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 News Vol.18
A Discussion with Yoshiko Otaka, Vice-President of the Asian Women’s Fund
I want to talk to young people about the horrors of war, to help ensure peace in this new century.”

Yoshiko Otaka,
Vice-President of the Asian Women’s Fund
Yoshiko Otaka was born in 1920, in Fushun, northeastern China, when the region was called Manchuria. She debuted as a film actress and singer in 1938, working for Manshu Film Productions under the Chinese name Li Xianglan (Japanese pronunciation: Ri Koran). Her numerous films and hit tunes brought her tremendous fame as the “singing Chinese star, Ri Koran.” She returned to Japan after the war, in 1946, and launched a new acting career there, under the name Yoshiko Yamaguchi. After retiring from the world of film in 1958, she appeared as a hostess and anchorwoman on TV talk shows. In 1974, she was elected to the House of Councilors (the upper House of the Japanese parliament), where she served for 18 years (three terms). She co-authored the book, Ri Koran, Watashi no Hansei (Half My Life as Ri Koran, published by Shinchosha Co.). She now serves as a Vice-President of the Asian Women’s Fund.

More than half a century has passed since the end of World War II, but even now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the ravages of that war remain in the hearts of many people in Asia.

This discussion with Yoshiko Otaka is especially significant because she, too, experienced the horrors of war first-hand. She began participating in the Asian Women’s Fund when it was established in 1995, joining its efforts to find a resolution to the comfort women issue. Here, as one of the AWF’s Vice-Presidents, she speaks about what she wants to tell young people at the dawn of the new century.

Interviewer: Yasuaki Onuma, Director of the Asian Women’s Fund and professor at the University of Tokyo

Onuma: You have worked hard for the Asian Women’s Fund, first as a proponent calling on the general public to make donations, then as a Director, and now as a Vice-President of the AWF. You have participated in the AWF’s work since it was established in July 1995. That year, 1995, marked the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. When the Government asked you to become a proponent for the AWF, what were your feelings?

Otaka: World War II ended more than half a century ago, and those of us who experienced it find that our memories of those days are growing fainter with time. And of course, the number of people who have never experienced war is growing.

When former comfort women stepped forward and identified themselves, I felt absolutely terrible about what happened to them, especially when I realized that I was more or less their own age. I really wanted to do something for them, and to do it as soon as possible, because there was not much time left. Of course, I realized that their past humiliation and suffering can never be fully atoned for, but I wanted there to be some way for them to live more at ease. That’s the main reason I decided to participate in the Asian Women’s Fund.

When the AWF’s projects began under the initiative of the Murayama Cabinet, I thought, and still think, that the AWF represented the best possible approach the Japanese Government can take. And I felt that I could be of some use by participating in the AWF’s activities. I think that all proponents felt like that.

Onuma: Those were my feelings exactly, when I wrote the draft for the “Appeal for Donations for the Asian Women’s Fund.” And I’m sure the other proponents, and the AWF’s Directors, had those same feelings when calling for donations in different parts of Japan. But the media coverage was one-sided, and in the Republic of Korea and Taiwan the general idea developed that taking “atonement money” would be taking something dirty. Former comfort women were pressured into a situation where they found it impossible to take the money publicly. They wanted to receive it, but only in secret. This was most unfortunate.


Donations from the Japanese people are “atonement money” given in good faith from the heart.

Otaka: The Asian Women’s Fund has received a large amount of money in the form of donations. I think of those donations as being pure, because they were given from the heart. I know the AWF has been criticized, but my one goal has been to look for ways to convey to the victims the feelings of the donors. You and I participated in a symposium in Yamagata, and I’m sure you remember how the participants listened really closely, and how they were most generous in their donations. I think it’s wonderful that Japanese people who want to express their feelings of atonement can do so by donating voluntarily.

Onuma: What was one of the most profound experiences you’ve had, during your six years with the AWF? I ask you this because I know you have developed a close rapport with some former comfort women.

Otaka: One former comfort women saw me years and years ago. I was astonished when she told me. She saw me while I was on location in Suzhou (near Shanghai, China). I was acting in one of the Ri Koran movies, and a Japanese soldier brought her to watch the filming. When I met her years later, she said, “I was in a crowd of people looking at you — you were singing that song Suzhou Nocturne, with artificial peach blossoms in your hands.” You see, the film crew wasn’t able to get a good branch of blossoms from a peach tree, so one of them made some blossoms out of paper for me. Only someone who had actually been on location would have known that. And she remembered even that detail. She was taken from Korea when she was 15, and put in a comfort station in Suzhou. She told me she tried to escape several times, but was caught every time. She even got stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet. She told me, “I tried to kill myself by drinking cresol, but I guess I didn’t take enough, or the potion was too weak.” I was overwhelmed, and told her, “How awful for you! I wish from the bottom of my heart that all those things had never happened.”

