Icons of the ‘Comfort Women’ Movement:  Considering the Plight of Indonesian Survivor Activists 

Katharine McGregor explores how Indonesian women engaged in activism after coming forward with their experiences of sexual violence during World War Two.

The San Francisco Column of Strength Monument includes a statue made in the likeness of Kim Hak Sun (1924-1997), the most famous survivor activist of the system of enforced military prostitution by the Japanese military during World War Two.  

Kim Hak Sun is depicted as an older woman with her hands folded looking solemnly up towards three young women who represent the women from across Asia victimised during the war. The monument commemorates Kim as the first woman who, in August 1991, broke her silence on her war time experiences as a young woman by giving testimony to the press.  In her own name.

Image of three statues of women in a circle holding hands, and a statue off to the side of another woman looking at them with clasped hands.
Comfort Women Monument in San Francisco, California, USA. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Kim’s act inspired other women to come forward and share their stories and kindled a transnational redress movement. 

Across the countries of Asia that were occupied by Japan during the war, very few victimised women have testified on what they endured. It is estimated that up to 200,000 women were affected, yet only around 100 women have spoken regularly of their experiences. The reasons for this are that the women suffered not only from physical and emotional abuse from the Japanese during the war, but also from ongoing abuse and shame in their own communities due to a tendency to blame these women for their experiences.  

The result of this dynamic was that women who came forward became icons representing many others who chose to remain silent. Kim is, for example, the most well-known survivor activist of Korean background. Maria Rosa Henson is the most well-known survivor activist of Filipino background. Meanwhile, Jan Ruff O’Herne became the most well-known survivor associated with the former colony of the Netherlands East Indies. Each received considerable international attention and support.  

But what of survivor activists from other backgrounds who have not received the same attention? Who are these women, and what are their stories?  

Using the concepts of survivor activists and icons of the movement, Systemic Silencing: Activism, Memory and Sexual Violence in Indonesia (2023) attempts to centre the role of these women to consider how they fared through the process of engaging with activism.

My book focuses on activism carried out by and on behalf of a less well-known case of activism: Indonesian survivors. Many Indonesian women testified about their experiences for the purposes of seeking justice, but some received more attention and sympathy than others. Overall, the movement in Indonesia faced extraordinary challenges. 

Tuminah’s story

Tuminah, from Solo Central Java, was the first Indonesian woman to break her silence. She went public with her story in July 1992. Like Henson and O’Herne, Tuminah was directly inspired by Kim’s courageous testimony.

A key difference in Tuminah’s testimony, however, was that she disclosed working as a ‘street worker’ prior to being forced by the Japanese army to work for them in a ‘comfort station’. She testified that she had begun this work largely to support her family; one of her largest regrets was that, once captured by the Japanese army, she could no longer support them. 

Unlike Kim, Henson, and O’Herne, Tuminah did not become a leading figure in the transnational movement. At first, she was largely ignored by the Indonesian public for a combination of reasons. Firstly, Indonesia had a lack of critical engagement with the legacy of the Japanese occupation, including the lack of any movement for Japanese redress. Secondly, at the time she spoke out, Indonesia had limited human rights activism in the context of the military-dominated Suharto regime (1966–1998). 

For many, however, Tuminah did not seem like a ‘worthy’ victim because of a moral judgement that as a sex worker she was not a genuine victim. 

Mardiyem’s story

Mardiyem, another Indonesian survivor activist, became the Indonesian movement’s leading icon. Why was it that she attracted more local and international attention than Tuminah? It was partly a product of the different context in which Mardiyem gave her testimony.  

In 1993, a delegation of Japanese lawyers came to Indonesia to seek information on all wartime victims. Through this visit, they encouraged the Indonesian Legal Aid Association (LBH) to collect the testimonies of survivors of human rights abuses committed by the Japanese during the war. LBH tried to draw media attention to the plight of survivors in the hope of creating sympathy and support and eventually redress.  

Seminar de Jepang, Mardiyem, 1996. Image supplied by Katharine McGregor.

There were particular reasons, however, why LBH chose to profile the story of Mardiyem. Firstly, she was duped into the system at thirteen years of age and shipped far away from her home in Yogyakarta to Borneo. Secondly, she was a virgin at the time. In the context of a society preoccupied with women’s sexual control, this helped reinforce a case for her innocence and thus worthiness as a victim. Thirdly, she suffered terrible violations including not only repeated daily rapes for the three years she was held in detention, but also a forced abortion.  

