How long-concealed ‘comfort women’ changed the criminal code

Individual testimonies about the war are a powerful weapon. ‘Brave people such as Cleveringa and former "comfort women" dared to speak up and helped create a better future,’ Japanologist Carol Gluck said in her Cleveringa Lecture on 26 November.

Explosive topic

Carol Gluck in the Academy Building

Carol Gluck in the Academy Building

Even 70 years after it ended, the Second World War remains an explosive topic, argued Gluck in the Academy Building. This is especially true of East Asia and Eastern Europe, where the consequences and the memory of those times still lead to political and social tensions. But in the course of the past 70 years, there has also been a great change in the collective memory of the war, Gluck concluded. The central thread of her argument was the example of the ‘comfort women’, the more than 100,000 women and girls who were forced into prostitution by Japanese soldiers.

A black-and-white story

In the early years after the war, little attention was paid to their story. At the Tokyo Tribunal of 1948, the Japanese presented themselves as the victims of a group of evil leaders who had dragged the Japanese people into the war. ‘Just as in other countries, the official war story was a black-and-white story of heroes and villains. There was no room for diversity in experiences, such as the role of collaborators or what had happened to the "comfort women",' Gluck argued.

Doing justice to history

Slowly but surely, more attention was paid to the stories that had not yet made it into the official sources and war stories. Individuals, both victims and perpetrators, began to tell their stories, to tribunals, activists, welfare workers, historians and journalists. As a result, new, often painful events became public and justice was done to history.

Moral responsibility of later generations

Gluck believes these individual testimonies are crucial. ‘These new stories helped to create a worldwide culture of remembrance which has had an incredible impact: on justice, on our knowledge of the war, on the obligations that states and societies jointly feel towards citizens, and on the political and moral responsibility of later generations,’ she commented.

Carol Gluck with Rector Carel Stolker

Carol Gluck with Rector Carel Stolker

Late publicity

Many victims such as the former ‘comfort women’ were for a long time unable talk publicly about their stories, out of fear, disgust or shame. Most only dared to speak up after the death of their husbands, or because someone took the trouble to ask them seriously. In South Korea it was only in 1991 that a victim was able to tell her story to the media, at which point the story was given an incredible amount of publicity and it turned out that many other, similar testimonies had already been circulating for some time in East and South-East Asia.

Crime against humanity

Thanks to the growing numbers of testimonies and indictments, the criminal offence of ‘rape by soldiers' was taken more seriously by society and by legal experts. ‘People finally came to realise that this is not just a question of a violation of a woman’s honour,’ Gluck explained. In 1998 the International Court of Justice established rape by soldiers as a ‘crime against humanity’. In 2001, for the first time, the Yugoslavia Tribunal in The Hague convicted three men on this charge.



Following Cleveringa’s example

In her conclusion, Gluck referred once again to Cleveringa. ‘We should take responsibility not only for the past, but also for the future. That is what Professor Cleveringa did when he spoke up and denounced the dismissal of his Jewish colleagues as unjust. The "comfort women" also made a show of courage as citizens when they made their stories public. The past cannot be changed, but the future can. I think that Cleveringa changed our future; he made it better, nobler, more just and more responsible. We have to follow his example.’

On 26 November, Rector Carel Stolker officially unveiled a stone lectern in the courtyard of the Academy Building that commemorates the three protest speeches.

On 26 November, Rector Carel Stolker officially unveiled a stone lectern in the courtyard of the Academy Building that commemorates the three protest speeches.

Unveiling of lectern and plaques

On 26 November, Rector Carel Stolker officially unveiled a stone lectern in the courtyard of the Academy Building that commemorates the protest speeches by Professors Rudolph Cleveringa, Ton Barge and Lambertus van Holk on 26 November 1940. Wall plaques were also officially unveiled at the professor’s former homes. These plaques are an initiative by Professor Willy Hijmans, who was a student of Professor Barge at the time. The lectern and plaques were funded by the Leiden University Fund (LUF) and the families of the three professors.

(27 November 2014)


Dean of the Faculty of Law Rick Lawson and Professor of Classics and Ancient Civilisations Ineke Sluiter reconstructed Cleveringa’s decision to hold a protest speech in a short documentary by the LUF (Leiden University Fund).

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Last Modified: 19-12-2014