The Struggle Over “Comfort Women” in Taiwan: Historical Memory and Lack of Consensus

The Struggle Over “Comfort Women” in Taiwan: Historical Memory and Lack of Consensus

The Struggle Over “Comfort Women” in Taiwan: Historical Memory and Lack of Consensus

The Ama Museum (阿嬤家-和平與女性人權館)—the only museum in Taiwan dedicated to the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery during World War II—first opened in 2016. Ama (阿嬤), the word for grandma in Taiwanese Hokkien, refers to the advanced age of surviving “comfort women.” [1] Inaugurated on Human Rights Day in 2016 with former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in attendance, the museum displayed photos and documents related to the Taiwanese “comfort women” and hosted events related to feminist human rights movements. It had to briefly close its original location in Taipei’s Datong District (大同區) in November 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic aggravating a decline in ticket sales. By contrast, South Korea—another democratic country that endured Japanese colonization—opened its first museum dedicated to victims of Japanese military sexual slavery far earlier, back in 1998. To this day, South Korean activists and survivors make global headlines for their frequent demonstrations in front of commemoration statues—whereas the Ama Museum struggles to stay open.

What explains the emergence of the “comfort women” redress movement in South Korea and not Taiwan? The lack of national historical consensus concerning the plight of “comfort women” in Taiwan impedes the island’s ability to attain justice for survivors and their families through policy and legislation. As a result, the “comfort women” issue has become politicized within the context of Taiwan’s party politics. Despite this controversy, redressing the issue will restore justice for former “comfort women” and help set a precedent for future human rights activism and feminist movements worldwide.

Japanese Imperialism and World War II

Following the Qing Dynasty’s surrender in the First Sino-Japanese War, Japanese forces seized Tainan from the short-lived Republic of Formosa (臺灣民主國) in 1895 and occupied Taiwan until 1945. [2] As part of its colonial project, Japan focused on developing Taiwan’s infrastructure and forcing assimilation through public education. [3] During World War II, Japan used Taiwan as a base for invading Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Throughout this period, “comfort women” were recruited and abducted to serve Japanese soldiers in brothels. The Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation (TWRF, 慰安婦援基金會) estimates that more than 2,000 Taiwanese women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II. Japan surrendered Taiwan in 1945, and following the Chinese Civil War, the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) retreated to Taiwan and established martial law on the island. [4] While most Taiwanese were ethnically Han Chinese, those who lived under Japanese rule did not necessarily identify with political developments and culture in China. Popular uprisings against the KMT regime ensued, ultimately culminating with the 228 Massacre (also known as the 228 Incident, 二二八事件), which marked the beginning of a period of violent crackdowns that become known as the “White Terror.”

The KMT’s oppressive rule of Taiwan has resulted in a complicated historical memory of Japanese imperialism. From the perspective of many native Taiwanese people, the KMT effectively replaced the Japanese as the island’s main aggressors. Consequently, there tends to be a greater emphasis placed on redressing the crimes committed under Chiang Kai-Shek’s (蔣介石) rule than on redressing the atrocities perpetrated under Japanese occupation. While Pan-Blue (Nationalist/KMT) ideology still emphasizes depicting Japan as a historical adversary during the Second Sino-Japanese War, some older Pan-Green (DPP, 民進黨) members recall the Japanese occupation with greater sympathy.

Like its occupation of Taiwan, Japan’s colonial projects in Korea included infrastructural development and efforts to enforce assimilation. However, Koreansshowed significantly more resistance towards Japanese imperialism. In contrast to Taiwan’s conflicted sense of national identity, Korea developed a unified sense of national identity centuries before the Japanese invasion and thus regarded Japanese occupation as a period of exploitation and humiliation. Around 2 million Koreans rebelled against their Japanese oppressors in the 1919 March 1 Movement ( 三一 運動). During World War II, Japan subjected Koreans to military sexual slavery on a much larger scale than in Taiwan. An estimated 80 percent of the 100,000 to 200,000 girls and women forced into sexual slavery were Korean. [5] The painful memory of Japanese occupation runs deep in Korean national identity and continues to affect Japanese-Korean relations today. 

The Movement for Reconciliation

The victims of Japanese military sexual slavery endured physically and psychologically inhumane treatment. For decades following World War II, survivors did not speak out about their experiences due to social stigma. It was only in 1991 that the first halmeoni (the Korean term for grandmother, also used to refer to surviving “comfort women”) gave public testimony to acknowledge the abuse she suffered at Japanese “comfort stations” during World War II. [6] Her testimony reignited the redress movement and spurred grassroots investigations and lawsuits for reparations. The redress movement in South Korea quickly transformed into a transnational movement for former comfort women across Asia. In response, the Japanese government organized the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF), an organization funded mostly by ordinary citizens’ donations, to show “atonement” from the Japanese people to former comfort women.

Nevertheless, activists and former comfort women in Taiwan and across Asia have demanded what they could consider as an unambiguous apology that admits the Japanese government’s culpability in establishing comfort stations in Asian nations and enslaving women to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers. Furthermore, they have called on the Japanese government to provide reparations to the survivors and families. As a result, in 2002 the Legislative Yuan’s Taiwanese Comfort Women Investigation Committee instituted monthly payments of USD $525.38 to 36 Taiwanese women identified as survivors, hoping to eventually receive reparations and a formal apology directly from the Japanese government. Eighteen years later, the Japanese government has yet to fulfill this demand.