Onuma: I remember a few years ago, just before I went to the Republic of Korea one time, you handed me a present to take to her. People around her had kept telling her not to have any contact with the AWF, but she agreed to meet me because you had developed a personal relationship with her. I was deeply moved when I met her, and that will remain with me forever.


Respecting the wishes of the victims

Otaka: What are your feelings about the AWF’s activities?

Onuma: I’ve been working with the Asian Women’s Fund for six years, and I must admit there were times when I was very frustrated and felt that our work was in vain. I wondered why some Japanese activist groups flail about so, wasting energy. The AWF and the Japanese Government have had some heated arguments, and we have been restricted in what we can do, but we kept persevering, thinking about how we could improve the lives of the victims. I wish that activists in Japan had taken the energy they used to fight against the AWF, and used it instead to apply pressure on the Japanese Government.

Otaka: For me, too, some times things were so difficult I ended up crying. It’s been painful, ever since I began working with the AWF. But some victims have been glad to receive the “atonement money,” and that has kept me going. One man sent us his donation with the message, “I’m not rich and I can only give a little, but I hope it will be useful.” The recipients understand feelings like that, and when I see the thanks in their eyes I am really glad I do work for the AWF. There are many things I can’t do or talk about because we have to protect their privacy, and this pulls me both ways. At any rate, when implementing the AWF’s projects, my goal has always been to look after the interests of the victims and think first of what they want.

Onuma: Work done by non-governmental organizations in the Philippines has shown respect for the wishes of the victims. The attitude of NGO members, which I admire, is that each victim has her own opinion and her circumstances are unique, so their views must be respected. That is why the number of applicants for AWF projects is the highest in the Philippines. In all, about 200 victims in the Philippines, the Republic of Korea and Taiwan have received the Japanese people’s expressions of atonement, and I think that is wonderful.

Otaka: The projects of atonement will end in May 2002 in the Republic of Korea and Taiwan. Soon after, we hope to give a detailed report to all donors on the work done to date.

Facing up to the facts of history will enable us Japanese to empathize with the suffering of people in Asia.

Onuma: What are you most keen to tell the younger generation?

Otaka: The Liutiaogou Incident was perpetrated in Manchuria on 18 September 1931, when I was in Grade 6, and this led, the following year, to the establishment of the state of Manchukuo. About half a year later I saw Japanese soldiers tie a Chinese man to a pine tree and hit him until he died. I’ll never forget that. The Pingdingshan Incident followed as a result of those troubles.

Onuma: That was a terrible thing to witness as a young girl. Later, although you are Japanese, you were forced to take on the role of Li Xianglan, a Chinese singer and movie star, and had to pretend to be a Chinese person promoting good relations between Japan and China. Your experiences obviously brought you much suffering. But those experiences, and your memories of them, prompted you to work hard to promote Sino-Japanese friendship, and to address post-World War II problems, such as the Palestinian question and the comfort women issue.

Otaka: Yes, I had a number of opportunities to visit different parts of China while serving in the House of Councilors. I even visited the Memorial Hall that was built as a place of repose for the many dug-up bones of farmers killed in the Pingdingshan Incident. What I saw at the Hall made me even more keenly aware of the inhumanity of war. People in the Republic of Korea and China have still not really forgiven us for tragedies like that one, which were rooted in war.

I also listened to people talking about family members and friends killed in Nanjing (Nanking). I understood why they trembled with emotion when speaking to me. Young people in Japan do not truly understand the indignities and suffering the comfort women were forced to bear during the war. Even though young people might find it hard to believe such things happened, it’s really important that they face the facts squarely.

Many people in Japan are supporting the AWF’s projects of atonement for the former comfort women, and this makes it possible for us to convey to the victims the feelings of atonement of the Japanese. I hope many more young people will support our work.

The young people of today will be the decision makers of tomorrow, so I hope they will carefully study the history of 20th-century Asia. They need to face the facts of history, in order to more fully understand the suffering of Asian people who experienced tragedy in the past. This understanding is needed to establish friendship with other people of Asia, indeed with the entire international community.

Onuma: As I wrote in the “Appeal for Donations for the Asian Women’s Fund,” and as I have said and written on other occasions, the indignities and suffering that the comfort women were forced to bear can never be properly atoned for. Yet while keeping this in mind, we will still take positive steps to try to improve, at least a little, the lives of the victims in a material way, and in a psychological way. Neither the human rights groups supporting the former comfort women, nor the Asian Women’s Fund, can look after the interests of all victims, so it would be best, I believe, for us and other groups to continue doing what we can within our own sphere of activities. Then, as you say, we Japanese will have a better understanding of the suffering endured by people in other parts of Asia, and this will lead to close ties of friendship with the people of those Asian countries.

hank you very much for participating in today’s discussion.

Yoshiko Otaka, Vice-President of the Asian Women’s Fund, talking with Yasuaki Onuma, a Director of the Asian Women’s Fund, on 1 November 2001 in Tokyo.

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