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Taiwan's comfort women museum shutters, pins hopes on new location

Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation has helped survivors of WWII-era sexual servitude find meaning

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Photos of Taiwanese comfort women in their youth on display at Ama Museum. 

Photos of Taiwanese comfort women in their youth on display at Ama Museum.  (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Taiwan's first museum memorializing "comfort women," or women who were forced into sexual servitude by Imperial Japan in the years leading up to and during World War II, closed Tuesday (Nov. 10) after insurmountable financial troubles — but it now appears set to get a second wind at a new location next year.

After a lengthy search for a facility, the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation (TWRF) established the Ama Museum in 2016 in an airy, 2.5-storey former house in Taipei's historic Datong District.

“Ama (阿嬤)," which means “grandmother” in Taiwanese, was selected for the name since most of the survivors were in their 80s and 90s.

Taiwan's comfort women museum shutters, pins hopes on new location
The "Song of reeds" illuminates the names of survivors of colonial-period sexual slavery. (Taiwan News photo)

As the Empire of Japan expanded its control over much of Asia in the 1930s and 40s, it pressed thousands of young women under into service as what the UN has deemed "military sexual slaves."

These included between 1,000 and 2,000 Taiwanese and at least 30,000 Koreans. Only 18 South Korean and two Taiwanese comfort women are known to be still living.

The Taiwanese victims, many of them Hakka or Indigenous, were often recruited through deceit. Many were led to believe they could save money by traveling with soldiers as servers or nurses; some were sold by their families.

In the field, however, they endured endless physical and psychological trauma, "comforting" dozens of men a day, 10 hours a day, with only a single day off each month — the first day of their periods, according to the museum. The nonstop abuse coupled with forced abortions took a lasting toll on their bodies and rendered most infertile.

Even after the war ended in 1945, it continued to loom large over these women's lives. They faced ostracization by their families and communities at home, and few men viewed them as suitable wives due to the stigma and unlikelihood they would bear children.

Taiwan's comfort women museum shutters, pins hopes on new location
(Taiwan News photo)

Not content to simply inform the Taiwanese public about the practice of forced sexual labor, the TWRF has been in the vanguard of efforts to get postwar Japan to officially recognize it took place.

In 2017, visitors to the Ama Museum were handed cards on which to demand an apology from Tokyo, and the foundation has organized multiple protests outside Japan's de facto embassy on International Memorial Day for Comfort Women (Aug. 14).

The foundation has also been active in bringing surviving comfort women together for group therapy, recording their stories, and even helping check items off their bucket lists. They set one up as a postal worker for a day, for instance, and another as a one-time airline hostess.

Last year, the TWRF co-hosted an exhibition on the wartime struggles of comfort women and Holocaust victim Anne Frank at the National Museum of Taiwan Literature in Tainan.

Taiwan's comfort women museum shutters, pins hopes on new location
Amas displaying masks they decorated in group therapy session. (TWRF photo)

Many living in countries that were subjugated by Imperial Japan in the late 18th and early 20th centuries now accuse its successor of denialism and of whitewashing history.

While newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide was chief cabinet secretary, he referred to a statue unveiled in Tainan to memorialize comfort women as "extremely regrettable."

Last month, a kerfuffle over another comfort women statue, this time in Berlin, broke out between the civic group that erected it and Mitte district officials. Local authorities insist the sculpture must be torn down, leading Korean activists in the German capital to accuse them of bowing to pressure from the Japanese government.

Taiwan's comfort women museum shutters, pins hopes on new location
Watercolor self-portraits painted by amas as therapy for lingering trauma. (Taiwan News photo)

Despite the TWRF's best efforts, including fundraising, applying for subsidies, and even closing its office last year to free up cash, the organization has been operating the Ama Museum at a loss.

Speaking at a press conference on Saturday (Nov. 7), TWRF Deputy CEO Tu Ying-Chiu (杜瑛秋) said the museum had lost almost NT$8 million (US$280,000) in the past two fiscal years, CNA reported.

With financial woes mounting and compounded by a pandemic, the museum announced in July it would be forced to shutter. The news sparked a short-term boost in interest, with footfall in August and September several times that of previous months.

Taiwan's comfort women museum shutters, pins hopes on new location
Visitors peruse the museum's book corner. (Taiwan News photo)

The TWRF launched a crowdfunding campaign as it sought out a new, cheaper space. As of the time of writing, it has collected NT$972,741 of its NT$2,000,000 goal from over 650 donors. The fundraising event will run through the end of November.

At Saturday's press conference, the foundation also announced that a replacement home had been found for the ama collection and that it could open as early as April 2021.

The 198-square-meter building is on Chengde Road Section 3 in the capital's Datong District. The TWRF told Taiwan News the lower rent would enable it to save NT$90,000 per month.


Updated : 2021-01-22 08:28 GMT+08:00