Chen Shui-bian and Taiwan’s Identity Politics

The lack of historical consensus regarding the “comfort women” issue exacerbates tensions in Taiwanese party politics. Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Taiwan’s first president from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨), encountered one such controversy in 2001. At that time, presidential advisor and businessman Hsu Wen-lung (許文龍) participated in an interview with a Japanese comic book editor, in which Hsu asserted that women had volunteered to serve Japanese soldiers during World War II. Pan-Blue legislators quickly accused Hsu of pandering to Japan and demanded an apology. [7] Pan-Blue activists subsequently criticized Pan-Green politicians for being unpatriotic and disrespecting Taiwan’s national identity.

Throughout the Chen Administration, the movement to raise awareness and obtain redress for comfort women became overshadowed by Taiwan’s increasingly politicized discourse on identity. Thus, it could not generate ubiquitous support from the public in the same way that South Korea’s movement has garnered support, as British-Japanese scholar Shogo Suzuki has argued. [8] The net effect of this dispute was a growing inability to agree on relevant historical facts. [9] The politicization of the “comfort women” issue in Taiwan has meant that activists have been left to their own devices with little support from the government, and the issue remains unresolved.

Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT Nationalist Framework

In contrast to the disarray surrounding the “comfort women” issue during Chen’s presidency, his successor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) made definitive statements condemning Japan’s treatment of women during World War II. Ma consistently reiterated his promise to restore justice for the former “comfort women” throughout his presidency. When he screened the documentary Song of the Reed—which depicts the plight of four “comfort women” during World War II—at the presidential office, Ma went so far as to criticize the lack of consensus in Taiwan by calling it “perhaps the only country that doesn’t believe the comfort women were forced.”

Following the monumental agreement between South Korea and Japan in December 2015 for an apology and 1 billion yen (USD $9.4 million) in reparations for South Korean survivors and their families, Ma demanded that Japan apologize and compensate former Taiwanese “comfort women” as well. Notably, Japan’s apology and plan for reparations were ultimately deemed unauthentic by South Korean citizens and human rights activists.

Because Japan and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations, Taiwan’s Association of East Asian Relations and Japan’s Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association coordinated the talks. Taipei’s demands included an official apology, compensation, and restoration of victims’ reputations and dignity. However, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Japan stated that Taiwan needed to reach a clear consensus before seriously moving forward with negotiations. Subsequently, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga —Japan’s current prime minister—indicated that Japan’s talks with Taiwan would not result in a deal similar to the one with South Korea. Despite President Ma’s formal call for negotiations, the Japanese government has not attempted to resolve this issue or address Taiwan’s demands.

Tsai Ing-wen and Relations with Japan

Since her first term, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has largely avoided speaking about the “comfort women” issue in relation to Japan. In conjunction with the 2018 unveiling of Taiwan’s first Japanese “comfort women” memorial statue, an event attended by Ma, the TWRF protested outside the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association in Taipei. In response to the demonstrators, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reaffirmed that it would continue to stand by its policy to fight for the dignity of “comfort women” despite the Tsai Administration’s overall inaction. However, without any official statements coming from President Tsai herself, the commitments do not carry much significance. This raises the question of whether the current government has the willingness to even seek justice for former “comfort women.”

One of President Tsai’s long-term projects has been to redress Taiwan’s complicated human rights record, specifically under the KMT’s martial law period. In 2018, she presided over the opening of the National Human Rights Museum (國家人權博物館), the first museum of its kind in Taiwan. In her speech, Tsai touched on the importance of restoring justice for the older generations who suffered in silence. If the Tsai Administration can redress historical wrongdoings and painful memories of oppression during the White Terror, it should be capable of demanding reparations and an apology from Japan. However, it appears to lack the political will to push forward an agenda of transitional justice for former Taiwanese “comfort women.”


While revisiting the controversial and traumatic “comfort women” issue may be uncomfortable for Taiwan, not doing so would only perpetuate the lack of consensus on important matters of national history. On International Comfort Women Memorial Day in 2020, the TWRF demanded that the Taiwanese government change the term “comfort women” written in junior high and high school history textbooks to “comfort women: military sexual slaves,” following the example of a 1995 UN Commission on Human Rights report. Changing the “comfort women” term in Taiwan’s textbooks could be a key step towards reshaping how Taiwanese society understands this atrocity. More urgently, the window of time to ensure that the remaining survivors can see justice restored is about to close. As of 2020, the TWRF knew of only two former “comfort women” who were still alive. As the 2021 International Comfort Women Memorial Day approaches on August 14, the Tsai Administration will likely be the last administration able to demand that Tokyo meet survivors’ demands while they are still alive. Squandering the opportunity to seek justice for former “comfort women” once and for all would be regrettable for Taiwan.

The main point: Politicization of the “comfort women” issue impedes the process of forming a national historical consensus on the issue and prevents the Taiwan government from attaining justice for the Taiwanese women who endured Japanese military sexual slavery.

[1] The author would like to note that the term “comfort women” (慰安婦) is used to follow conventional usage. “Comfort women” is written in quotation marks because it is a euphemism, derived from Japanese military documents, for women held as sex slaves by the Japanese military during the World War II era.

[2] Morris, Andrew. “Taiwan’s History: An Introduction.” The Minor Arts of Daily Life: Popular Culture in Taiwan, January 1, 2004, 3–31.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Chang, Mina. “The Politics of an Apology.” Harvard International Review 31, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 34–37.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Suzuki, Shogo. “The Competition to Attain Justice for Past Wrongs: The ‘Comfort Women’ Issue in Taiwan.” Pacific Affairs 84, no. 2 (2011): 223–44.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.