Reflections from 2014 Peace & Reconciliation Asia Study Tour

This summer I had the opportunity to participate in a weekly demonstration that has been going on since January 8, 1992, making it the world’s longest longevity demonstration in history.   The official name of this demonstration, also called weekly meeting, is the “Wednesday Demonstration Demanding Japan to Redress the Comfort Women Problems,” and it takes place every Wednesday at 12:00 noon in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. [1]  This event was one of many meaningful and educational events that took place during this year’s July 12-24 “2014 Peace and Reconciliation Asia Study Tour.”[2]  Besides Seoul, the tour also visited Shanghai, Nanjing, and Harbin in China.  This article provides a brief summary [3] of some reflections from this Asia Study Tour.

Comfort Women:  This 1,136th weekly demonstration took place on July 23, 2014.  Under a pleasant summer sky, the demonstration attracted several hundred people (first photo below; click on photo to get a larger picture), with young and old, Koreans and non-Koreans. and lasted exactly one hour.  The center of the demonstration was a bronze statue in commemoration of the hundreds of thousands of comfort women during WWII and Gil Won-Ok, an 86 year-old Korean woman who at the age of 13 was forced to be a Japanese military sexual slave in Harbin and Shijiazhuang, China (second photo).  Opposite the demonstration crowd was the Japanese Embassy in Seoul with closed blinds (third photo), and the objective of the demonstration is shown on the back of the yellow vests worn by the organizers and many sympathizers (fourth photo).

7/23/14 Comfort Women Demonstration in Seoul

7/23/14 Comfort Women Demonstration in Seoul

Center of attention is former comfort woman Gil Won-Ok and Comfort Woman Statue

Center of attention is former comfort woman Gil Won-Ok and Comfort Woman Statue

Opposite the demonstration crowd is the Japanese Embassy in Seoul

Opposite the demonstration crowd is the Japanese Embassy in Seoul

Demonstration objective is on the back of yellow vest

Demonstration objective is on the back of yellow vest

Comfort women was also the subject at our first stop in Shanghai, where we visited Professor Su Zhi Liang ( 蘇 智良) of the Chinese Comfort Women Research Center at Shanghai Normal University, whose primary research is on this subject for the last 20 years.  He and his wife Professor Chen Lifei (陳 麗 菲) have found and documented the history of many former Chinese comfort women and provided assistance to many of them.  They once had to walk seven hours to the top of a mountain to find the house of a former comfort woman.  He reported that with the help of many pro-bono righteous Japanese and Chinese lawyers, many lawsuits have been brought to the courts in Japan during the last 15-20 years.  Many of them went to the Japanese Supreme Court, but all failed for various reasons, including (1) the statue of limitations has passed, (2) Chinese government waived WWII compensation when China and Japan signed their Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978, and (3) foreign individuals do not have the right to sue the Japanese government in Japan.

As in other countries, comfort women, especially in earlier periods, often faced discrimination or ostracizing by their own family, community, or government.  Even to today, they often do not receive as much support from their own government as they should, considering the magnitude and the life-lasting suffering that they have to endure. [4]  It really saddens you when you hear what these women had to endure when they were just young girls in their teens or early twenties, and the courage they exhibit during all these years facing almost insurmountable physical, emotional, and psychological barriers.  It is also gratifying to see that there are so many young people who enthusiastically show their support and participate in the Weekly Demonstrations in Seoul.

Forced Laborers:  In Nanjing, besides learning about the Nanking Massacre, we also heard about the forced labor atrocity from Attorney Kang Jiang () and Professor Bu Ping (步平) of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.  This is a massive issue involving as many as 10 million Chinese forced laborers.  Remember that Japan is a small country with a corresponding population whose men were scattered all over Asia fighting wars.  They needed a large number of men to work on producing the food and suppliers for their large Japanese army.  According to an official report from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs dated 1946 when they had already lost the war and were trying to erase or at least reduce the magnitude of their crimes, there were 40,000 Chinese forced laborers in Japan, which was probably an underestimate by an order of magnitude.  Since most of the Chinese forced laborers were working in various parts of China, and not Japan, the 10M number of Chinese forced laborers may not be that surprising.

The working conditions were atrocious, e.g., the forced laborers had to crawl on their belly for about 30 minutes just to enter the mine to work because the height of the mine tunnel was only 70 centimeters.  The treatment was completely inhumane, with brutal or even deadly punishment for any stoppage of work to rest or stretch, and they were fed with sub-minimal food, which was completely contrary to Japanese reports and textbooks that the Chinese laborers were treated well.  The resulting death rate was often as high as 50%, and in certain places the blind rate  was also close to 50%.  Many lawsuits were filed in Japan.  The Chinese forced laborers won several cases up to the district courts, but they all failed at the Japanese Supreme Court.  The reasons given were similar to the comfort women cases, due to the expiration of the statue of limitations or the Chinese government already waived compensations.  Nevertheless, in one case, a Japanese Supreme Court justice noted in an appendix that the Chinese laborers were treated very badly and the Japanese companies should try to resolve the cases.

Unlike the comfort women situation, Chinese forced laborers can sue Japanese corporations in Chinese courts since although individuals may not be able to sue the Japanese government, they can sue the Japanese corporations.  Also, keep in mind that individual Chinese citizens have not waived compensations, and many of these Japanese corporations are still doing business in China.  That is exactly what has happened since February of this year, and several such cases have been accepted to be heard in Chinese courts.

