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I wished I was ugly

Artikel ini terbit dalam bahasa Indonesia sebagai artikel tamu di blog Komunitas Aleut.
This article has been published as a guest post in Bahasa Indonesia at Komunitas Aleut

Emah said “I wished I was ugly. Ugly girls were sent home after a few days or weeks. The Japanese didn’t want them. Pretty girls had to stay. I stayed. I have lived in the military brothel for three years until 1945”.

Schaamte en Onschuld

Emah (born 1926 in Cimahi, West Java) is a Jugun Ianfu (comfort women). Comfort women is a term for girls/women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese during World War II. After the horrific rape of Nanking in 1938 some highly japanese military officers recommended the top to offer the soldiers relaxation centers. They thought this was very important in order to maintain the order and the good morale of the troops and prevent them from getting sexual diseases. The relaxation center was in fact a subtle term for a military brothel.

The revealing Dutch book Schaamte en onschuld (shame and innocence) by Dutch anthropologist Hilde Janssen with impressive portraits of the Indonesian Jugun Ianfu by Jan Banning has been on my must read list eversince it was published in April 2010. I finished reading this book yesterday and gladly share the story here for the world must know the history of Jugun Ianfu. Jan Banning also published a photobook called Comfort Women with texts provided by Hilde Janssen. This book is available in Dutch and English.

The start
The first Jugun Ianfu in Indonesia in 1942 came from Korea and China. Since the demand rose significantly Japanese military started to search for girls and women (furthermore
I will refer them as women in this post) in Indonesia. The women were kidnapped in their own house (most of them), on the street (Sanikem born 1926 in Yogyakarta), in the paddy fields while they were working. Some were even sold to Japanese by the headman of the village where they lived like Kasinem (born 1931 in Salatiga, Central Java) and Rosa (born 1929 in Saumlaki island, South Moluccas). The youngest were 11 years old, they were just a child. Japanese soldiers recruited the boys and men to work as romusha or heiho, while the girls/women were forced to work in the military brothels.

The brothels were managed differently. Some were directly under Military department, others were private initiaves. Working in a military brothel all Jugun Ianfu got a Japanese name: Hana, Miko etc. The women had to work every day from 7 pm – 12 pm. Some worked non stop. They only got days off when they were having their period or for a monthly medical check. Almost nobody got pregnant. According to Giyem (born 1930 in Central Java) the military physician would prescribe powder medicine (perhaps comparable to Morning After pill nowadays?) to prevent them from getting pregnant. Among the abjections they were forced to endure some remembered good Japanese brothel’s clients who treated them right. On the other hand the ladies show their despise towards the violent ones. Some clients violently abused the women or threatened to hurt them with their bayonet if they wouldn’t fullfill their wishes.

A number of Jugun Ianfu did not worked at a military brothel. Some were held captive by a Japanese at home, others were picked up at home late afternoon and taken to a Japanese home where they were raped every single day for 3 years.

Niyem, Comfort Women by Jan Banning

The aftermath
By the end of World War II immediately after Japan capitulated the military brothels were closed. The women were told to return home. Some chose to stay because they were afraid to tell the family the truth. Those who returned were welcomed warmly by their family but people in the neighbourhood who knew they were Jugun Ianfu called them names such as Japanese cast off. This hurted them so much. A part of the women decided to keep this horrible experience to themselves. Sarmi (born 1930 Central Java) never shared her story of being Jugun Ianfu to anyone not even her own husband. In her opinion this is the best way to spare him, their children and grandchildren the burden. She is convinced she has sinned cause she let the Japanese raped her. Besides this huge trauma, some Jugun Ianfu were not able to have children. The shame they shared was enormous to bare that some were reluctant to be interviewed in their own home. Afraid of what neighbours would react. They prefered to do the interview for this book somewhere else.

Statistics registers 200.000 sexual war crimes victims in countries where Japan annexed. Not only women from Korea, China, Malaysia, Singapore, The Phillippines and Indonesia became the victim but also British, Australian and Dutch women who were happened to be in a country where Japan colonized. Comfort women in Korea en China started a lobby through Jugun Ianfu Advocacy Network for an official Japanese acknowledgement on this matter in 1992. Their ultimate goal is an official excuse from Japanese government. Indonesian justice organ (LBH) took over this initiave and started registering Jugun Ianfu. On the list there are approximately 20.000. To my surprise, Indonesian government advised these women not to pursue the Japanese acknowledgment, let alone a compensation. According to Indonesian officials at that time it was a taboo to dig into the dark passage of the history. They recommended the ladies to rest the case. This is in contrast of what Korean an Chinese governments which fully support the same matter.

