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A permanent home for Taiwan's victims of wartime sexual slavery

Monday, December 12, 2016
By Yuan-Ming Chiao, The China Post


TAIPEI, Taiwan -- TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Chen Lien-hua (陳蓮花) appears composed as she gestures toward a glass panel painting she created, which is bursting with lilac lines that curve their way across the composition. The sweeping brushstrokes spill from a heart at the base of the panel, reaching across the composition like hands, bold and resolute.

Chen, 92, known affectionately as “Lien-hua Ama,” (“Ama” means grandmother in Taiwanese), was on hand for a personalized tour through the AMA Museum (阿嬤家- 和平與女性人權館). The museum was established by the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation (TWRF, 婦女救援基金會) and dedicated to commemorating survivors of sex slavery under Japanese military occupation during World War II. Guided by attentive staff members, Chen stared intently at each of the photos of women who were part of the struggle for recognition, many of whom had already passed away.

Like that glass panel painting by Lien-hua Ama, the new site goes beyond the stories of abuse that these women faced, delving into the collective action that they have taken toward healing. The museum draws public attention to an issue that has left an indelible mark on these women's lives. And now the women's memories have found a permanent home.

A New Home

The museum is the first human rights museum in Taiwan established by a non-governmental organization that promotes awareness of sexual violence and women's empowerment.

Nestled in western Taipei's historic Dadaocheng area, it opened its doors on Saturday, (Human Rights Day,) following years of preparatory work by the TWRF and its partner organizations. The newly refurbished building, while modest in size, contains the life stories of 59 Taiwanese women who have come forward with their stories about sexual slavery. It includes over 30 pieces of artwork created by the amas throughout 16 years of wellness art workshops, which have been submitted to UNESCO for listing under the Memory of the World Register.

The museum's narrow “Song of the Reed Walk” hallway is bathed in warm light that travels through 59 carefully-crafted metal tubes, each intended to represent an ama. When visitors cup their hands under the beams of yellow light, names are revealed on the shadows of their palms. Thousands of tubes without names are dedicated to survivors whose identities remain unknown.

The two floors of the museum feature a permanent exhibition that introduces visitors to the history of the Japanese military's institutionalized forms of sexual slavery, detailing “recruitment,” the trafficking of victims to overseas “comfort stations” and their stories of survival, as well as the human rights movement they subsequently helped lead.

Through donations from private individuals, as well as NT$3.8 million in public funding from Taiwan's Ministry of Culture, the TWRF has collected just over half of what it needs to cover the museum's opening and first two years of operational costs (estimated at NT$20 million). The TWRF hopes admission tickets and revenue from the museum's AMA Cafe will allow the facility to become a self-sustaining institution.

A Hard Path toward Recognition

Lien-hua Ama is one of three surviving Taiwanese “comfort women” (“慰安婦”) — the widely used Japanese-language euphemism to describe institutionalized forms of sexual slavery — who came forward decades ago to bring to light stories of sexual violence. But the passage of time — as well as public apathy and political polarization of the issue — have threatened the preservation of these women's narratives. With the help of the TWRF and lawyers both in and outside of Taiwan, the women have waged an as-of-yet-unsuccessful, arduous and decadeslong legal fight against the Japanese government for an official response — a battle that continues to this day.

The foundation and scholars in Taiwan estimate that around 2,000 women in Taiwan were forced into sexual slavery by agencies ranging from syndicates affiliated with the Imperial Japanese Army to local district administration offices within Taiwan during colonial occupation. Many of the survivors came from poor backgrounds and were deliberately mislead about work opportunities, only to find themselves being shipped to places throughout Asia that had been conquered by Japan.

Those who came forward have come a long way since their first press conference in 1992 to demand reparations from the Japanese government. Lien-hua Ama was among those who preferred to use a pseudonym when interacting with the press. During the premiere of the TWRF-produced documentary “Song of the Reed” in 2013, she decided to reveal her real name, declaring, “At this age, I have nothing to fear.”

The effort to establish the museum during the survivors' lifetimes has also proved challenging. In an interview with The China Post, TWRF Executive Director Kang Shu-hua (康淑華) recounted such challenges — which included difficulties in obtaining property and financial support — in finding a home for the amas. Promises by the local government and other stakeholders to offer sites for a publicly-funded museum fell through many times since 2004, leading the TWRF to seek private funding to prevent further delays.

Kang said a decline in media coverage of the issue, waning awareness and a resultant lack of support have reduced public engagement in the cause. During last year's contentious high school curriculum protests, some high school students suggested that the sex slavery survivors were voluntary prostitutes. Premier Lin Chuan apologized in June after saying in the Legislature that “some Taiwanese 'comfort women' may have been forced to work in Japanese brothels during World War II, and some may have been voluntary prostitutes.”

