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Dennis P. HalpinJune 26, 2014
Comfort Women rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, August 2011. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Claire Solery)

The Vatican announced in March that South Korea will be the first Asian nation to be visited by Pope Francis. His visit will take place from Aug. 14 to 18, which includes a date of critical significance not only for Korean and world history but also for Catholicism.

Aug. 15 is Independence Day for Koreans, the date when in 1945 the harsh Japanese colonial rule came to an end. It is also a major liturgical day for the Catholic Church, the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, a date of symbolic ascendancy for all women. And it is the date when in 1945 the guns fell silent and church bells rang throughout the world as the Second World War finally came to an end.

The specter of that war still casts a long shadow over Asia. Nowhere is this more true than in Korea, where the central issue stemming from the war’s legacy is sexual violence against women during conflict. Comfort women is the euphemistic term for the tens of thousands of girls and young women who were cajoled, coerced, kidnapped, sold or captured into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces. While the victims came from throughout the Indo-Pacific region, and even included some Europeans, the great majority were Korean. This further embittered the already strained historic relations between Korea and her Japanese colonizer. These women endured a half century of humiliation, trauma and enforced silence until a few had the courage to come forward.

Like Mary Magdalene, a possible patron saint for these women, the comfort women were scorned for their backgrounds and for being identified with foreigners. Mary Magdalene was traditionally identified as the woman from whom Jesus had “cast out seven demons,” and she came from a Gentile town, although she was a Jew. After the war, Korean society was no more welcoming to these victims than was the Magdalene’s society to her.

Forty years ago, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Seoul, I was told by members of the local community to stay away from a run-down little grocery store operated by “that woman who had been a Japanese whore.” Abandoned and usually without family, the returned comfort women struggled under harsh, unwelcoming conditions. It was only after a few of them had the courage to speak out in the 1990s that the attitude of Korean society turned from hostility to sympathy.

Pope Francis has refocused attention on the church’s historic mission of providing for the poor, the abandoned and the oppressed. He also has drawn international attention to the issue of human trafficking. He invited clergymen, police officers and victims to a conference on trafficking at the Vatican’s Academy of Sciences in April. After the conference, the pope referred to trafficking as “a crime against humanity” and “a scourge” of the 21st century. The abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram terrorists for purposes of trafficking occurred immediately after the Vatican conference. The international headlines generated by this heinous crime only served to underscore the pope’s expressed concerns.

A Demeaning Debate

Human trafficking and sexual violence in armed conflict, however, are as old as the Bible and were major human rights concerns in the last century. The comfort women system, involving from 50,000 to 200,000 victims, certainly represented one of the most egregious examples of state-sponsored sexual slavery in the 20th century.

Even more demeaning for the now elderly victims than the debate over the exact number of victims is the assertion among some right-wing extremists in Japan that the comfort women were nothing more than professional prostitutes who willingly provided their services for profit. Recent attempts to silence the comfort women have been numerous. They have included advertisements placed in U.S. newspapers by a Japanese right-wing organization comparing brothels in U.S.-occupied Japan to the comfort women system and a statement in May 2013 by Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city, that the comfort women provided necessary sexual release for war-strained Japanese soldiers.

There were also visits in 2012 by Japanese government delegations to the little town of Palisades Park, N.J., seeking to have the mayor take down a memorial monument to the comfort women. And there is a lawsuit pending against a similar comfort women statue in Glendale, Calif., filed by a right-wing Japanese organization and a number of Japanese-American plaintiffs. This suit contends that the sight of such a memorial in a public park is disturbing to Japanese people.

Those who would silence the comfort women, however, have failed. Among the voices speaking for the comfort women is a Catholic one, a voice of fidelity to Catholic values at a time of unbearable suffering, a voice that prayed the rosary daily during a three-month period of sexual violence. It is the story of a Catholic girl who had studied to be a nun before the Imperial Japanese military forcibly took her away to a brothel. It is the testimony of a Dutch girl who was sexually trafficked and traumatized like the contemporary victims who met with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Savagery and Silence

Jan Ruff-O’Herne, born in 1923 in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), was raised in a family “where my parents, especially my father, implanted in me a great and strong faith and a love of prayer and Holy Scripture.” When Indonesia fell to the invading Imperial Japanese Army forces in March 1942, Jan, then 19 years old, her mother and two younger sisters were interned as enemy noncombatants in a prisoner-of-war camp.

In February 1944 Ms. Ruff-O’Herne’s life changed forever when Japanese army trucks noisily entered the camp. All single girls 17 to 21 years old were told to line up for inspection. Ms. Ruff-O’Herne describes in her memoir, Fifty Years of Silence, what happened next: “The Japanese officers paced up and down, up and down the line, inspecting each girl. Now they were standing directly in front of me. One of them lifted my chin with a stick to see my face. They stood there grinning, looking at my legs, at my face, at my body…. Oh, my God, I prayed; don’t let them take me away.” Despite the intercession of a nun in the camp to the Japanese commander, 10 of the women who were considered by the officers to be the prettiest were taken away in an army truck. Ms. Ruff-O’Herne was one of them.

