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Tuesday, 15 September 2009
Page: 6635


Senator McGAURAN (7:41 PM) —I rise to speak on the issue of the official Japanese government and military policy in World War II of sexual slavery of women known as comfort women. Up to 200,000 women and girls from the Netherlands, Japan, Korea, Philippines, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Timor were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army before and during World War II. As I said, euphemistically referred to as comfort women, they endured gang rape, forced abortions, humiliation and sexual violence resulting in mutilation, death or eventual suicide.

I recently received a letter from Amnesty International appealing to Australian parliamentarians to pressure the Japanese government for an apology for this wartime atrocity and grave human rights abuse. The seeking of an official Japanese government apology has been a long-running issue. It is unfinished business of the Second World War. Even though it is some 65 years on, so many of the victims are still alive today.

It is a stain on modern Japan to defend or ignore its shameful history in this respect. For as long as it does not apologise and fully recognise its cruel actions the injustice remains. An apology would bring to those women who were enslaved and their families some sort of relief and resolution. Cannot the Japanese government understand this and step back from whatever perceived loss of face or embarrassment an admission would bring and concede this historical fact and reach out to these women in a spirit of generosity?

Some years ago I was made aware of this issue through an autobiography called Fifty Years of Silence written by Jan Ruff-O’Hearne, a comfort woman. Jan, now an Australian, was formerly a Dutch citizen in the then colony of Indonesia when the war broke out. Anyone who reads her story will be moved. It is intensely sad yet incredibly inspiring. She is a great person and a great Australian. She has given the most valuable gift of all to people who face adversity; she has given the power of example—the example of how to be strong and how to survive.

For Jan it could hardly have been a worse human trial. From the moment I read her story I greatly admired her. And I have even drawn on her example and reflections. In brief, her story is summarised in the notes on her book:

Jan Ruff-O’Hearne’s idyllic childhood in Dutch colonial Indonesia ended when the Japanese invaded Java in 1942. She was interned in Ambarawa Prison Camp along with her mother and two younger sisters. In February 1944, when Jan was just twenty-one years old, she was taken from the camp and forced into sexual slavery in a military brothel. Jan was repeatedly beaten and raped for a period of three months, after which she was returned to prison camp with threats that her family would be killed if she revealed the truth about the atrocities inflicted upon her. For fifty years, Jan told no-one what had happened to her, but in 1992, after seeing Korean war rape victims making appeals for justice, she decided to speak out and support them. Before she could testify publicly, though, she had to find a way to tell her family and friends about all she had suffered.

Jan’s story was also told on the ABC TV show Australian Story, and I will quote from extracts from that program. For example, a clear impact of keeping the incident secret for 50 years was shown by a comment from Jan’s daughter, Eileen:

It was a perfectly kept secret. There was some things that didn’t make any sense - like, my mother always used to say, when it was her birthday or Mother’s Day, and we’d say, “What do you want for a present?” And she’d say, “Just don’t give me flowers.” They’re such a waste of money. Don’t give me flowers.” And we couldn’t understand that.

During the story Jan revealed the answer to that puzzle when she said:

We were given flower names and they were pinned on our doors, you know. I can’t remember my Japanese flower name. I just didn’t even want to know about it.

Jan also recorded in that program how she first decided to break her silence:

In 1992, 50 years on, I remember hearing on the news that the war in Bosnia had broken out, and women were being raped. Then I saw on television the Korean comfort women. The South Korean comfort women were the first ones to speak out. And I watched them here in my living room. And they wanted justice and compensation and an apology, more than anything else. They wanted an apology from the Japanese government. And they weren’t getting anywhere. They were getting nowhere. And I thought, “I must back up these women. Now it’s time to speak out.”

There was going to be an international hearing on Japanese war crimes to be held in December 1992 in Tokyo. I was asked would I be a witness. But before I could do that, of course, I had to tell my family. I had to tell Eileen and Carol. You know, how can you tell your daughters? The shame was still so great, you know. I knew I had to tell them, but I couldn’t tell them face to face.

In 2007, Jan Ruff-O’Herne, now 84, appeared before the US congress in Washington, which was inquiring into the same matter. Her quest for an apology is as tireless as it is admirable.

Many parliaments around the world have called upon the government of Japan to apologise to the comfort women before it is too late. These include the United States, the UK, Taiwan and Korea. Australia is one of the few countries that have not expressed their concern. I urge Senate members to individually press for an apology from the Japanese government by writing to the embassy here in Canberra. Moreover, I urge the parliament to seek an apology from the Japanese government.