WHEN A CAMERAMAN IS eyewitness to a lie…

‘I was there, I’ve seen it!’  

The harrowing story Japan’s so-called ‘comfort women’


When correspondent Philip Williams was based in Japan in the early 1990s he and Singaporean cameraman Willie Phua covered the ongoing controversy over the Japanese wartime criminal outrages against so-called ‘comfort women.’

More specifically, they covered the debate concerning the Japanese government’s refusal to consider compensation for the imprisoned women who were innocent civilians forced to become prostitutes for Japanese soldiers.

But as Williams discovered, his partner was not just a cameraman, he was an eyewitness.   

Many in Japan over the years had denied that Korean women had been used as prostitutes for soldiers in the Second World War; the extreme nationalist Yasukuni Museum in Tokyo is still in denial over the issue to this day.

Philip Williams, now the ABC’s European correspondent, produced stories with Willie Phua on the issue of the ‘comfort women’ during the early 1990s, as Williams explains:

“The former comfort women were starting to come out publicly and declare what they had been through. And there was Jan Ruff-O’Herne, the Australian, then a Dutch girl, who had been forced into it, too.”

Ruff-O’Herne was imprisoned when the Japanese invaded Java. She was forced into a brothel with nine other girls, all virgins, to become sex slaves for the Japanese military in a house in Semarang from 1944 until the end of the war.

Philip Williams recalls the controversy in Japan and how Willie Phua’s depth of experience quickly clarified the argument for him:

“We were doing those stories with Willie and the debate was going on and he said, ‘Yes, there were Korean girls in the brothel in Singapore where I used to work.’ And he said how badly they were treated and he used to feel bad for them. Of course, he was only a boy.


“That was a moment where you think you are talking about ancient history but suddenly Willie says, ‘No, I was there, I’ve seen it!’ This was a remarkable experience for me.”

In the book Capturing Asia, Phua recalls some 20 or 30 ‘comfort women’, as the Japanese called them, in the two-storey houses of the Cairnhill Road brothel precinct in Singapore for Japanese soldiers. He worked in the brothels on errands for the girls and his mother, Phua Tan Tee, who was the cook:

“In the morning the girls had kim chi [pickles] and I had to pound tons of chilli and garlic every day. Most of the girls were from Korea, some also from Formosa [now Taiwan]. The manager, or pimp, was a Korean. He was in charge of everything and arranged the girls’ work.

“If one of the girls is sick, he would get her to the hospital just down the road. All the comfort women would be examined once a week. I would see them go down the hill. Occasionally, some would come back crying. If they were crying, they had caught a sexually transmitted disease. I would feel sorry for them.

“One of the young girls died in the brothel. After that, another young girl living in the same room was afraid to sleep. I remember seeing her… She was just terribly afraid. I don’t know how this girl died. I was so young and not told everything. The undertaker came to take her away.”

Systematically beaten and raped...

Jan Ruff-O’Herne was systematically beaten and raped day and night. Never did any Japanese rape her without a fight.

She told her harrowing tale to the ABC’s Australian Story on August 30, 2001:

“They started to drag us away one by one. And I could hear all the screaming coming from the bedrooms, you know, and you just wait for your turn, you know. And there stood this large, fat, bald Japanese officer looking at me, grinning at me, and I put up an enormous fight, but he just dragged me to the bedroom. And I said, ‘I'm not going to do this.’ And he said, ‘Well, I will kill you. If you don't give yourself to me, I will kill you.’

Jan Ruff-O'Herne  “And he actually got out his sword. I went on my knees to say my prayers and I felt God very close. I wasn't afraid to die. And as I was praying ...he had no intention of killing me, of course. He just …threw me on the bed … It was the most... the most horrendous... I never thought suffering could be that terrible. And eventually he left the room and I was in total shock. I thought, ‘I want to go to the bathroom. I want to wash this all away. I want to wash away all the shame, all the dirt. Just wash it away, wash it away.’

“And when I got to the bathroom, all the other girls were there. We were all there in the bathroom, you know, all totally hysterical and crying and just trying to wash away the dirt, you know, the shame. Within one night, we lost our youth. We lost our innocence, our youth. We were just ...such a pitiful little group of girls, and we were just embracing each other. And how many times was each one raped that night? You know, I shall never forget that first night. And we felt so helpless. This was going to happen from now on, night after night.”

Jan Ruff-O’Herne told a US House of Representatives sub-committee hearing in February 2007:

“I have forgiven the Japanese for what they did to me, but I can never forget. For fifty years, the “Comfort Women” maintained silence; they lived with a terrible shame, of feeling soiled and dirty. It has taken 50 years for these women’s ruined lives to become a human rights issue… The Japanese government must take full responsibility for their war crimes.”

Philip Williams and Willie Phua extracts from Capturing Asia, an ABC cameraman's journey through momentous events and turbulent history, ABC Books. Jan Ruff-O’Herne is the author of 50 years of silence, William Heinemann, 2008.


The houses, above and below, in Cairnhill Road, Singapore, where Willie Phua woprked as an errand boy with his mother, a cook, and which were the Japanese military brothels.




ABC Europe correspondent Philip Williams.