Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace

Initiatives of a Women’s Museum in the Perpetrating State:

Remembering Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery

Mina Watanabe, Secretary General of WAM, Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM), http://www.wam-peace.org/en/ 


Focusing on Sexual Violence during War

Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM) is a small museum established in Tokyo, focusing on the history of Japan’s military sexual slavery during WWII, or the so-called “comfort women” issue, and violence against women in war and conflict situations.

The system of Japan’s military sexual slavery operated throughout the Asia-Pacific under Japan’s occupation until 1945. But after the war it was not well known until the first survivor, Ms. Haksun Kim from South Korea in 1991 came forward and testified her experience. Other survivors followed her and came forward to tell the truth including the survivors from North and South Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, East Timor, Myanmar, Japan, and the islands in the Pacific. Responding to their call, the women in Japan have joined the movement and been working to hold the Japanese government accountable for these crimes and to help justice and dignity restored for the women survivors.

WAM is a place to pass on these “herstories” kept from history for 50 years after the war. This is an especially important responsibility of the women of Japan, the perpetrating country, where denials are continued by the government and the facts of “comfort women” erased from history textbooks. We are determined to keep the history, but telling the story of sexual crimes done by one’s own country’s military is itself a struggle.

In exhibitions, WAM tries to highlight the specificities of the suffering during and after the war in each region. Special attention is given to the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators. In telling the life of the survivors, we not only depict the suffering from sexual violence but also the courage to come forward.

Now, museums on Japan’s military “comfort women” are established in South Korea, China, Taiwan and the Philippines. The museum movement will spread throughout the victimized countries mainly because the survivors are dying and the Japanese government’s denial continues. We work together and share materials; our concrete solidarity and collaboration would also help building trust in each other.


Inclusive Peace Practices: Displaying Responsibility, Friday 21 October 2016

International Women’s Museums Conference  Women’s Museums: Centre of Social Memory and Place of Inclusion, Istanbul, 20-22 October 2016


  1. Women’s Suffering Erased from History

Recording and remembering the sexual violence women suffer during war and armed conflicts in a public space is always difficult. Survivors keep these horrifying experiences hidden in their bodies and in their minds. Telling what happened to them, showing the scars can cause tremendous pain, and even become a second rape for women who tell their stories. It was only in the 1990s that courageous women began to come forward and testify about what had happened to them during the war, strongly condemning the perpetrator’s denials and silence, and demanding that their experiences be recorded in order to prevent recurrence.

In the Asia-Pacific region, women who broke this silence were the victims/survivors of Japan’s military sexual slavery system during WWII, euphemistically called the “comfort women” system. The Japanese military and government set up brothel-like facilities or rape centers called “comfort stations” wherever its troops invaded. Until the end of the war, women were trapped in these “comfort stations” against their will.  Many did not survive the war. The total number of the victims remains unknown, as the Japanese government has never done sufficient research to find out.

Women’s experiences are always underrepresented; they are too often erased from history. The system of Japan’s military sexual slavery is no exception. After Imperial Japan’s defeat in August 1945, Japanese people developed a collective conviction to denounce war, as is clearly written in Japan’s post-war constitution. However, the majority of Japanese have only been concerned about the suffering of their own people. Soldiers remained silent about the crimes they committed or witnessed during the war, and the public was kept uninformed of Japan’s wrongful acts during the war it waged in the Asia- Pacific region. Today, national history museums in Japan, including the ones in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, make almost no reference to the crimes Japanese troops committed in the Asian-Pacific areas Japan colonized or occupied. Government authorities started controlling the way the war was remembered as early as mid-1950s if not earlier. In 1981, for example, the word “aggression” in Asia was changed to “advancement”, while the “anti-Japan resistance movement” was referred to as “riots”. For decades now, Japan has been harshly criticized by neighboring countries for its historical narrative.

  1. Survivors Broke the Silence

In 1991, with the fiftieth anniversary of the end of WWII approaching, Ms. Haksun Kim from South Korea broke this long silence. She came forward and testified about her experience as a “comfort woman” after she heard that the Japanese government had denied its involvement in the sexual slavery system. It took fifty years for her to reveal the details of her experience in “comfort stations” and the lifelong effects of her suffering. Not only in Korea but in many other Asian communities, women who were known to have been “comfort women,” or to have been raped by Japanese soldiers often faced ostracism, discrimination and isolation. Moreover, under the strong influence of the Cold War, many Asian governments were oppressive and undemocratic, making it even harder for women who lived in these countries to hold Japan, a foreign government, accountable.


