Comfortably Numb

A UM professor gathers an ugly hidden history of rape and forgetting

When Japanese soldiers stormed the quiet Philippine village of San Juan one morning in January 1942, 11-year-old Narcisa Claveria was at home. Her parents and eight of her nine siblings milled about nearby, oblivious.

By the time the Imperial Army departed hours later, the small fishing town in the northern province of Abra on the Philippine island of Luzon was engulfed in flames and Claveria was an orphan. Soldiers had brutally raped and killed her mother, skewered two of her siblings with bayonets before setting them on fire, and skinned her father alive.

M. Evelina Galang, local advocate for "comfort women" worldwide
M. Evelina Galang, local advocate for "comfort women" worldwide

The skinny, prepubescent girl was shipped off to a makeshift garrison and locked up. At night — almost every night for the duration of her three-month imprisonment — Claveria was raped.

"During the day," the fragile 79-year-old explains in her native Tagalog, "we were made to cook, do their laundry, and fetch water.... I cried."

Claveria was among a purported 200,000 women — the vast majority of whom were Korean and Chinese — held by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II in what have since been dubbed "comfort stations" erected throughout Japanese-occupied territories. The harrowing details of their ordeals — systematic rape, torture, mutilation, abuse, starvation, and murder — were kept secret for more than half a century after the war's end. Scarred by shame and ravaged by guilt, many committed suicide. Others traded memory for madness. But some have spoken out.

Claveria is one of 40 Filipino "comfort women" to have shared their haunting histories with University of Miami professor M. Evelina Galang. Over the past eight years, Galang has amassed more than 30 hours of interviews with Filipino survivors — who vehemently reject the "comfort women" label, preferring lola, which in Tagalog means grandmother.

"These women were silent for over 50 years," explains 46-year-old Galang. "That often happens with rape victims, but especially in their culture, where victims of sex abuse are often seen as cultural pariahs. Their families often beg them not to come forward."

The unveiling of their suffering began in 1991, when three elderly Korean women launched a class-action suit against the Japanese government, demanding full acknowledgment of and compensation for their exploitation. Japan's response was denial.

"What Japan actually did by denying the camps was bring attention to the issue," says Galang. "They actually drew even more attention to it, got more people curious."

Galang, an American born to Filipino parents who left their homeland in the late Fifties, learned of comfort women in the late Nineties while watching a performance in Minneapolis, where she was attending a conference. A dance recital about the plight of the comfort women sparked an idea. "I started thinking about girls here struggling to come to terms with their cultural identity, and I thought, Wow! Look at what these women endured. We could really learn something from them."

In 2001 Galang put her teaching career on hold and secured a Fulbright grant to travel to the Philippines in search of survivors. With the help of LILA Pilipina, a grassroots organization founded in 1994 and headquartered in Manila, she tracked down almost one-quarter. Although she intended to use the research to write a coming-of-age novel, Galang was so overwhelmed by her subjects she decided to create a factual account. She interviewed 40 women, 15 extensively, of the 173 Filipinas who had disclosed they were held captive. Some had been ripped from their families as young as eight years old.

"They took me to sites where their grass-roof houses used to stand," Galang says, "the sites where they were abducted, and together we relived their experiences."

One of the interviewees is Cristeta Alcober, who passed away in June 2006. She says she was snatched at the age of 16 from Tacloban City, in Leyte. "My brother and I were forced to walk about one kilometer and were brought to the garrison ... near the airstrip along the beach of San José. As soon as we arrived, I was separated from my brother and put inside a hut. There I found about 30 women already confined. This hut ... was enclosed with layers of barbed wire and had a bamboo door with locks ... no flooring but sand.... Japanese soldiers came to our hut and picked out almost all of the 30 women, including me. We were taken to a nearby beach. There were 40 or 50 soldiers [who] started raping us under the coconut trees and banana trees. Since I resisted, I was slapped. As I [fell], I broke my left collarbone. Yet the Japanese soldiers mercilessly stabbed my groin with a bayonet ... and ... continuously raped me. It was six o'clock the following morning when I was taken back to the hut. The following day I was told to join the hard labor during the daytime as usual. Since then, every night I was raped ... endlessly, day in, day out."

The names and towns differed among tales, but the accounts of perversion and torture remained chillingly consistent.

Atanasia Cortez encountered the Japanese army at the age of 20 in Fort Santiago, Intramuros. "We were put into a cell where my husband was stripped naked, hanged upside down, and beaten with a two-by-two stick. And then his head was shaved with a blade.... Blood was trickling down his face.... His fingernails were pulled out one by one.... I learned from a janitor that they had killed him. My sexual ordeal started a month after we were taken.... Three to four soldiers would bring me to a small room, waiting for each other's turn to use me."

According to Galang, it was common for 20 to 30 girls to be locked together in a cramped outdoor room. "They would often be tied at the waist with three other girls," says Galang, "then caged like animals." The survivors concur they were raped anywhere from three to 40 times per day, some for up to three years.

"If we resisted, they would punish us," says Kim Koon Ja, who was taken in March 1942 at age 16. "My body is forever marked and scarred with those beatings and in some cases stabbings with a knife. If a girl became pregnant, she was forced to have an abortion. I was one of those girls."

Armed with dozens of heart-wrenching testimonies, Galang returned to Florida determined to bring the plight of the Filipino comfort women to the forefront. She lobbied the state's 85,000-strong Filipino-American population for signatures on a petition, also imploring citizens to write to their government representatives. She penned freelance articles for national magazines to raise awareness, and bombarded Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen with letters and phone calls in the hope she would support a resolution in favor of the comfort women.

Galang's efforts paid off.

This past July, Ros-Lehtinen cosponsored a bill that urged Japan to formally apologize. (Though Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi acknowledged in 1993 the nation's involvement in managing brothels, neither parliament nor his cabinet followed suit.) Galang traveled to Washington with several survivors for the hearing. It "was a horrific crime," Ros-Lehtinen said. "Attempts to deny or minimize these facts are a disservice to future generations."

The House unanimously approved the measure.

Japan didn't react, but according to a Washington Post article, Japanese Ambassador Ryozo Katoto had warned Congress before the vote that passing the bill could result in serious long-term damage to Japanese-U.S. relations. And, he said, his country might reconsider its role as one of the few loyal supporters of U.S. policy in Iraq, where it is the second-largest donor for rebuilding.

Narcisa Claveria is one of a handful of survivors hoping for compensation. In a video that Galang shot, Claveria smiles into the camera, her weathered skin belying the youthful sparkle in her eyes. "We want our dignity back," she says in Tagalog. "We want our dignity back."

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