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The specter of racism
Beginning in mid-1943, the Japanese “comfort” system extended to include young, unmarried female Dutch internees in Dutch Indonesia who were forced to service high-ranking officers. “Japanese commanders said, ‘Line up your 17 to 21 year olds,’” explains Kotler. “The mothers would know exactly what was going to happen. So they had to figure out which daughter could handle it and which couldn’t. The ones that couldn’t, they said, ‘Oh, she is sick. Really sick.’ So they lined up the ones they thought could handle it, but not all of them could.”
The systematic rape of the young Dutch women grew and on March 1, 1944, there was an official opening of four comfort stations in Samarang, Java. As Yuki Tanaka details in her book Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the US Occupation (Routledge, 2001), “When the women refused to serve the Japanese, they were threatened with torture and death for themselves and their families. They were eventually beaten, kicked, and raped on the opening night. Some of these women were raped by [Major] Okada himself as well as by some of the comfort station managers. One of the medical officers, who conducted periodic VD examinations of these women, also raped them.”
As was the case with other comfort women, these women attempted suicide and escape, became pregnant or had abortions. However, in the case of the Dutch women, high-ranking Japanese officials, knowing the international community would not approve of the forced and systematic rape of Western women, and trying to ensure that they would not be prosecuted for violations of international humanitarian law, forced, or tried to force them to sign forms stating that they were merely “volunteering.”
Thinking that their “consensual” assault of Western women would be ignored was a miscalculation on the part of the Japanese. Aided by the tenets laid out in Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, an international treaty that regulates the treatment of civilians during war—which states, “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault”—they were prosecuted by the Dutch after the end of World War II. The Netherlands established the Batavia War Crimes Tribunal and successfully prosecuted 12 Japanese military members who played a role in sexually enslaving Dutch nurses in Samarang. However, their Asian counterparts, who were not forced to sign similar types of forms and who were, therefore protected by international law, have had no prosecutions on their behalf. Some claim racism was the reason behind the prosecution void.
“If those victims were European or American, I think that the settlement issue could have been settled a long time ago,” says Dr. Ok Cha Soh, a Washington Bible College professor and former president and current advisor of the WCCW who believes that the international community was not, and is not, interested in what happened to the Asian comfort women. “However, most victims were from Asia, their cases have been delayed and they have been ignored. All the cases have been defeated. I think that there is subtle racial discrimination on this issue.”
Indeed, every case put before a Japanese or US court system, except for the Batavia War Crimes Tribunal in 1948, has been shot down. In September of 2000, the WCCW, along with 15 former comfort women, filed a class action lawsuit against Japan under the US Alien Tort Claims Act, used by foreign nationals to prosecute other foreign nationals for wrongs committed on foreign soil. The case, after a number of appeals, was thrown out for the last time in February 2006 after Japan successfully argued sovereign immunity and that compensation had been resolved under postwar treaties. The comfort women are now barred from US courts.