It is important to note that the Chinese Oversea Association in Japan played an important and helpful role by providing to the forced laborers and their legal teams a lot of relevant documents/records, such as the names of the involved corporations and the locations of their work, which were often kept secretive from the workers.  They had received many of these documents/records from honorable Japanese personnel.

Chemical Warfare:  Professor Bu Ping also discussed chemical warfare conducted by Japan on China.  This is another massive atrocity that is still haunting the Chinese today. First, the Japanese produced thousands of tons of toxic chemicals which went into millions of chemical weapons.  It has been estimated that during the 14 years of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1931-1945), Japan used chemical weapons more than 2,000 times in 77 counties of 14 provinces in direct violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, which Japan had also signed. These attacks killed tens of thousands of Chinese, including many civilians. All Japanese people know about the droppings of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but few Japanese know about the use of chemical weapons in China by the Japanese military.

Without exaggeration, hundreds of thousands of these chemical weapons were left in China after the end of WWII.  Since 1999, there is agreement between Japan and China that Japan admits leaving these weapons in China and Japan will provide the technology and money to work with China on finding and removing these weapons.  This was supposed to be completed by 2007.  However, the completion date was extended to 2012, and then extended again to 2017, and it is unlikely that the 2017 date can be met.  In the meantime, such weapons could explode during excavations in construction projects.  In our visit to Harbin, Heilongjiang Province in northeast China on 7/19/14, we heard from two victims of just such a chemical weapon explosion in 2003 near Harbin. Both men and their daughters suffered serious physical and mental disabilities.  Although they received some financial compensation from Japan [5], those funds were quickly used up in several months of medical treatment, and all four victims still need medical treatments for an extended period.  They are trying to get more help from the Chinese government.

There could be another long-term disaster for the world from the remnants of Japan’s chemical weapons from WWII.  After Japan’s defeat in 1945, to reduce evidence of their crime, the Japanese government dumped many metal containers of poisonous gases into the ocean near Japan and China.  In the future, when these containers leak, will the poisonous gases contained inside create harmful effects to the world’s environment and people?

Biological Warfare and Human Experimentation:  The visit to Harbin’s “The Museum of War Crime Evidence by Japanese Army Unit 731” gave rise to a most haunting experience.  Unit 731 was the largest of many Japanese biological and chemical research centers and factories in China during WWII.  Unit 731 was a gigantic complex covering six square kilometers and consisted of more than 150 buildings.  Up to 3,000 Japanese staff members worked there, with 300-500 medical doctors and scientists.  It is most likely the world’s largest biological/chemical warfare research center and factory ever.  Its infamous experiments were live vivisection on living human beings without the use of anesthesia.  For example, the Japanese military wanted to find out the effects of various biological weapons on the internal organs of a person while he was still alive, and the use of anesthesia could alter the effects on the person.

A deadly output of Unit 731 was Japan’s biological weapons.  Depending on the strictness of the evidence for the actual use of such biological weapons by Japan in China during WWII, the number of actual applications outside of the laboratory experiments ranges from a dozen to many dozens to even more than one hundred.  In spite of the immoral, illegal, and highly deadly activities that took place at Unit 731, none of its leaders, including Surgeon General Shiro Ishii, the Director of Unit 731, was ever prosecuted by the WWII War Crime Tribunal.  This was because of an agreement made between Japan and the U.S. that these people would not be prosecuted in exchange for the information and knowledge that they have gained which would be of tremendous value to furthering the U.S.’s research in biological/chemical weapons. [6]

Concluding Remarks:  The 2014 Peace and Reconciliation Asia Study Tour was emotionally draining, but at the same time highly educational and worthwhile.  Without learning about this part of history, and especially without seeing evidence and talking to the survivors, it is hard to think that such massive and inhumane atrocities that one group of human beings would want to inflict on another group of human beings.  But these things did occur.  Therefore, it becomes our responsibility to share that knowledge with the rest of the world, and to make sure that this kind of inhumanity will not occur again, anywhere in the world.

 

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[1] The Wednesday Demonstration was listed in March 2002 in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest rally on a single theme.

[2] This Asia Study Tour was organized by the Toronto Alliance for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (Toronto ALPHA). The “New Jersey Alliance for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia” (NJ-ALPHA) sent six people to this tour.

[3] To keep the article from being very long, I included only a few highlights from this tour.

[4] Many of these sufferings last throughout their life-time.  For example, about half of the comfort women could not get pregnant because of the medicine given to them by the Japanese doctors.

[5] It is not clear, at least to me, who provided the compensation.

[6] For more information on this subject, see, e.g.,

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One Response to “Reflections from 2014 Peace & Reconciliation Asia Study Tour”

  1. Walter Ko says:

    Don:

    Your trip is inspirational in peace and humanity for seeking truth for the victims of Imperial Japan in WW II. They whitewash, distort and deny the Port Arthur 1894 and the 1937 Rape of Nanking. As they took after Germany since Meiji Restoration, they do not have the moral authority and courage to admit the atrocities.

    We need to condemn such evil who resurrects imperialism and militarism to endanger world peace!

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