'Comfort Women' Seek Justice From Japanese

MARIA FE SANTILLAN does not go into much detail about the sexual abuse she says she suffered from officers and soldiers of Japan's Imperial Army. She is more voluble on the subject of her escape from sexual servitude. Fifty years have passed, but gaining freedom seems to come back to her clearly.

It will likely be impossible to corroborate the accounts of the Filipina women who say they were confined and repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers during their occupation of the Philippines. "The Japanese Imperial Army," says one of the women, Cristita Alcober, "did not give us any IDs." No physical evidence remains. Recollections of names and faces are vague at best.

"If someone raises her hand and says she was a comfort woman," says Yoshiki Mine, a Japanese diplomat in Tokyo, using his government's euphemism for sex slave, "there is no way to deny it."

So far 72 women from South Korea, the Philippines, the Netherlands, and China have sued the Japanese government, seeking an official apology or financial compensation or both. Last year the Japanese government announced it would solicit private contributions for a fund that would be used to compensate the women. Although some of the women say they will accept money from the fund, others demand that the government itself pay compensation.

There is no telling how many women could come forward. Academic estimates for the total number of women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military range to 200,000, using formulas found in official documents that specify an ideal ratio of 1 sex slave for every 29, 40, or even 50 soldiers. "The number of people ... could be enormous," observes Mr. Mine, who is coordinating the establishment of the fund.

In the lawsuits, the women have demanded amounts ranging from $22,000 to 10 times that figure. Mine says there is no way to tell how much the fund will disburse. It has had few contributions, and its administrators have no idea how many women will seek compensation.

Ultimately, the women will have to rely on their stories to convince people they were sex slaves. Recently the Monitor accompanied Ms. Santillan, one of 46 Filipina women suing the Japanese government, to the part of Manila where she lived during the war. A thin, fine-featured woman, she tells her story without anger. Occasionally she looks downcast, the muscles around her eyes tightening in resignation, frustration, and sadness. This is her account:

In late 1942, she was working in her family's snack bar, next door to the Manila main railway station, which was occupied by the Japanese Army. Soldiers from the station and a nearby building called the Airport Studio, a photography shop turned into barracks, frequented Santillan's eatery. On Dec. 15, a Japanese officer named Sakuma told Santillan to accompany him so she could cook for the soldiers housed in the Airport Studio. She refused and was slapped. Her mother protested and was kicked. "When they took you," Santillan recalls, "you went."

Sakuma and another officer led her to the studio, a five-minute walk from the snack bar. They brought her to a large room with a kitchen, a toilet, three beds, and a window. Santillan joined two other women in the room. Their names were Cora and Daisy. "I stayed there for two years," she says in good English. "I am cooking, and I am washing, and at night the Japanese do what they want." The women were kept under guard.

Some nights, during the two years of her incarceration, she was not touched. More often, she was raped. On the worst nights there were as many as seven soldiers.

Today, the Airport Studio is gone, replaced by a row of shops that are part of the grimy, crowded commerce around the railway station. Santillan steps near the railing of a nearby bridge and looks to the waterway below.

In November 1944 her cousins came for her, hiding in the grasses and whistling up at her window when the Japanese were out of their barracks. The cousins signaled her to be ready and returned a few days later. She used a rope to climb down from the second-story window.

Today, looking down the narrow river past shanties built in the shadow of a tall new hotel, she describes running along the water's edge, boarding her cousin's boat, and making her way to her family's village in the countryside.

Then she returns to the street and prepares for the long ride to her one-room shanty in a low-income housing area outside Manila.

Interviewed in 1992 by investigators for a group that represents the women, Santillan said: "When news about the 'comfort women' came out, of course I knew I am one of them. At first, I hesitated if I would come out, but finally I decided I should. Justice must be dispensed to us victims. We have no choice but to speak out."

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