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The Last Witnesses
Documentary on World War II sex slaves seeks recognition for the dwindling sorority
By Pan Xiaoqiao | NO. 36 SEPTEMBER 7, 2017

Li Ailian feeds stray cats (SCREENSHOT)

Movie director Guo Ke was scrolling through Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging site, five years ago when something caught his eye. It was a blog about a 92-year-old woman, Wei Shaolan, who was living in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China. Wei was a survivor of the brutal sex slavery that thousands of women in East Asia were forced into by the invading Japanese during World War II, and what went to Guo's heart especially was the tragedy that continued beyond Wei's generation.

In 1944, the Japanese arrived in Guidong, Wei's village, slaughtering, looting and raping. Wei, then a young nursing mother, tried to flee with her baby daughter but was caught and dragged to a "comfort station," Japan's euphemism for the hundreds of prisons set up in East Asia to provide sex slaves for the troops. There, she was brutalized for three months. When she managed to escape and rejoin her family, she found herself pregnant.

She gave birth to a son, Luo Shanxue, and his suffering has been as intense as his mother's. Shunned and stigmatized by the village because of his Japanese blood, Luo lived the life of a pariah, with his mother as his only companion.

The report made Guo search out the village and begin to document the lives of the mother and son. Though reconciled to his life, Luo couldn't help voice his occasional anguish. "My life is a tragedy because of the Japanese invaders," he told Guo. "The locals despise me, and when I was young, six women refused to marry me. I am condemned to remain alone because of my Japanese blood."

The interviews made Guo decide to shoot a documentary on the mother and son. The 43-minute film was called Thirty Two, a reference to the number of Japanese sex slavery survivors alive in China at that time. As he researched the dwindling community in China, he felt a sense of urgency. The average age of the women was around 90, and each year, their number was decreasing. As they were a part of history, it was necessary to record their lives and save them from oblivion.

So in 2014, Guo decided to create a collage of the lives of all the remaining survivors in China, and another documentary, Twenty Two, paid tribute to the community, which had been reduced to 22 at that time.

Twenty Two was released in China on August 14, which is now observed as the International Memorial Day for the Victims of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery. However, by that time the number of recorded survivors had gone down to just eight.

Wei Shaolan and her son Luo Shanxue have a meal (SCREENSHOT)

Why we need another film

After 1991, when South Korea's Kim Hak-soon became the first recorded sex slavery survivor to talk about the brutal practice and file a class-action lawsuit against the Japanese Government, there has been a stream of films and documentaries on the Japanese militarist government's atrocities against women in occupied countries during World War II. So why does Twenty Two stand out?

Guo said his documentary is not about the women's lives as sex slaves, but about afterward, toward the end of their lives, showing how they have tried to move on, retaining compassion and optimism.

"I can do everything," one of them said in the film, as her daughter-in-law asked if she would be able to get out of bed.

Another, Li Ailian, saved her food to give it to stray cats and kittens which came to her house. When she noticed a mother cat was pregnant, she urged it to bring the kittens along.

Li, from north China's Shanxi Province, told the camera she was taken to "comfort stations" twice as a teenager. Once, her captors did not give her any food for three days. "When someone gave me a bunch of scallions, I just gobbled them up," she remembered. "I ate eight scallions in a row and then doubled up with stomach pain."

When Li came out of the station, her husband did not abandon her, telling her it was not her fault. The documentary shows her smiling as she watched a TV program with her grandson.

"I made Twenty Two because I wanted to show their lives in their old age," Guo said in an interview with Xinhua News Agency. "We don't mean to create conflict, reopen scars and provoke hatred. It is not a movie that sells pain and tears. It is enough to bring the audience to them, to see them, and to get to know them."

There are no salacious details about the women's lives in the "comfort stations" or attempts to rake up anti-Japanese hysteria. "I regard every one of them as my grandma," the 36-year-old Guo said. "Would you ask them how they were raped by the Japanese if they were your grandmother? The secret is deeply buried in their heart. Why try to dig it up? If they were your own grandmother, you would never do so."

So Twenty Two lets them reminisce as much into their past lives as they want to. Some talk of the invasion and killings. Lin Ailan remained feisty and full of fire despite living on her own in a home for the elderly in south China's Hainan Province. "I took a gun in my hand and killed two Japanese," she said in the film. She was held by the Japanese for two years, and her captors, she said, disabled her. Her mobility is limited and the documentary shows her hobbling from her bed to the door by pushing a plastic chair like a baby's walker. There she sat throughout the day, watching the world go by.

Yet she was no object of pity. Her possessions, though meager, include a collection of medals. A retired schoolmaster, who came to see her regularly, said he was told she was a war heroine who infiltrated a Japanese camp and smuggled out ammunition for the Chinese military.

Lin passed away in 2015 at the age of 90, but the documentary will serve to keep her memory alive.

Despite the passage of time, the survivors' wounds have not healed. Whenever the subject of their life after capture came up, they broke down, weeping or covering their faces with their hands. "I don't want to talk about it" was the common response.

"They have their own way of absorbing the pain," Guo said. "In order to survive, they seldom recall those bitter memories. They would not have lived to their 80s and 90s if they held grudges and were miserable all the time."

"The world is so good," said Wei, though for decades, she and her mixed-blood son lived in poverty and faced prejudice both locally and elsewhere. "My only regret is that life is short, not about being poor."

Guo told that some film distributors had once asked him to add some anti-Japanese sentiment to the film to stir up the audience's emotions, especially details of the women's terrible experiences. He refused.