Driven by Ms. Haksun Kim’s courageous testimony, other survivors in the Asia-Pacific region also broke their silence; survivors from North and South Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, East Timor and the Netherlands have come forward and demanded reparation from the Japanese government. Responding to the survivors’ call for redress, women and men in Japan, though not as many as we would hope, have joined the redress movement and have been working to hold the Japanese government accountable for these crimes and to restore justice and dignity to the women survivors. A few historians started fact-finding research and located official documents which clearly show that the so-called “comfort stations” were established as military facilities, and that these “comfort stations” were under the Japanese military’s control. In this quarter-century, more than 800 such documents have been located in archives not only in Japan but also in countries such as the US, the Netherlands and China.

In order to visualize the magnitude of Japan’s military sexual slavery system, we have made a Map of “Comfort Stations” (see picture 1). The locations of the “comfort stations” shown are based on official documents we have located, as well as the testimonies of survivors, former soldiers and witnesses. The yellow line shows the outer limit of the territory the Japanese military invaded. The map clearly shows that the practice was widespread and exercised throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

  1. Women’s Museum in the Perpetrating State

To live up to our responsibility as women of the perpetrating State, we opened the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM) in Tokyo in August 2005, which marked the sixtieth anniversary of Japan’s defeat. The museum is supported by donations from people in Japan and abroad. WAM is a small private museum, specifically focusing on the history of Japan’s military sexual slavery system, and sexual violence in war and conflict situations throughout the world.

The initial impetus behind WAM was to preserve the documents from the “Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s military sexual slavery” held in Tokyo, 2000. The “Women’s Tribunal” was a people’s court held by global civil society to end impunity for violence against women in conflict situations. The women’s tribunal made clear not only the damage suffered but also who were responsible for the Japanese military’s crimes of sexual slavery during WWII. Now we keep the documents accumulated during the three years of preparation, as well as records of the outcome of the tribunal, in our library.

Where to establish WAM and what to display in it—everything was a challenge. Most military “comfort stations” were set up in war-areas abroad. Objects related to the “comfort women” system, such as personal effects or photos of the survivors from that time period were unavailable for display, as most of the victimized women were abandoned in war areas and barely managed to make it home after the war. There was also the issue of privacy. In order not to add to their suffering, it was essential for the museum to receive permission from survivors to include their stories in our exhibitions.

  1. Inclusive Exhibitions in Limited Space

After three years of preparation, WAM was established in a small corner of a building in Tokyo. Because it was also to serve as a centre for activism, it had to be in a convenient area in Tokyo. Acquiring a space in central Tokyo big enough to present a full picture of the system of sexual slavery, as well as preserving testimonies and evidence from nine countries all at once was financially impossible. Therefore, instead of one big permanent exhibition, featured exhibitions were planned focusing on each country, highlighting the specific characteristics of the suffering during and after the war in each region, along with thematic exhibitions.

During the past eleven years, fourteen special exhibitions have already been carried out (see table 1). Seven have focused on specific countries/areas, while the other seven have been thematic exhibitions. WAM plans to eventually feature all the affected countries/areas. The planning of thematic exhibitions depends on the political situation or the expectations of society at large. For example, in 2007, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied the involvement of the military in the forcible recruitment of “comfort women,” a special exhibition entitled “A ‘Comfort Women’ Primer for Middle School Students” was held in response. This was an exhibition especially for beginners (like Mr. Abe), clarifying the Japanese military’s purpose in setting up “comfort stations”, the patterns and structure of the “comfort women” system, and testimonies of survivors from each country/area.


Table 1: The themes of special exhibitions:

  • All About the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal (Aug. to Nov. 2005)
  • Yayori Matsui: Her Life and Work (Dec. 2005 to Apr. 2006)
  • Abandoned Far From Home: Korean “Comfort Women” (Apr. to Nov. 2006)
  • Women Living Through War: The Case of East Timor (Dec. 2006 to May 2007)
  • A “Comfort Women” Primer for Middle School Students (June 2007 to May 2008)
  • When Japanese Soldiers Came: Wartime “Comfort Stations” and Mass Rape in China (June 2008 to June 2009)
  • Testimony and Silence – former soldiers facing up to their crimes (July 2009 to June 2010)
  • Ten years since the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal : Women’s Voices Change the World (July 2010 to June 2011)
  • The Lolas Stand Up: from the Ravaged Islands of the Philippines (July 2011 to June 2012)
  • The Military Does Not Protect Women: Okinawa, Japan’s Military Comfort Stations and Sexual Violence by the US Military (June 2012 to June 2013)
  • Testimonies of Taiwanese “Comfort Women”: How Ah-mas were turned into Japanese (July 2013 to June 2014)
  • A “Comfort Women” Primer for Middle School Students Plus (July 2014 to June 2015)
  • Under the Glorious Guise of “Asian Liberation” :Indonesia and Sexual Violence under Japanese Military Occupation (July 2015 to June 2016)
  • Battlefield from Hell: Japanese Comfort Stations in Burma Tracing the Footsteps of MUN Ok-ju (July 2016 to June 2017)