During a Dec. 3 fundraiser for the museum, former President Ma Ying-jeou, a long-time supporter of the TWRF's work, blasted historical interpretations, arguing that the “comfort women” had actually volunteered to carry out sex work, calling the interpretations “a shame to civilization.” He said the term “comfort woman” was unjust and that it should be replaced by the term “military sex slave,” used 14 times by a United Nations special report in 1996.

The terminology, however, reflects ongoing pain that the survivors continue to experience. Acknowledging that the term “comfort woman” whitewashes the human rights abuses committed against the survivors, Kang said the term “sex slaves” is used when the movement communicates with international audiences.

“But in Taiwan when we use the term 'sex slave' the public cannot understand it. It also presents a challenge and is painful for the 80- to 90-year-old survivors to hear themselves described as 'sex slaves.' There is currently no means to overcome this dilemma,” Kang said.

Kang, who has worked with the survivors for years, said that postwar homecoming for former “comfort women” was fraught with shame from a society unwilling to accept them. She said the aftermath of this experience continues to wrack the women emotionally.

“It is difficult for them not to feel ashamed over what they could not control, or that they were responsible for what happened to them,” Kang said. “The road has been uneven for them. Sometimes they feel empowered to stand up for their beliefs while other times they are left feeling uncertain about whether comments from their neighbors were meant to be supportive or hurtful.”

Seeking Justice

At the ceremony celebrating the museum's official opening in Dadaocheng Park, family members of survivors, dignitaries and supporters from Japan, South Korea and mainland China were on hand, highlighting international efforts to bring awareness to these women's struggles for justice. Attendees included Lee Yong-soo, a Korean woman forced to work in army barracks in Hsinchu.

Lee held up an album that included the photo of a 17-year-old boy who told her one day “the war is over, you've been liberated and can go home now.”

Taiwan's Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chun (鄭麗君) said, “As a woman, I find their courage admirable,” and that “after 71 years, our society has not forgotten the pain caused by the (second world) war. We will not forget the physical and mental hardships that war has brought to these grandmas.”

But while Cheng, the leading government representative at the event, called for a “facing up to history” and said human rights violations “cannot be neglected or forgotten,” she did not call for an official apology from the Japanese government, a point emphasized by other speakers both from Taiwan and abroad.

Reading a letter of congratulations sent by U.S. House Representative Michael Honda, Phyllis Kim, the Executive Director of the Korean American Forum of California said human rights violations must be resolved by “official acknowledgment, apology and compensation.”

She blasted a 2015 agreement between the Japanese and South Korean government to establish a “Healing and Reconciliation Foundation,” calling it a “Pain and Resentment Foundation,” that failed to include the voices of the survivors while helping the perpetrators to “erase and evade responsibility.”

“This is not a Korea-Japan issue, it's an international women's issue,” Kim said. She implored Taiwan to work with other groups to pressure Japan to address the issue for all survivors in 11 different countries.

After the event, Kang said the TWRF opposed the creation of a foundation similar to the one set up by South Korea, insisting instead upon the drafting of a legal document in which Japan assumes responsibility for its crimes.

She expressed hope that the Tsai administration's steps toward obtaining Japanese compensation could be “more transparent and robust.”

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said a final agreement must include a formal apology, compensation for Taiwanese survivors of sexual slavery, a return of long-overdue justice and dignity, and better care for the women. Kang added that she hoped the Ministry of Culture would make good on its pledge to support the museum in the future.

Looking to the Future

TWRF hopes that the museum can become both a domestic and international platform for raising awareness about women's issues, with future collaborations planned between similar institutions in China, South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries, as well as with the Anne Frank Museum in the Netherlands and the International Slavery Museum in the United Kingdom.

“The violence that the Amas experienced still exists today. They hope that raising awareness of their experience can prevent such crimes from ever happening again,” Kang told The China Post, emphasizing that “remembering history and transcending pain” were core principles that the AMA Museum will be guided by.

“One of our original objectives was historical preservation, but after years of preparation and organization, the challenges and obstacles encountered meant it was even more pressing to make sure that the museum could also be relevant to current times,” Kang said.

Kang said the museum therefore must forge connections with human rights issues and issues that women currently face in Taiwanese society. “Only then can the museum resonate with current and future generations, so they can make the connection of why it is important to understand what happened 70 years ago, 'even though it seems that it doesn't really have anything to do with me.'”

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