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Comfort Women: Untold Stories Of Wartime Abuse

Of the many horrors suffered by both sides during World War II, the existence of "comfort stations" is one of the most unsettling: Organized by the Japanese military in occupied countries, these were locations where women were forced into prostitution to "comfort" military personnel. Over the years, many of the surviving women have shared stories of kidnap, coercion, rape and abuse — yet the Japanese government has been reluctant to acknowledge the crimes, let alone extend reparations.

It's an issue that has been brushed under the carpet, not only by government officials, but also by many surrounding cultures. In Indonesia, for example, little has been done to compensate the surviving women and their families; to the contrary, their stories have been suppressed by the society at large, says Dutch journalist and researcher Hilde Janssen. Very few women have ever shared their experiences – until now.

  • Paini, born 1930, Getasan, Central JavaFrom age 13, Paini was forced into labor at a local barracks. She gathered food, dug ditches and worked in the kitchen — and in the evening was taken from home to the barracks and raped repeatedly. The man Paini was to marry through an arranged marriage disowned her after the war.
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    Paini, born 1930, Getasan, Central JavaFrom age 13, Paini was forced into labor at a local barracks. She gathered food, dug ditches and worked in the kitchen — and in the evening was taken from home to the barracks and raped repeatedly. The man Paini was to marry through an arranged marriage disowned her after the war.
    Photos by Jan Banning; Original captions edited for length
  • Iyoh, born 1924, Baros, West Java Iyoh worked as a cleaning lady in a Japanese household. A member of the Japanese military, who was a steady visitor there, regularly assaulted the female personnel. He entered Iyoh's room regularly, too, and raped her so brutally that she sustained internal injuries.
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    Iyoh, born 1924, Baros, West Java Iyoh worked as a cleaning lady in a Japanese household. A member of the Japanese military, who was a steady visitor there, regularly assaulted the female personnel. He entered Iyoh's room regularly, too, and raped her so brutally that she sustained internal injuries.
    Photos by Jan Banning; Original captions edited for length
  • Wainem, born 1925, Mojogedang, Central Java Wainem was taken from home and forced into prostitution. During the day in a warehouse, she had to weave mats with other women and cook her own food. Sometimes she was raped right then and there, but most of the time was taken by soldiers to their rooms in the barracks compound.
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    Wainem, born 1925, Mojogedang, Central Java Wainem was taken from home and forced into prostitution. During the day in a warehouse, she had to weave mats with other women and cook her own food. Sometimes she was raped right then and there, but most of the time was taken by soldiers to their rooms in the barracks compound.
    Photos by Jan Banning; Original captions edited for length
  • Rosa, born 1929, Saumlaki, Tanimbar, South MoluccasRosa was forced into prostitution while she already was several months pregnant. At the end of her pregnancy, she returned to her village, where the baby died soon after birth.
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    Rosa, born 1929, Saumlaki, Tanimbar, South MoluccasRosa was forced into prostitution while she already was several months pregnant. At the end of her pregnancy, she returned to her village, where the baby died soon after birth.
    Photos by Jan Banning; Original captions edited for length
  • Semi, born 1931, Tawangmangu, Central Java As a 13-year-old girl, Semi was picked up from home almost daily and forced into prostitution at different locations, often nearby hotels. "They took us, and then we had to wash up, put on a kimono and do our makeup with lipstick and powder," she says. "After that, I had to massage the soldiers and cuddle with them, let them kiss me, and such."
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    Semi, born 1931, Tawangmangu, Central Java As a 13-year-old girl, Semi was picked up from home almost daily and forced into prostitution at different locations, often nearby hotels. "They took us, and then we had to wash up, put on a kimono and do our makeup with lipstick and powder," she says. "After that, I had to massage the soldiers and cuddle with them, let them kiss me, and such."
    Photos by Jan Banning; Original captions edited for length
  • Kasinem, born 1931, Kemuning, Central JavaAt age 13, Kasinem received the Japanese name 'Kanaku' and had to service three or four men every day. In the brothel, where another 30 women were kept, too, each had her own room. Years later she married and started a family of six children. She now lives with grandchildren and great-grandchildren and works in the rice fields behind the house.
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    Kasinem, born 1931, Kemuning, Central JavaAt age 13, Kasinem received the Japanese name 'Kanaku' and had to service three or four men every day. In the brothel, where another 30 women were kept, too, each had her own room. Years later she married and started a family of six children. She now lives with grandchildren and great-grandchildren and works in the rice fields behind the house.
    Photos by Jan Banning; Original captions edited for length
  • Umi, born 1930, Sukabumi, West JavaUmi was 13 when two of her sisters were taken to a brothel by Japanese soldiers; she was taken there after a few months. Umi married at a later age to a family member with whom she had four children. "My children don't have a clue," she says. "Because my sisters didn't want it, I've never told them anything."
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    Umi, born 1930, Sukabumi, West JavaUmi was 13 when two of her sisters were taken to a brothel by Japanese soldiers; she was taken there after a few months. Umi married at a later age to a family member with whom she had four children. "My children don't have a clue," she says. "Because my sisters didn't want it, I've never told them anything."
    Photos by Jan Banning; Original captions edited for length
  • Mardiyah, born 1926, Banyubiru, Central JavaA Japanese corporal took the married Mardiyah under the pretext of a job as a laundry lady and forced her into sexual servitude at a nearby barracks. ... After his reassignment, the corporal took her with him, first to barracks in Ambarawa and later back to Banyubiru. She never saw her husband again; he had ended up as a forced laborer and had ...
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    Mardiyah, born 1926, Banyubiru, Central JavaA Japanese corporal took the married Mardiyah under the pretext of a job as a laundry lady and forced her into sexual servitude at a nearby barracks. ... After his reassignment, the corporal took her with him, first to barracks in Ambarawa and later back to Banyubiru. She never saw her husband again; he had ended up as a forced laborer and had remarried there.
    Photos by Jan Banning; Original captions edited for length
  • Ronasih, born 1931, Serang, West JavaAs a 13-year-old girl, Ronashi was picked up on her way home from school by a soldier and locked up in nearby barracks where he raped her routinely for months. Immediately after the war she underwent surgery for her internal injuries. ... She's been married five times, divorced several times after just a few months and has never been able to bear chil...
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    Ronasih, born 1931, Serang, West JavaAs a 13-year-old girl, Ronashi was picked up on her way home from school by a soldier and locked up in nearby barracks where he raped her routinely for months. Immediately after the war she underwent surgery for her internal injuries. ... She's been married five times, divorced several times after just a few months and has never been able to bear children.
    Photos by Jan Banning; Original captions edited for length
  • Mastia, born 1927, Sumedang, West Java Mastia was taken from home by soldiers along with 15 other girls. While the others were forced into prostitution, a Japanese captain picked her from the group and commandeered her as his private comfort woman. For half a year, she lived as a forced concubine in his quarters, an Indonesian military aide standing guard at her door.
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    Mastia, born 1927, Sumedang, West Java Mastia was taken from home by soldiers along with 15 other girls. While the others were forced into prostitution, a Japanese captain picked her from the group and commandeered her as his private comfort woman. For half a year, she lived as a forced concubine in his quarters, an Indonesian military aide standing guard at her door.
    Photos by Jan Banning; Original captions edited for length