Despite her courage, Mardiyem explains in her 2007 Indonesian language memoir (entitled They Called Me Momoye [Momoye Mereka Memanggilku], narrated to Kimura Kōichi and Eka Hindra) that she only reluctantly stepped into the spotlight. She first shared her experiences only for the purposes of registering with LBH as a wartime victim in the hope of seeking redress. Yet upon hearing her harrowing story, LBH’s lead lawyer, Budi Hartono, called the media.  

Mardiyem did not want her name or her identity to be revealed because of fears about societal stigmatisation. Yet she eventually emerged as the icon of the Indonesian movement. She is the only Indonesian survivor whose life story has been recorded in detail in the local language of Bahasa Indonesia.  

Working closely with Indonesian and Japanese activists, Mardiyem gained opportunities to travel to Korea and Japan to speak about her experiences as a survivor. Even so, she and other Indonesian women received far less attention than Korean or Filipino women or even the Dutch survivor Jan Ruff O’Herne. 

Why were the stories of Indonesian survivors silenced for so long?

The Peace Monument, Glendale. Photograph by Vera Mackie.

This relative neglect is linked to the strong preference of Indonesia’s military-dominated government to brush this history under the carpet. LBH also had limited funding to support Mardiyem’s case. The women, moreover, were not supported by one organisation focusing specifically on advocacy for them.

Instead, their case was part of a larger quest for wartime compensation also for former forced labourers and former heiho, members of the Japanese auxiliary military. In this sense, the women sometimes competed for a voice and there was a limited understanding at the outset of the gendered dimensions of their suffering.

Indonesian activism for survivors reached a peak in the mid-1990s. Activists struggled for recognition, first, from the controversial, Japanese-run Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) and, then, against the deal AWF finally offered to the Indonesian government rather than individual survivors themselves.  

In 2000, an Indonesian contingent joined with delegations from several other countries to participate in the path breaking Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery. This was a people’s tribunal designed to hold the Japanese government to account in the wake of repeated failed court cases against the Japanese state. Yet since activists were simultaneously seeking justice for many other urgent and more recent cases of sexual violence, especially perpetrated by the Indonesian army against Indonesian women, the case of the ‘comfort women’ never held the spotlight that it has in South Korea. 

Lessons and legacies from the Indonesian movement

Image of three statues sitting on a bench with signs of support around them.
Comfort Women Statues in Hong Kong decorated with signs of support for women of sexualised violence, 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

There are lessons to be drawn from Indonesia. Mardiyem’s life experiences raise confronting questions about the expectations placed on survivors and the toll their activism takes.

Survivors chose to narrate their experiences for the purposes of achieving social rehabilitation for themselves and other survivors, while also seeking forms an apology and compensation from the Japanese government. Often, though, they received none.  

Tuminah and Mardiyem passed away in 2003 and 2007 respectively, yet their experiences offer us valuable insights into thinking about the position of survivor activists across this transnational movement. The story of Tuminah was the subject of a film by Indonesian activists Fanny Chotimah called TUM (2013).

Parts of Mardiyem’s journey have more recently been included in Indonesian history textbooks and preserved in her memoir, recently republished in 2022. Both women’s accounts can also be found on the survivor wall of an inclusive space at the Tokyo Women’s Active Museum, a museum which honours survivor activists from around the world. 

One of the most important transformations some made was to overcome the shame that they had attached to their experiences and to instead direct blame at those who perpetrated harms against them. Reconceptualising their experiences of sexual violence was not, however, an easy process. Some still felt shame despite engaging in activism. Despite the personal costs to survivors, their actions provided critical momentum to a process of challenging sexual violence. The struggle for recognition of historical cases of sexual violence in Indonesia is far from complete. 

This short discussion of Indonesian survivor activists offers a brief glimpse into the historical context of sexual inequality and violence in Indonesia and the Indonesian movement for redress provided in Katharine McGregor’s book Systemic Silencing: Activism, Memory, and Sexual Violence in Indonesia, just published in August 2023 by the Critical Human Rights series of the University of Wisconsin Press. 


Katharine McGregor is a Professor of Southeast Asian history with special expertise on Indonesian history based in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. The book Systemic Silencing is an outcome of her 2014-2017 Australian Research Council Future Fellowship called Confronting Historical Justice in Indonesia: Memory and Transnational Human Rights Activism (FT130100957). Her research interests centre on memory, activism and human rights. 


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