Wang Xinyi, a postgraduate student in Beijing who watched the documentary, said she appreciated the restrained directing. "The film shows the deepest humane concern for the survivors," she said. "I don't think it is deliberately designed to move people to tears or to incite hatred and retaliation. It means to convey to us that these grandmothers represent a group of war victims who deserve to be known and better understood by the whole society."

Representatives of community organizations hold pictures of "comfort women" during a rally in front of the Japanese Consulate General in San Francisco, the United States, on August 14 marking the International Memorial Day for the Victims of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (XINHUA)

Surviving stigma

Trying to create social understanding still remains a crucial issue. The "comfort women" issue remains a sensitive topic, with prejudice and discrimination still existing against the women, who were regarded as willing collaborators, and their offspring.

Last year, an exhibition marking the site of "comfort station" in Shanghai was relocated. People who lived near it told China Central Television that they were relieved. Some even said "comfort women" were whores and the country's shame.

Guo hopes his film will help remove the bias. "I hope the public will no longer misunderstand them," he said at a press conference. "Their true identity is women forced to be sex slaves by the Japanese army. They are not whores, but war victims."

To make the documentary, the 30-member team traveled to five provinces despite an acute funding shortage. The original financier withdrew, forcing the team to raise money through crowdfunding twice. Also, actress Zhang Xinyi stepped in as a Good Samaritan, contributing 1 million yuan ($147,400). Finally, the documentary was shot on a tight budget of 3 million yuan ($453,800).

As no one expected it to do well financially due to the sensitive topic, the premiere was held in just 1.5 percent of China's 45,000 cinema screens. At that time, Guo said he would be very satisfied if it brought in around 6 million yuan ($907,700).

However, the low-budget documentary recorded a box-office profit of 150 million yuan ($22.69 million) within 10 days, becoming the first Chinese documentary to do so.

Guo has promised to donate all the revenue from this documentary to the Research Center for Chinese Comfort Women at Shanghai Normal University and to the survivors and their offspring if they are living in abject poverty.

Yoneda Nishida is a young Japanese volunteer who has been trying to atone for the war crimes by visiting the survivors in Hainan and taking care of their daily needs. When victim Huang Youliang recounted her ordeal in a Tokyo court in 2008, Nishida sat in the public gallery listening. She said she was shocked by the details.

According to her, in its history education, Japan deliberately amplifies its status as a victim by stressing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As for what Japan did to other countries during World War II, such as China, students know very little.

"There are two pages on 'comfort women' and the Nanjing Massacre in junior middle school history textbooks, but teachers always skip those two," she said.

In August 1993, Yohei Kono, then Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary, admitted on behalf of the Japanese Government that the government and army had established "comfort stations" and had forced women to become "comfort women." Though this was an overdue apology, the Shinzo Abe administration of Japan later claimed that there was no solid evidence to prove that the Japanese army or government had forced the women to be sex slaves.

Zhang Shuangbing, a retired teacher in Shanxi, began to record the stories of more than 100 survivors in the 1980s. For 30 years, he helped these women with their lawsuits against the Japanese Government in the hope of winning an apology and compensation for them.

However, today he regrets the fact that not only did the victims never get any justice, but bringing up their past lives before the public led to fresh trauma and humiliation for them. "If I could choose again, I would rather not have helped the survivors with the lawsuits," he said in the documentary. "At least then their bitter memories would not have been raked up again, and their past, of which they are ashamed, would not have been exposed to the public, which led to further discrimination against them."

Documentaries like Twenty Two supplement official initiatives to keep the memory of the women alive. At a press briefing in 2014, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that UNESCO had accepted China's application to register records of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and Japan's wartime sex slaves on the Memory of the World Register, a record created in 1997 to preserve the world's documentary heritage.

Having survived one of the worst periods in history, the remaining survivors have a powerful message to deliver. "I hope China and Japan can make peace with each other," Chen Lintao, a survivor who passed away in 2014, said in the documentary. "No more wars. Once a war begins, many more people will die."

Mei Ru'ao was a Chinese judge and author who attended the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, convened from 1946 to 1948, to try Japanese political and military leaders charged with war crimes. In his book on the Nanjing Massacre, Mei warned about the consequences of forgetting the past. "I don't want revenge," he wrote. "I have no intention to settle the blood debt incurred by the Japanese military with the Japanese people. However, I believe that forgetting the sufferings of the past may cause a calamity in the future."

Justice Still Not Served

During World War II, at least 200,000 Chinese women and girls were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese army. Statistics from the Research Center for Chinese Comfort Women (RCCCW) at Shanghai Normal University show that 75 percent of them were tortured to death.

Su Zhiliang, RCCCW Director who has been investigating the issue for 13 years, said a large number of the survivors lost their ability to bear children due to sex abuse and barbaric contraception means imposed on them by the Japanese army. Many of them never got married. Some of them, although married, were abandoned by their husbands due to infertility or the perceived sense of stigma. Many of them lived in solitude and poverty for the rest of their life.

Su said since 1995, 24 survivors on the Chinese mainland had filed four lawsuits against the Japanese, but all of them came to naught.

Two days before Twenty Two was released, Huang Youliang, the last Chinese survivor to sue the Japanese Government, left the world in sorrow.

Huang and seven other women sued the Japanese Government in July 2001, demanding an apology and the restoration of their reputation. But their petitions were repeatedly dismissed, with the Japanese Government claiming they were not empowered to file a lawsuit against a state. Huang, the staunchest pursuer of justice, had said that even if the Japanese Government did not apologize to them, she hoped for an apology from the Japanese soldiers who had raped her. However, until her death, there was no apology either from the Japanese Government or the soldiers involved.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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