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"It's the kind of story that is pushed away because it is very shameful in their eyes," Janssen says. Because sexuality is relatively taboo in Indonesian culture, former comfort women were too guilty and ashamed to share their memories. "But it should have a place in history," says Janssen.

She has been based in Indonesia for more than a decade and recently teamed up with photographer Jan Banning on a documentary project about these surviving comfort women, now in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Together they compiled these intimate oral histories and portraits in a book titled Comfort Women.

Niyem, born 1933, Karangmojo, Yogyakarta

Niyem, born 1933, Karangmojo, Yogyakarta Jan Banning hide caption

itoggle caption Jan Banning

Like Niyem, who, at 10 years old was kidnapped and loaded into a truck full of other women destined for a military camp in West Java. She shared a small tent with two other girls, where soldiers openly raped them. "I was still so young," she is quoted by Janssen as saying. "Within two months my body was completely destroyed. I was nothing but a toy, as a human being I meant nothing, that's how it felt during the Japanese era."

When Niyem managed to escape and return home two months later, her parents didn't recognize her: "I didn't dare tell anyone that I had been raped, I didn't want to hurt my parents. I was afraid that no one would want me, that I would be left out. But people still abused me by calling me a 'Japanese hand-me-down.' Because I had been gone so long, they suspected what had happened. It hurt me tremendously."

Perhaps it's inappropriate to say that Niyem was "lucky" to make it out alive. Many women died during the war; but many more survivors would live with a suppressed emotional trauma for the rest of their lives — too embarrassed to tell even their most loved ones.

"We hope," Dutch photographer Jan Banning says, "even though it is very very late, that somehow this will be re-discussed — especially in Indonesia, moreso than here [in Europe]."

Comfort Women was selected by PDN for its 2011 Photo Annual, currently out now in its June issue. A documentary about the making of Comfort Women will be showing at the Artivist Film Festival in Los Angeles, July 8-10.

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