The sound of clay pots smashing against a stone floor shattered the cold spring morning. Zhang Xiantu woke. Japanese soldiers were in her home, breaking bowls as they searched for food. Zhang, 16 and just married, tried to run. But she couldn’t run fast enough: as the daughter of a landowner, she’d had her tiny feet bound and broken when she was a child.

Sitting in her village home in Yu County, Shanxi province, the newlywed so rudely awoken in 1942 is now a birdlike widow, grey hair pulled back from her lined face, her breath raspy from lung disease. “When I dream of that time, I always dream of being seized,” she says. “I was so terrified.”

There was no escape. “The soldiers came and they found us . . . The streets were full of people running in every direction.” Her breathing slows, and becomes harsher. “Aiyya . . . I’ve forgotten everything else.” Zhang spent the next 20 days a prisoner. Locked in a neighbour’s house, she was prostituted as a “comfort woman” for the Japanese soldiers battling to control northern China. “I almost died of fear,” she says.

Most women like her did die, of disease or abuse or both. An estimated 200,000 Asian women were kidnapped or coerced into sexually servicing Japanese soldiers in “comfort stations” during the second world war, under a policy to deter the invading armies from widespread rape and pillage. When the 70th anniversary of the conflict’s end is commemorated in Asia this year, the comfort women will count among the war’s unsettled ghosts.

In China, about two dozen of them are still alive. The movement to make sure they are not forgotten operates in an atmosphere of official neglect. As China jostles with Japan for a leading role in Asia, Chinese diplomats regularly issue stern warnings that Japan should not “forget the lessons of history”. But in quiet places like Zhang Xiantu’s bedroom, history is already fading. Is it too late for an old story to take on a new meaning?

 . . . 

Zhang Xiantu, a Chinese 'comfort woman'
Zhang Xiantu: ‘The soldiers came and they found us...The streets were full of people running in every direction’ © Sim Chi Yin

When I began researching this article, I wondered whether a comfort woman would welcome a foreign reporter. Could I be accused of picking sides? Would I become a “tool” (as one Chinese reporter warned) of the nationalists in China, or a target for the nationalists in Japan?

Most of these women live in the impoverished countryside. Their dialects are incomprehensible. Their health is failing. The Chinese press portrays them as fragile victims, their wartime rape shrouded by Confucian delicacy. But I was intrigued by the activists who had championed them for more than two decades, while relations between China and Japan waxed and waned. The window for any of these women to tell her story was closing, fast.

I met Zhang Xiantu one autumn morning last year thanks to Zhang Shuangbing, a former primary-school teacher in Shanxi province who has made elderly comfort women his campaigning cause. (Zhang is a common surname, and the two old friends are not related.) At the door of her brick home, he shouted out a greeting and she clasped his hand warmly. She updated him on the neat pile of medicines on her window sill. She was preoccupied with the recent death of her elder son, and at odds with her second son’s wife. “What kind of life is this?” she asked, turning to me. “I don’t want to live.”

Her paved courtyard contained the usual clutter of the Chinese countryside: piles of coal and corn, some rusty farm equipment and a long washing line. Inside, a fluorescent lightbulb lit a wall poster of happy children riding a lucky red carp. A pastel portrait of Chairman Mao gazed over framed family photographs. The 88-year-old spends her days cross-legged on a kang, or heated brick bed. She is neatly dressed in a dark cotton vest and cotton trousers, her bound feet tucked below thin knees.

Though the misshapen feet in their cloth shoes can barely carry her from her bed, they once took Zhang Xiantu all the way to a Tokyo court. In the late 1990s, 16 women from Yu County (Zhang Xiantu is the only one still living) sued the Japanese state for compensation and an apology, shepherded by Zhang Shuangbing and a team of Japanese and Chinese lawyers. Their claims were denied, due to the statute of limitations and to the individuals’ lack of standing to sue the state.

Zhang Shuangbing travelled through Shanxi and Hebei provinces to document the lives of former comfort women
Zhang Shuangbing travelled through Shanxi and Hebei provinces to document the lives of former comfort women © Sim Chi Yin

Former comfort women in democratic South Korea had already formed a political movement to seek recognition and compensation from Japan in the early 1990s. Japan’s cabinet secretary issued an apology and Japanese activists took up the cause, recruiting Chinese lawyers to help track down elderly victims in mainland China. Airing their grievances would help Japanese society come to terms with the war, they argued. None of the lawsuits succeeded.

“I had no idea it would prove this complicated,” said Kang Jian, a petite Beijing lawyer who gathered testimonials from comfort women on Hainan Island. There — as in Yu County — local historians had tracked down a group of survivors. “Although it sometimes felt painful, not doing it was more painful,” she said.

