The Comfort Women: ‘The world is so good. I do not want to die. ’

  Content note: sexual violence and the chastity idea 

                                         By XU Jiexin

Documentary Film on the later lives of ‘Comfort Women: Thirty-Two ( November 11, 2014 Mainland China

‘In 1991, the comfort women system became well-known because of the remembrance of the fifty-years-anniversary of the Pacific War.’ (Su Zhiliang, 2000, p.114) The ‘Comfort Women’ is a serious subject because it has touched culture, human rights, and international relationship, and even the field of war, race, and gender. The history of the comfort women is the most harrowing sex slavery records through the women’s history. (Su Zhiliang, 1998, p.89) One of the comfort women documents suggested, ‘ There would be no less than 360,000 and 410,000 women who suffered from the sexual violence during the war after the implementation of the comfort women system among the seven years.’ ( Su Zhiliang, 2000, p.181) This blog will use the documentary Thirty-Two as primary source to discover how the ideas of chastity influence the victims’ lives after war. 

The comfort women is a translation from Japanese ianfu (Japanese: 慰安婦). Comfort women were women and girls forced into being sex slaves in the military brothel ( Japanese: 慰安所) by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied countries and territories before and during World War II. (Digital Museum The Comfort Women Issue and the Asian Women’s Fund. [accessed 1 March 2021]) Comfort women mean women who could bring care for soldiers, which did not match the reality. Historians and gender historians have suggested that the term ‘comfort women’ should no longer be used to define victims. They argued that this distorts the facts, blurs the essential distinction between the comfort women system and decriminalisation of sex work, and that it rationalists the sexual violence committed against the women by the Japanese army. They proposed redefining victims as ‘sex slaves’. (Su zhiliang, 2020, p.116)

Figure 1: A young Chinese comfort woman is interviewed by an allied officer in Rangoon, Burma, on Aug. 8, 1945. 
Image accessed from History of the Comfort Women of World War II 

Thirty-two is a documentary on the subject of comfort women. It tells the story of Wei Shaolan (July27,1920- May5, 2019), a victim of the comfort women system of the invading Japanese army, and her mixed son (Chinese and Japanese), Luo Shanxue. In 1944, twenty-four-year-old Wei Shaolan and her one-year-old daughter were taken into the military brothel. After spending months of torture, she fled back to her home with her daughter. However, her husband did not forgive her, and no one gave her any sympathy. Her husband said, ‘You are back? I thought you would never come back.’ Later, when she found out she was pregnant, her situation became even worse. This documentary is significant because the director Guo Ke presented the life of Wei Shaolan as a victim from a gender perspective. As a woman, she suffered physical abuse during the Second Sino-Japanese War. She was defined as a comfort woman because of the sexual violence of Japanese soldiers. In the early years of liberation, as a woman, she suffered psychological abuse. She was called a ‘Japanese whore’ because she did not meet the requirements of ideas of chastity. In traditional Chinese concepts, reputation was essential for Chinese manhood. Men had to defend their reputations by controlling the behaviors of those around them. They found that regulating the sexual practices of their female kin could protect their reputation. (Bret Hinsch, 2011, pp.169-204) Hence, keeping physical purity was what feudal ethics required of Chinese females. In short, the ideas of chastity required that women only have sexual behavior with their husbands. Therefore, the comfort women’s horrible experience contradicted the traditional Chinese sexual moral standard. The director showed Wei’s life through interviews, reflecting the chastity idea on sexual violence victims. 

Until Guo Ke’s documentary, most scholars and artistic creators have been more interested in the system of ‘Comfort women’ and its historical significance, rather than the women’s gendered experiences. For example, Japanese scholar Yuki Tanaka’ work, Japanese Comfort Women, focuses on ‘using and misusing sex to govern the military.’ (Yuki Tanaka, 2002, p.1) The Korean film Her Story, based on a real historical event, the Pusan ‘Comfort Women’ and Women’s Labour Corps Members VS. Japanese Government Lawsuit ( Japanese: 関釜裁判; Korea: 관부재판), tells the story of Korean comfort women victims who went to Japan to sue the Japanese government. The documentary can also be used as a reference for the study of changes in ideas of chastity, as the changing view of female virtue is vital to the study of Chinese women. In this short review, I will focus on what the documentary reveals about the extent to which the chastity idea has affected the lives of victims of sexual violence. 