  1. Presenting a Victim as a Whole Person

The testimonies and stories told by survivors are the most important component of each exhibition. Most survivors were forced into sexual slavery at an age when they would be more appropriately referred to as girls than women. Before becoming victims of the Japanese military, some had happy lives, surrounded by family and friends, while others dreamed of escaping a life of poverty. The method of abduction or recruitment differs: some were deceived with promises of good jobs by brokers, while others were forcibly taken away by soldiers in the midst of battles. They were then plunged into a nightmare of constant rape at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Some endured this for a few days or months, while others were trapped for years. After Japan was defeated, they were released. Some returned home, others stayed in the areas where they had been taken; for nearly all, a life of struggle against poverty, disease and alienation from the community began. Then, in the 1990s, they broke their long silence. In order for visitors to encounter each survivor’s individual life, we make “testimony panels” for each survivor in the exhibition. The panels are written in the first person in order to give visitors the feeling that they are listening to her testimony. “Testimony panels” show the role of sexual violence in her whole life, from before the war, to her experiences as a “comfort woman,” and on through the post-war years when she broke her silence.

One of the most impressive demands from a survivor from South Korea, Kang-Dok-yung, was “we would like to see who was responsible for Japan’s system of military sexual slavery.” In the case of rape and other forms of sexual violence, attention is invariably focused on the victims. Victims are asked to give a detailed account of what happened to them, and after their private lives are thoroughly investigated, they often become the targets of ridicule and condemnation. The survivors were raped by numerous soldiers, but they do not know who made the system. In our small museum, we have a permanent corner exhibition showing ten high-ranking military officials who were responsible for the system of Japan’s military sexual slavery, including Emperor Hirohito. These are the officials who were identified as responsible for Japan’s military sexual slavery system at the Women’s Tribunal in 2000. We also make “testimony panels” for former soldiers who have talked openly about their memories of “comfort stations” and other wartime experiences, hoping that this will help prevent war from ever happening again. Unfortunately, however, soldiers showing remorse are rare. Therefore we have also held exhibitions showing joyful accounts of using “comfort station” in the memoirs of former soldiers, juxtaposing these accounts with the survivors’ testimonies in order to show how differently the same event can be remembered, and how it looks from the perpetrators’ point of view.

  1. Making Connections between the Past and the Present

Exhibitions at WAM always try to connect the “comfort women” issue to the general issue of sexual violence in current armed conflicts, often perpetrated by military personnel. Connecting past and present will help visitors understand that the “comfort women” issue is not just a part of history, but is an on-going human rights issue.

For example, the special exhibition on East Timor focused not only on Japan’s “comfort women” system, but also on the sexual violence perpetrated by the Indonesian army during the struggle for the independence of East Timor.  Another example is Okinawa, Japan, where sexual violence by U.S. military forces stationed in Okinawa still continues. The Okinawan islands were the only area in Japan where an appalling ground battle occurred during WWII. Deployed to the islands in 1944, the Japanese military immediately set up “comfort stations”, bringing local or Korean women to serve. More than 140 Japanese military “comfort stations” have been identified on these small islands. Even after the war, the suffering of Okinawan women did not end. The U.S. forces occupied the islands and U.S. soldiers raped countless local women. Though Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972 after 27 years under U.S. administrative control, U.S. military bases still occupy large areas of Okinawa, and rape continues at the present time. The exhibition entitled “The Military does not Protect Women” showed how both the Japanese and U.S. militaries abused women instead of protecting them.

  1. Network of “Comfort Women” Museums in Asia

At present, four museums on Japan’s military “comfort women” have been established in South Korea, two in China, small one in the Philippines, and a new one will be established in Taiwan this December. The “comfort women” museum movement will spread throughout the victimized countries mainly because the survivors are dying while the Japanese government continues its denials. Although in 1993 it acknowledged the involvement of the Japanese military in establishing and controlling “comfort stations”, the Japanese government stubbornly denies that “comfort women” were sex slaves, claiming that no official military documents have been found that indicate forcible recruitment. We share materials and ideas in order to resist this revisionism, and our concrete solidarity and collaboration also help to build mutual trust. I believe reconciliation be understood as a process, rather than a purpose.

When we opened our museum eleven years ago, we discussed how to deal with revisionists and right-wingers. What should we do if they storm into WAM to destroy our panels? We decided that even if they do destroy our panels, we will remake the panels the following day. Never again will we let them erase women’s experiences from history. It is a struggle to preserve the memory of sexual crimes committed by the military of one’s own country, but remember we must, for that is our responsibility to the future.