In 2011, a Japanese court rejected the last of several lawsuits brought by former Asian comfort women and forced labourers. Rising acrimony between the two countries has since strained the civic collaboration between Chinese and Japanese activists. In both countries, nationalists are gaining ground. Strident rhetoric from China and Korea and violent anti-Japanese protests have antagonised Japanese people born long after the war ended. Late last year, left-leaning Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun retracted articles on comfort women dating to 1982 that relied on a debunked account.

Meanwhile, old age is thinning the ranks of the comfort women. In Seoul, a bronze statue of a young girl occupies the spot where Korean comfort women once held a weekly rally. She gazes accusingly across the street at the gates of the Japanese embassy. Etched into the sidewalk is the shadow of a hunched old lady.

“Looking at these 30 years [of campaigning] I can’t say they were in vain but they weren’t any great success,” says Zhang Shuangbing. “I feel rather disappointed. I didn’t achieve any result. I didn’t get these old people their wish.”

 . . . 

Zhang Shuangbing found his life’s mission one day in 1982, on his way to the village primary school. His path took him past peasant farms like his own, where families barely scraped enough to eat from green sloping fields amid vertical limestone cliffs. He noticed an old woman struggling alone to harvest grain, long after the other fields were cleared.

The young teacher felt sorry for her, and asked if he could help. He discovered that she was ostracised because she had been a comfort woman, so dishonoured that no man would marry her.

Soon Zhang Shuangbing had worn out three black steel bicycles on the rocky yellow roads of Yu County, tapping gossipy villagers to track down former comfort women.

Japan’s imperial army traditionally recruited prostitutes from poor Japanese families. After a rampage of killing and raping during the 1937 conquest of the Chinese capital Nanjing, authorities decided that military brothels would keep the troops in check. The mass deployment in Asia quickly exceeded the supply of prostitutes.

Korean, Chinese, Southeast Asian and European women were recruited, tricked or forced into brothels run by or for the Japanese military. Most of them died. Korean scholars put the number of Asian comfort women at 200,000; Chinese scholars estimate that another 200,000 Chinese women were kidnapped in occupied cities or along the sprawling front.

Japanese soldiers advancing on Qingdao in Eastern China, 1938
Japanese soldiers advancing on Qingdao in Eastern China, 1938 © Corbis

Yu County changed hands several times between the Japanese army, the American-backed Kuomintang and the communist guerrillas. The “comfort stations” there were makeshift arrangements in village houses or army camps rather than the more formal military brothels of Shanghai.

After the Japanese surrender, the Chinese civil war raged, followed by land redistribution and political purges in the communist era. War records were destroyed. Comfort women hid their past to find a husband and protect the family name.

“When these women reveal their scars they carry the weight of 5,000 years of Chinese history, of feudal times,” says Zhang Shuangbing. “They gave their story, took their own pain and spoke it out, because they believed in me. So not being able to do anything for them is very sad.

“It’s a historical responsibility. There hasn’t been a fair accounting for these victims, no accounting for their families.”

Zhang Shuangbing’s high-school education set him apart in rural Yu County. A patient, gentle man, he won the trust of some 126 elderly women in Shanxi and Hebei provinces, then watched as one by one they succumbed to old age. He spent his savings helping women who were sick, poor or alone.

Chinese ‘comfort women’, c.1937-45
Chinese ‘comfort women’, c.1937-45 ©

His wife and children disapproved, as did his mother. Frail and still beautiful in the white headscarf favoured by Shanxi countrywomen, she lives with his family in whitewashed caves carved into an earth cliff, shaded by peach trees. She is the same age as the ruined women her son befriended — but far from sharing their fate she spent her teens as a communist partisan. “She fought the Japanese in the war, so she thought, ‘What’s the point?’ But then she came around when she saw how many Japanese supported me,” he says.

Zhang Shuangbing’s armoire is stuffed with envelopes­ full of photographs of his “old ladies”. The fading snapshots include a formal black-and-white portrait of a woman who killed herself during the Cultural Revolution, after years of persecution for “collaboration” with the Japanese. Other women were reviled in their villages or exiled to labour camps after the communists gained power. That helps explain survivors’ reluctance to speak out.

Another photograph surfaces: a plump woman with white hair. She found a sense of peace by confiding in Zhang Shuangbing, he recalls. But when he began to write a book about the comfort women of Yu County, her mortified son forbade her from participating.

Zhang Xiantu was different. Her husband and sons gave their blessing when Zhang Shuangbing recruited her for the lawsuit in Japan. When I asked her why she went public, she poured forth a litany of grievances: about the village women who shunned her, about decades of hardships and near-starvation, and about her loneliness now.