No matter how hard the lobby network has been and still is, even after hearing sessions in late 1990es, Japanese government has still not issued an excuse. This is such a shame because the victims are old now. When they are not here anymore, who would care to let Japan take its responsibilities?

15 august 2010 a documentary Omdat wij mooi waren (because we were beautiful) based on this book was aired in Dutch TV. The documentary is in Dutch, Bahasa Indonesia, Sundanese and Javanese with Dutch narration and subtitle.

My note
First of all I find the term Comfort women quite misleading. They were forced into prostitution against their will. Thinking of their young delicate age, exploiting Jugun Ianfu could have been categorized as organized pedophilia now. Somehow I understand the choice to keep silent about this as I know three Jugun Ianfu in my family by stories I have been told. Reading this book I can imagine how the women must have felt since they had to work in the military brothel: the feeling of shame, used, dirty and outcasted. Let’s say no more to this kind of cruelty. We must learn from history right?

15 thoughts on “I wished I was ugly

  1. Thanks for the note. I have myself a book and one documentary video of this issue but failed to find it since I was looking for it a few days ago. When I got them, I will share a few things for you.

    • You’re welcome. We must keep telling our children and the world about how horrible this was so it would not be forgotten. Please do share more stories & docu about this.

  2. You might want to also mention the photobook which Hilde and I made parallel to “Schaamte en onschuld” and to the documentary movie – all the more so since it has an introductory text (by Hilde) in English. It is called “Comfort Women”, ISBN 978-90-77386-07-1 (see

    • Thank you for the info. I added your book Comfort Women in the post. Uw portretten van de dames raken me echt, mijn complimenten.

  3. Hey, mbak I knew this book! Have been wanting to purchase one and I will! It is too bad that we never really learned about the history of Jugun Ianfu at school, no? After I saw documentary series by Adriaan van Dis (and later his books) I realized..jeez, I knew so little about the history of my country! Thanks for the review 🙂

    • You’re welcome Pie. Unfortunately there are parts of our nation’s history we don’t learn at school. I have read some books about forgotten pages in our history and would like to share it here, soon. Buy the book, you won’t regret it.

  4. Pingback: The concubine | Chez Lorraine

  5. Mbak aku sempet baca pas heboh hebohnya mengenai ini di koran. Ada buku bahasa indonesianya mbak? Aku baca judulnya aja miris banget , I wish I was ugly. Sedih banget ya mereka, apalagi dengan pemerintah yang minta mereka memaafkan itu seperti menafikan perasaan mereka. Ya bakal dimaafkan kalau ada yang minta maaf juga, kali. Jadi tetiba mikirin perasaan Jepang banyak ngasih beasiswa dll dsb ke Indonesia, untuk yang kali ini apa ‘susah’nya ya minta maaf buat ngobatin luka bathin banyak orang yang ditinggalkan

    • Yang aku kaget Ndang banwa di buku ini terungkap ada pejabat pemerintah RI yang menghimbau para korban untuk tidak menuntut ganti rugi ke Jepang demi menjaga hubungan bilateral kedua negara. Padahal Jepang sudah bersedia mengganti rugi secara materi walaupun belum bersedia minta maaf secara resmi. Itu pejabat kok dimana hati nuraninya ya? Ngga ada dukungannya sama sekali lain dengan para pejabat di Filipina dan Australia. Alasannya jangan ungkit-ungkit luka lama. Lah, para ibu itu yang jadi korban sampai diusia tua merekapun masih banyak trauma. Ngenes baca kisah para Jugun Ianfu ini. Kebanyakan diculik Jepang sewaktu mereka umur 10 – 12 tahun, masih anak piyik Ndang, bahkan beberapa juga belum menstruasi tapi udah disuruh melacur. Sedih betul.

  6. Belum termasuk Jepang menculik orang2 di negara jajahannya untuk dijadikan percobaan operasi plastik.

    Indonesia memang sering menutupi sejarah. Hobi banget kayanya. Bahkan sebuah film tema sejarah ditarik dari layar karena faktor keberatan itu. Sebuah cerita zaman kerajaan tabu untuk difilmkan karena takut memicu perselsihan Sunda-Jawa.

    I want to have this book.
    Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. membayangkan kejadian yang sudah lama terjadi, bagaimana perasaan “mereka2” ini, saya tidak tahu harus berkomentar apa…

  8. Halo Lorraine. Saya suka sekali artikel ini. Saya seorang seniman, dan sedang memproduksi sebuah karya performance art bersama teman-teman saya di kolektif 69 Performance Club ( Judulnya saya ambil dari kutipan Emah “I Wished I Was Ugly”. Bisa minta kontak kamu kah? Saya bisa dihubungi di prashastiwp at gmail dot com. Makasiii 🙂

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