Ms. Ruff-O’Herne’s eyewitness account makes ludicrous the recent claims that the Imperial Japanese Army was not involved in the comfort women system. The young women were taken to a Dutch colonial house converted into a military brothel. Ms. Ruff-O’Herne led the frightened girls in a reading of Psalm 27 before the Japanese military officers came to rape them: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?”

She describes what happened next: “He stood right over me now, pointing the sword at my body. I pleaded with him through my gestures to allow me to say some prayers before I died. With his sword touching my flesh, I fell on my knees to pray…. The Japanese officer was getting impatient now. He threw me on the bed and tore at my clothes, ripping them off. I lay there naked on the bed as he ran his sword slowly up and down over my body…. I can find no words to describe this most inhumane and brutal rape.”

For the next three months Ms. Ruff-O’Herne and the other Dutch women were brutally raped multiple times. Then, following a number of visits from high-ranking military officials and long discussions “accompanied by much shouting,” they were told to pack their bags. They were returned to their families in the internment camps with the admonition that if they ever told anyone what had happened to them, they and their families would be killed. Ms. Ruff-O’Herne records that “the silence began then and there, the silence that was forced upon us.”

Jan Ruff-O’Herne told her secret to her mother, who was devastated by the news, and to a Catholic priest. When Ms. Ruff-O’Herne told the priest that she still wanted to be a nun, “there was a deadly silence.” Finally he responded: “My dear child, under the circumstances and because of what has happened to you, I think it is better that you do not become a nun.” Jan recorded, “I was shattered and sadly disappointed by what I was told. It gave me a terrible inferiority complex.”

During the following half century, she told her secret to her British Army husband, but not to her two daughters. “Fifty years of nightmares, of sleepless nights. Fifty years of pain that could never go away.” Then in 1992 Ms. Ruff-O’Herne saw on television some elderly Korean women, who had decided to speak out at last about their trauma as comfort women. “I’ve got to be with those women,” she wrote. “I’ve got to back them up.” Violence against women in the conflict then raging in Bosnia also motivated her, as it showed “that the world had not changed.”

Ms. Ruff-O’Herne finally told her daughters her secret and then attended an international public hearing in Tokyo, where an Australian televised news report revealed her story to her neighbors. Becoming an advocate for the comfort women and women’s rights, she traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2007 to testify with two Korean comfort women at a U.S. Congressional hearing.

Speaking Out

In April of this year, the elderly Ms. Ruff-O’Herne, who resides in Adelaide, South Australia, sent her daughter Carol and a granddaughter to testify at a hearing in metropolitan Sydney on a proposal to construct a comfort woman statue in Australia. In response, Japan’s conservative daily newspaper Sankei Shimbun published an article criticizing the 91-year-old advocate “who was reportedly a comfort woman on the island of Java” for allegedly allowing her daughter and granddaughter to be used in an “anti-Japan campaign.” A family friend reported that Ms. Ruff-O’Herne was devastated by these latest press attacks.

Medieval Catholic tradition included the ideal of chivalry—that the knight was to raise his sword for the protection of women and children, the elderly, the sick and the defenseless. In ancient Catholic ritual, a squire kept an all-night prayer vigil in a chapel before being dubbed a knight by his liege lord. While perhaps more true in its breach than in its practice, the code of conduct of chivalry is linked to the protection of women. The comfort women system as it evolved in the imperial Japanese military during the Second World War is the very antithesis of this traditional Catholic virtue.

Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Korea, the ancestral home of the majority of comfort women, provides an opportunity to reimagine and reignite this lost Catholic chivalry by opening a space for him to stand in solidarity and to keep vigil with these women as they call for justice. The visit also could serve to underscore Pope Francis’ expressed concerns for the rights and dignity of women, for the abandoned and the oppressed and for bringing an end to the scourge of human trafficking.

Pope Francis can help to raise up the comfort women survivors with his embrace. His compassionate presence makes him well suited to the task of meeting the comfort women and giving them God’s message of love, hope and acceptance that was denied to too many. And what better place and date than in Seoul on the anniversary of the conclusion of the war and the end of the forced sexual slavery of the comfort women? I imagine that Jan Ruff-O’Herne would not be the only person to watch such a papal embrace on her television set while smiling through tears.

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9 years 7 months ago
Thank you for this well-written account. May God bless the pope's visit and may it keep the issue of trafficking on the front pages. I'll be keeping this in prayer as I will be on retreat during those days.

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