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Tuesday, Oct. 19, 1999

Simple testimony to tragedy

Staff writer
COMFORT WOMAN, A Filipina's Story of Prostitution and Slavery under the Japanese Military, by Maria Rosa Henson, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., Lanham, MD, USA, 1999, 120 pages, $19.95 (paper).

Here is yet another witness to World War II atrocities committed by Japanese forces. Maria Rosa Henson witnessed a great deal, not only with her eyes but with her whole body. She and the many others will not be silenced. They may be poor and may speak the simple language of the uneducated, but they will keep on giving witness.

The issue of wartime sex slaves has been widely debated, but most accounts are highly politicized. Henson's book is different for two reasons: She experienced the tragedy firsthand and therefore speaks with authority; but she also speaks with the voice of healing, since she has lived with the nightmare for decades and survived, both physically and spiritually.

Thus, there is no hint of vindictiveness in this book. When Henson gives the details of her nine-month ordeal -- how at age 14 she was raped up to 30 times a day, suffered beatings and was denied urgent medical treatment -- she simply relates events in an almost matter-of-fact way.

Also important is the fact that Henson was the first Filipino former sex slave, in September 1992, to speak out in public. Doing so must have taken great courage. She admits, "It was not an easy decision to make. I often heard people in our neighborhood and elsewhere sneering at me behind my back. 'You just want to be a superstar or to make money,' they said."

Her example encouraged dozens of others to come forward. These women found they shared the same fate, and working together with the Task Force on Filipino Comfort Women, they could support each other to overcome their shame.

Henson said that "I was able to surmount all this pain because I had the support of my family and of the task force members."

This task force and other women's organizations involved in the military sex-slave issue are described in the book's introduction, written by Yuki Tanaka, who also explains the origin of World War II military brothels in East Asia and provides some analysis.

Henson's own story, by contrast, offers no rationalization. Another amazing aspect of this book is that despite its title, it does not focus narrowly on the sex-slave controversy. Her sufferings encompassed much more than the atrocities wrought by the Japanese. Henson's life is a catalog of sexist oppression, by father and husband as well as invader.

In the beginning, Henson's mother, Julia, worked as a maid at the house of a prosperous landowner, Don Pepe Henson. The landowner took advantage of the situation to rape Julia, and then used his money to silence her outrage. Thus, Maria Rosa was born illegitimately.

Don Pepe helped support her, along with a whole pack of Julia's poor relatives, but Maria Rosa could never be recognized openly or live with her father, because he had his own legal wife and family.

After the war, she continued to suffer from trauma but eventually succeeded in finding a husband and having children. All seemed well until her husband ran away to join leftist guerrillas fighting to overthrow the Filipino government. Maria Rosa was left to raise her two daughters and support the family alone. Yet even then, her problems were not over.

As a leader of the guerrillas, her husband had Maria Rosa kidnapped and held captive for months in the mountains under threat of death.

These additional sufferings do not mitigate the horror of sexual slavery, but they do add perspective. One wonders how this woman was able to endure it all. She herself attributed her strength to God: "Maybe it helped that I have faith. I had learned to accept suffering. I also learned to forgive. If Jesus Christ could forgive those who crucified Him, I thought I could also find it in my heart to forgive those who had abused me."

Telling her story and campaigning for an official apology from the Japanese government were also part of the healing process, but Henson did not seem to put much faith in these legal and political efforts. When she came to Japan to testify before the Tokyo district court, she was at the center of the controversy, with pundits on both sides arguing passionately.

Still, Henson was preoccupied with her own mundane personal matters. She wrote, "All throughout my stay in Japan, I was worrying about my house. On the eve of our departure for Tokyo, my small, two-story house burned down." She lost everything: TV set, china, refrigerator, two sewing machines, etc. These items were apparently much more important to her than any quixotic campaign for official recognition.

And in fact, no succor would come from the Japanese government or courts. It seems the former sex slaves' efforts have brought them no personal benefit. They have only succeeded in heaping shame on Japan, both for its crimes of the past and its cowardly, almost pathological need to hide and cover up today.

But the witnesses to wartime atrocities are still coming forward, the harmless victims who only want to be heard. It reminds me of the Harrison Ford movie "Witness," where the evil-doers will stop at nothing to silence a young Amish boy who saw a murder. At the end of the movie, more and more Amish people appear. Their only weapon is their witness. Ford's character asks the bad guy, "What are you going to do -- kill them all?"

Of course, the outright killing of wartime witnesses ended long ago. Those who still seek to deny or ignore Japanese military atrocities are now apparently hoping all the witnesses will just die of old age. Henson herself died in August 1997, but her words live on. Her example is unforgettable.

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