor to the downfall of British forces. As a strong naval power, it was inconceivable to the British military that the island would be attacked through the jungle and mangrove swamps of the Malay Peninsula. But this was exactly what happened.

“While the British were sipping cocktails in Raffles Hotel,” my high school teacher told us with dramatic flair, “The Japanese used their feet, walking into and through Singapore… We Asians had been told that we were inferior peoples for centuries. When we saw the sight of the Japanese soldiers–people who did not look too different from us–we were filled with a mixture of admiration and disbelief.”

Despite the brutality of Japanese occupation in Singapore, the Japanese have been incorrectly credited time and time again with ending centuries of colonial rule as well as a widespread belief in white superiority.

On 15 February 1942, Lieutenant General Percival signed the surrender documents before Lieutenant General Yamashita. The meeting took place at the Ford Motor Factory, which had been made into Yamashita’s headquarters. The Asian civilian population watched with shock as their colonial masters and supposed protectors were sent off to prison and the Japanese set about establishing their administration and authority.

The Japanese newspapers triumphantly declared the end of white rule in Asia and the birth of the Prosperity Sphere in which all Asians would share. Singapore was renamed Syonanto “Light of the South”.

Was it the beginning of the end of the colonial era? Highly unlikely. The precipitating events started decades before… and the Japanese occupation was yet another tipping point… a tipping point that would bubble up and blow over.

The ‘Comfort’

On 6th March 1946, six months after the collapse of Japan, a party of fifteen girls landed in Singapore. They had served as comfort girls in Java for nearly four years. Said one to the man whose duty it was to receive them at the wharfside, “Will my father have me back?”

When Singapore was Syonan-To by N.L. Low

The Japanese Occupation of Singapore only lasted three and a half years. During that time, basic resources–ranging from food to medication–were scarce. The prices of basic necessities also skyrocketed due to hyperinflation. Food and essential materials were in short supply since the entrepôt trade that Singapore depended on was severely curtailed by the war.

Furthermore, ‘comfort stations’ were set up in at least four different areas on the island. Comfort woman is the label that has been assigned to women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. Estimates of how many women were involved varies, with historians believing that the worldwide count is somewhere in the range of 50,000–200,000.

In the early stages of Japanese imperial expansion, ‘comfort stations’ were filled with prostitutes who voluntarily came from Japan. However, as the Japanese army continued its military expansion, it turned to the local population in the occupied territories. The brothels were originally established to provide soldiers with voluntary prostitutes in order to reduce the incidence of wartime rape: a precipitating factor which led to anti-Japanese sentiment in the occupied territories. Many women, however, ended up being forced to work in the brothels against their own will.

In 1938, the Japanese military began to utilise Japanese or local brokers to ‘recruit’ women from occupied areas. The most common way to ‘recruit’ young girls was deceit: by making false promises of employment to work as factory workers, nurses, laundry workers, or kitchen helpers. They would not know the real nature of the work until they were taken to a comfort station.

Chinese and Malayan girls forcibly taken from Penang by the Japanese to work as ‘comfort girls’ for the troops. Image Credit: Imperial War Museum

Almost a century has passed since women were first forced into sexual slavery, but the details of this episode of history remain painful. It is a politically divisive issue in Japan and in the countries it once occupied. Records of this painful chapter are scarce. There are very few survivors and most ‘comfort women’ neither survived the war nor its aftermath.

In The AWF’s A Woman’s Dignity Project, it is stated, “Those who returned home were suffering from injuries and went through life miserably, unable to forget past cruelties. Many suffered from physical disabilities and venereal disease, and were unable to bear children. Others could not marry. And those who did eventually marry often had to conceal their past, unable to tell others of the pain they felt in their hearts. This would have been one of the heaviest burdens to bear. The women have lived for more than half a century after the war, suffering practically as much as they did during the several years they spent in military comfort stations.”

When the former aggressors of war hear these stories, does it inspire a sense of responsibility? I’m afraid the answer is no. Rather, it inspires continued denial, dismissal and even delegation.

As Japan rebuilt after World War II, the story of its enslavement of women was downplayed as a distasteful remnant of a past people would rather forget. When I was an educator in Japan, I noted that the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a part of the school curriculum, but the chapter of the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia was completely invisible. It was almost like excluding that painful chapter of history made it so.

In 2017, Julian Ryall from DW reported, “The latest edition of a history text book used in more than 50 junior high schools across Japan makes no mention of the over 300,000 deaths in the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, skips allegations that as many as 400,000 girls and women were press-ganged into serving as prostitutes for the Japanese military during World War II and hints that the 1941 attack on US forces at Pearl Harbor was justified as the US embargo on Japan was a form of undeclared war.”

Meanwhile, not only did the women who had been forced into sexual slavery became societal outcasts; for decades, their stories went unheard, unnoticed and undocumented by officials who insisted that comfort stations never existed.

In 1987, after South Korea became a liberal democracy, women began discussing their ordeals publicly. Three years later, the hidden issue combusted into an international dispute when South Korea criticised a Japanese official’s denial of the events. As time went on, more and more women came forward to give testimony. In 1993, the Japanese government finally acknowledged the atrocities. The issue, however, has continued to remain divisive. Many Japanese officials have maintained that it was not sexual slavery, but voluntary prostitution.

In 2015, under the previous administrations of both countries, Japan and South Korea reached what was called a ‘final and irrevocable resolution’ to the comfort women issue. The proposed solution, however, was rejected by many of the survivors. The South Korean government has acknowledged that while The 2015 Agreement was formally reached between the two countries, the agreement cannot solve the issue without reflecting the comfort women’s opinions. The ministry has also said it does not have the right or authority to prevent the victims from raising their voices on this issue, rejecting Tokyo’s consistent request that Seoul take care of the issue.

More than 70 years have passed since the end of World War II, and we cannot overstate the urgency for the Japanese government to stop depriving these survivors of their rights to full reparation and to provide an effective remedy within their lifetimes. Only four of the 10 survivors who filed this case in 2016 are still alive.”

South Korea: Disappointing Japan ruling fails to deliver justice to ‘comfort women’ by Amnesty International

Historically, through the vassals of the time, the perpetrators have always sought either to silence their victims or to remain silent on matters where they have been perpetrators. Why? In situations of rape and intimate violence, it is hard to gather evidence with which to bring a case to court. When victims speak out, their concerns are dismissed, downplayed or disregarded as their testimonies are tarnished by the trauma of the events.

Furthermore, I’ve always considered it significantly short-sighted to credit the Japanese with the end of colonial rule. It is a belief that was propagated and never corrected. In 1915, close to two decades before WWII, Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa where he set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination. In 1930, Gandhi would go on to challenge the British-imposed salt tax with the Dandi Salt March and call for the British to quit India. At the crux of Gandhi’s strategy for independence was a call for noncooperation: a strategy that would go on to inspire even Martin Luther King.

More than 70 years have passed since Gandhi’s assassination. But his principle of noncooperation and nonviolence can still be employed effectively. When we, as a people, no longer see it in our vested interest to support the perpetrator, we will finally hear the silent screams of those who have never been heard. It is only then that reparation, reconciliation and reconstruction can begin.

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