Zhang Shuangbing with Zhang Xiantu at her home in Shanxi Province
Zhang Shuangbing with Zhang Xiantu at her home in Shanxi Province © Sim Chi Yin

Zhang Xiantu was only freed because her father paid a ransom. He sold all his sheep, and the payment ruined him. “I felt so angry I couldn’t stand it,” she says. For two years, her stepmother nursed her back to health. Food was scarce. After the communists won, their land was confiscated. “I had nothing to eat, nothing to wear. My parents were also starving, we had nothing. What kind of life was this? I was full of remorse. I didn’t know what to do. When I was young I felt my sin grow bigger with every day I lived.” The price of her freedom ruined the family, she says. “I want the Japanese to pay the money.”

Chinese reparations activists say their movement has entered an uncertain “third stage”. First came the effort to find elderly victims, then the long years of lawsuits in Japan. Now they are seeking reparations for forced labourers through Chinese courts, betting that recent tensions will make the Chinese state willing to air claims against Japan. But Chinese courts won’t take comfort women cases, because the defendant is the Japanese state.

“The history issue has always been bound up in the broader bilateral relations with Japan,” says James Reilly, who researches Sino-Japanese relations at the University of Sydney.

Zhang Xiantu with two of her grandchildren, and other family photographs
Zhang Xiantu with two of her grandchildren, and other family photographs © Sim Chi Yin

Some veteran activists doubt China will ever let the court cases proceed. The system has too many reasons to be cautious about individual attempts at historical redress. Tens of millions of Chinese starved or were murdered during communist political­ campaigns, or spent years in forced labour camps. Millions more lost land or property.

Beijing’s attitude to the campaigns against Japan is “don’t support, don’t discourage”, says Tong Zeng, the voice of militant anti-Japanese activism. Head of a small investment fund, 58-year-old Tong is a rarity in China: an activist who has avoided serious trouble despite a lifetime of agitprop, including stunts such as landing boats on disputed islands. That tolerance is a far cry from the long jail sentences meted out to intellectuals pushing for constitutional rights for Chinese citizens. Anti-Japanese activism is double-edged in China, with complicated factional sub-currents. That creates openings for agitators such as Tong: “If they oppose us too much, they become the race traitors.”

Beijing is careful not to endorse the nationalists either. Rallies against Japan by angry young Chinese can quickly morph into protests against their own government. Shrill rhetoric in the state-controlled media is carefully calibrated. “There’s concern that the old generation of activists might link up with the new generation of angry youth,” says Jessica Chen Weiss, a political scientist at Yale who wrote Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations. There are diplomatic considerations too. When Mao Zedong mended fences with Japan in 1972, the People’s Republic of China waived claims to reparations in return for Japanese aid and investment.

Chairman Mao never waived the rights of individual Chinese, Tong contends. But then he laughs. “Possibly because they didn’t have that concept during the Great Cultural Revolution!”

 . . . 

Don’t support, don’t discourage” is in sharp relief at No 1 Lane 125 on East Baoxing Road in Shanghai. Seventy families squeeze into a dilapidated three-storey building festooned with laundry. The narrow front door opens on a pitch-dark hallway. Japanese tour groups occasionally visit.

Eighty years ago, the building housed the first military brothel in occupied Asia, according to Shanghainese historian Su Zhiliang. He wants to turn it into a museum. The Shanghai government protects the building from the wrecking ball but won’t pay to relocate the families inside.

Twenty years ago Su returned from studying in Japan and, like Zhang Shuangbing in Shanxi, took to his bicycle. He pedalled around Shanghai looking for elderly residents who might remember life in the comfort stations. He recruited his wife Chen Lifei to conduct the long and painful interviews with former comfort women.

The grave of former comfort woman Liu Mianchuan, who died in 2012 aged 86 and is buried near her village in Yu County
The grave of former comfort woman Liu Mianchuan, who died in 2012 aged 86 and is buried near her village in Yu County © Sim Chi Yin

“Most people don’t know their own history,” says Su. “I find it a shame. The Chinese history of World War II is as dark as a bowl of soy sauce.”

Together the couple founded the Research Center for Chinese Comfort Women at Shanghai Normal University. The centre collects testimonials and funnels donations to elderly comfort women. Nowadays, it also pays for funerals.

Does the death of the comfort women signal the end of the movement? Some activists argue that the women’s descendants should also be entitled to compensation. But as an outsider, I can imagine an alternative “third stage”, one that might some day transcend the current fixation with national honour and apologies.

In China, the state decides who should be commemorated. Schoolchildren study cookie-cutter revolutionary victories; there is no one to give the past a human face. The exception is the comfort women. Testimonials gathered as part of the search for justice have preserved the lives of ordinary people in a brutal time. The activists have created a record for future generations of Chinese that goes well beyond the sanitised exploits of revolutionary heroes.

Some day, this could mean that Zhang Shuangbing’s compassion and Zhang Xiantu’s rage will have yielded a result; that the lessons of history will not, in the end, be forgotten.

Zhang Xiantu died on November 12 2015

Lucy Hornby is the FT’s China correspondent; additional reporting by Owen Guo

Photographs: Sim Chi Yin; Corbis;

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