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I first came to know about jugun ianfu during my studies in International Relations major, while taking a class on East Asian regional politics. The ianfu, which is an euphemism for prostitutes, are young women who are systematically forced into providing sexual services for Imperial Japanese soldiers. Indonesia, as formerly one of the territories occupied by the Empire of Japan during the Second World War, also saw this practice being implemented. It is this historical atrocity that the art exhibition Kitab Visual Ianfu (Ianfu Visual Book) seek to bring into attention. The exhibition is hosted in Galeri Cemara 6 on Jl. HOS Cokroaminoto, Central Jakarta (near Gondangdia Station), and scheduled to run from August 9 to 23, from 10 am to 7 pm.

Kitab Visual Ianfu 1As I have found out during class study on the ianfu topic, the logistics required by military missions abroad not only include seemingly obvious necessities like ammunitions and rations, but also sex. But let’s take a closer look at how Imperial Japan came to adopt systematic sexual slavery to provide for its soldiers. As ianfu researcher EkaHindra summarised in the introduction for the exhibit, the system emerged following mass rapings conducted by Japanese soldiers in their conquest of China in the 1930s. The soldiers had begun experiencing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and thus, following a recommendation from a military doctor, the Imperial Japanese Army took the initiative to provide “clean” (as in not afflicted by STDs) women to fulfill the soldiers’ sexual needs while maintaining their health and combat-worthiness. Various means of coercion and deception were used to draft young women from occupied peoples to serve this purpose.

Paintings by Indira Natalia depicting women of various backgrounds who lost their future because of sexual slavery
Paintings by Indira Natalia depicting women of various backgrounds who lost their future because of sexual slavery, their faces smeared and scribbled on

The tragic part about the ianfu is that they not only suffer from the sexual violence of the Japanese soldiers. Writing about Korean ianfu, Pyong (2003) noted that the ianfu continue to suffer from shame and humiliation after the war ended, because fear of stigma society lead them remain silent about their past experiences and became socially isolated. Thus, the intersection between colonialism and gender hierarchy, both in the occupying and occupied societies, need to be analysed to fully understand the plight of the ianfu during and after the practice.

By Nia Laughlin: the ianfu are silenced and can not talk about their experiences
By Nia Laughlin: the ianfu are silenced and can not talk about their experiences

In Indonesian context, one of the aim of Kitab Visual Ianfu, as it is stated, is to build awareness about this colonialism-gender intersection that leads to the ianfu‘s suffering, so that “no descendant of an ianfu would point to her grave as the grave of a Japan’s whore.” Have our society’s values also lead to the suppression of Indonesian ianfu experiences without our knowing? This is something that we need to reflect on critically.

Installation from Indah Arsyad and Ade Asrtie: a thousand condoms arranged into the shape of the Chrysanthemum crest, while a female figure lay hopeless on the floor under it
Installation from Indah Arsyad and Ade Asrtie: a thousand condoms arranged into the shape of the Chrysanthemum crest, while a female figure lay hopeless on the floor under it

Our attention to the intersection between military, gender and sex also remains important because the ianfu system is not the only site where such intersections occur; nor is it confined to atrocious World War past. The connections between military, gender and sex remain a critical issue, for example, in regards to the presence of American military bases in other countries such as the Philippines or Japan. Sexual offences by base personels against local women has caused many controversies, and a detailed discussion about the issue can be found, among others, in Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics.

Kitab Visual Ianfu 14
Installation from Bibiana, Ida Ahmad and Indyra: curtains bearing the names of ianfu enclose room corners where accounts of ianfu experiences are scribbled on the wall

In commemoration of the World Ianfu Day on August 14, the Kitab Visual Ianfu exhibition raise a voice from Indonesia in solidarity for the movement. By remembering the experiences of the ianfu, the moment is also important to critically evaluate the intersection between the military, gender, and sex; not as an indictment to the military institution, but as a lesson to prevent unnecessary harm and suffering.

By AP Bestari: images of sexual violence drawn on transparent material superimposed on a painting of an old woman, as if to recall past experiences
By AP Bestari: images of sexual violence drawn on transparent material superimposed on a painting of an old woman, as if to recall past experiences

Further Readings

  • EkaHindra, “Praktek Sistem Ianfu Periode 1931-1945 (The Practice of Ianfu System in 1931-1945)”  in Kitab Visual Ianfu art exhibition (2016).
  • Enloe, Cynthia, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, updated edition (University of California Press, 2008).
  • Pyong Gap Min, “Korean ‘Comfort Women’: The Intersection of Colonial Power, Gender, and Class,” in Gender and Society, Vol. 17, No. 6 (December 2003), pp. 938-957.

Text and photos by Halimun Muhammad | The writer is a graduate of International Relations major at the Faculty of Social and Political Science of Universitas Indonesia

This article is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the opinions and views of KAORI Nusantara and The Indonesian Anime Times.

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