It is hard for comfort women’s victims to tell the experience of what happened to them during the war. At that time, said Wei, ‘Tears flowed in my heart.’ In dealing with the narrative of her past, director Guo took an approach that respects Wei. He took Wei’s mixed son as a symbol of her past. In the past, the victims of sexual violence were ashamed to admit their experiences. It stems from the concept of chastity idea; its limitations fundamentally deny women any rights in sexuality. Simultaneously, the idea of chastity has forced people to ignore the unequal experiences of victims of sexual violence selectively. The writer Tan Enmei (Amy Tan) once described the importance of virginity to Chinese women, ‘When you lose your face…, it is like dropping your necklace down a well. The only way you can get it back is to fall in after it.’( Amy Tan, 1993) Thus, in the past, chastity was vital to Chinese women.

Since ancient times, China has followed Confucianism, which believes in the importance of reputation and purity for humans. Women’s innocence was the standard by which they measured their value. Furthermore, the rights granted by law to men and women in gender relations were not equal. Women were appendages to men, and their bodies belonged to their husbands. In this case, the concept of chastity required them to guard not their bodies but to guard the purity that their husbands placed in their vaginas. Wei’s husband did not praise her wisdom and courage but said indifferently, ‘I thought you would never come back.’ Firstly, in a circumstance where chastity was larger than life, Wei was raped by the other man, which was the sign of her disloyalty. Secondly, as her husband’s appendage, Wei’s experience has made her husband ashamed because his private property was no longer pure. 

This idea of shame was not limited to men’s minds; the victims also internalised it. Another victim, Li Ailian from Shanxi Province, was taken into a military brothel by the Japanese army after her new marriage. When she fled back to her village, her husband said, ‘ It is not your fault. The Japanese took you.’ When Li spoke of this, a relieved smile appeared on her face, knowing that her husband did not dislike her. But it reflected her inner thoughts that she identified herself as disgraceful and unclean, that her husband should have resented her. She said, ‘The shame I felt inside would eat away me for the rest of my life.’(Guo ke, 2017)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the ideas of democracy, freedom, and science had taken root in the West. Freud, Russell, and others who opposed the old traditions on marriage, family, and sexuality were widely spread. The women’s movement for gender rights and liberation was in full swing. China’s cultural pioneers embraced Western ideas of democracy, equality, and science. They began to criticise the limitation of chastity ideas, which had shackled Chinese women for thousands of years. However, when modern civilisation challenges traditional rituals, it takes time to iron out the differences in between. After the calamity, Wei lives most of her life in the shadows. In her later years, Wei lamented, ‘The world is so good. I do not want to die.’ It perhaps signifies that she is probably finally liberated, and the inflicted on her by the chastity is healed.

For victims of sexual violence, the worst pain does not originate from the physical body but the shackles of morality and mental humiliation. The change in social consciousness and ethics at all levels of society is a long process, and even today, we still find some traditional negative concepts in people’s minds. Therefore, it will always take time to iron out the limitations of ‘chastity’ completely. Wei’s story tells us the spiritual injury is hard to cure. Thirty-two reminds us of the importance to stop thinking ‘losing chastity is a shame’ when faced with sexual victims. It is also vital to bear in mind that ignoring the victim’s emotion would injure them psychologically, which is also a crime.

Figure 2: It is the film poster of Thirty Two. 
Image accessed from the official microblog of Thirty Two

Primary Sources

Guo Ke, Thirty-two, 2014 

Guo Ke, Twenty-two, 2017


Su Zhiliang, Re-examination of the ‘comfort women’ issues,Research on the history of war, 2000, p.114

Su Zhiliang, Chen life, A Brief Discussion of the Comfort Women System of the Japanese Army Invading China, History Study, 1998, p.89 

Su Zhiliang, A few points on the Japanese comfort women system, Anti-Japanese War Studies, 2000, p.181

Digital Museum The Comfort Women Issue and the Asian Women’s Fund.

Su Zhiliang, Re-examination of the ‘comfort women’ issues, p. 116

Bret Hinsch, Male Honor and Female Chastity in Early China, NAN NÜ, 2011, pp.169-204

Yuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women—— Sexual slavery and prositution duding world war ii and the us occupation, Taylor & Francis Group, p.1

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, 1993