SHE HAD just turned 15. It was a cold winter day in 1941 when two men dressed in military uniforms knocked on her door to inform her of a new job opening at a factory far away. She could earn money for her family, they said, and could come back home if she felt homesick. With not much choice, the teenage girl agreed and followed the two men - a decision which marked the beginning of her own tragedy. She arrived at a storage area in Busan, where 20 girls around her age were sitting quietly, waiting for ”work“ to start. Of course, they had yet to realize what was awaiting them; they still thought they were there as factory workers. It was only after she was raped by a military man that she realized: she was now a sex slave. This is the heartbreaking story of a young girl, named Kim Bok-dong.
The phrase “comfort women,” or “military sex slaves” according to the official UN term, stands for the girls and women forced into prostitution corps created by the Japanese Empire during the years 1930-1945. The same term is also known as *wi-an-bu* in Korean, a word directly translated from the Japanese word for “prostitutes.” The number of Japanese military comfort women was around 200,000, yet 80% of them are believed to have been of Korean origin. Females aged from 11-year-old girls to 30-year-old women from countries under Japanese imperial control were either abducted from their homes or even volunteered to go abroad, lured with false promises of new “job positions” available in foreign lands. Soon, they were taken to comfort stations in territories occupied by the Japanese to satisfy the lust of Japanese military men.
The young comfort women back then are now grandmothers willing to tell their story and let the world know about this dark episode in East Asian history that often goes untold. According to their testimonies, the comfort stations were always filled with animal-like men, making it impossible to even count the number of sexual assaults the women were forced to deal with from morning till late at night. One girl, they recall, asked a cleaning woman to bring her something that would help her die on the spot. The girl handed her \1, the precious money her mother had given her before she left home. The woman returned with a bucket of alcohol, which the girl drank hoping to die as soon as possible. Of course, she failed to kill herself, and had to go back to work from the very next day. She was enraged, because she could not die.
Almost three out of four comfort women died during the war and the remaining survivors were left infertile due to sexual trauma or sexually transmitted diseases. Even when the women escaped and returned back to Korea, they had to pretend as if nothing had happened. They were back in a society that valued the integrity and purity of women, and their story was simply unacceptable. In the animation “Her Story,” one of the girls musters the courage to tell her mother about her horrible experiences during the past 8 years. Yet her mother refuses to believe her story which “cannot be true, and must not be true” and tells her daughter to leave their home. The girl carries her physically and psychologically damaged self to the suburbs, and lives as if nothing happened.
Taking courage to make history known
The appalling individual ordeal of the Japanese military’s comfort women was first revealed to the public in 1991. Just before the 46th anniversary of Korea’s independence, a grandmother named Kim Hak-soon went to the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery (Korean Council) and became the first Korean woman to testify about the issue in public. She then released her testimony on paper, disclosing all the painful details about her life as a comfort woman. Kim also took the issue to the Japanese courts in order to receive official acknowledgement. Her testimony received attention both domestically and internationally, and around 235 women followed Kim’s example to testify also about their former lives as comfort women.
Kim’s bravery became a stepping stone for greater action regarding the issue of comfort women. In 1988, the world’s first museum with the theme of sexual slavery was created in Gwangju with the name “Historical Museum of Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Military.” A few years later, in June 1992, the “House of Sharing” was opened as a residence for the comfort women who lost their families during the war and remains home to 8 grandmothers to this day. Ever since 1992, there have also been weekly Wednesday protests in front of the Japanese Embassy, where the surviving grandmothers gather with a large crowd to demand acknowledgement, an official apology, compensation, and accurate factual records of the events in Japanese history textbooks. A former comfort woman, Kim Bok-dong, once said “Do not hate people even if you hate their crimes. If the Japanese acknowledge the fact that they used us as comfort women and apologize, it shall be enough. I want to live in peace before I die.”
The Wednesday protests have been going on for 22 years, and the Wednesday of Sep. 25 marked the 1,093th protest in front of the Japanese Embassy, catching the media’s attention as the longest demonstration in history. On Dec. 14, 2011, a statue resembling a young comfort woman was placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to mark the 1,000th Wednesday protest. Kim (activist, Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery) says that “At each Wednesday protest, I wish there will be no protest the following week. I hope the issue is resolved soon, so that the grandmothers won’t have to come out every week to shout out for the same cause.”
Why not apologize?
Starting from the creation of the Korean Council in 1990, Koreans have been requesting an official recognition and apology for the comfort women from the Japanese government. At first, Japan refused to acknowledge the existence of comfort women, but Kim Hak-soon’s testimony worked against their claims. As a result, the Japanese government has acknowledged the existence of comfort women, but still denies that they were coerced into prostitution, citing lack of official evidence. They claim that they cannot take official responsibility for a policy that lacks historical evidence and have tried to cover up the issue by offering grants to the victims. The Korean grandmothers, however, rejected the grants and continued to demand an official apology. “The grandmothers are not seeking financial compensation,” says Choi Jong Kun (Prof., Dept. of Political Science and Int. Studies). “What they are seeking is official recognition by the Japanese government to get their long lost honor and youth back.” From the perspective of the comfort women, “efforts to buy indulgence with money might even be conceived as an insulting gesture to erase their past through the power of money. You cannot buy their lost youth with material goods,” says Choi Jae-hyung (Jr., UIC, Dept. of Political Science and Int. Relations).
While the Japanese government refuses to recognize its responsibility for the war crimes, the issue of comfort women is being brought to a broader international stage. In 1993, the issue was included in the World Conference of Human Rights held in Vienna, and in 2003, the UN Convention against Women’s Discrimination called on the Japanese government to “take responsibility for the comfort women issue.” A few years later in 2007, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution that called on Japan to “formally apologize and accept historical responsibility.” 23 countries followed suit, galvanizing movements around the globe. Around that time, a Japanese military official publically admitted his involvement in the sexual assaults during the war, but Shinzo Abe once again refused to take responsibility. Tokyo has also claimed that since the comfort women existed before the UN convention against torture in 1987, their cases are not subject to the convention.
In a recent speech, Hashimoto Toru, mayor of Osaka, stated that "to maintain discipline in the military it must have been necessary at that time. For soldiers who risked their lives when bullets were flying around like rain and wind, a comfort women system was necessary. That's clear to anyone." His claims caused great controversy worldwide, as they were seen to be representative of the Abe administration’s perception of the crimes committed during the war. Some also claim that the women were simply paid to produce physical labor for Japanese companies and that those who faced sexual assaults were simply more unfortunate than others. According to Choi Jung Kun, however, “the country used the women forcefully as products of the war. Some believe it was commercial or even volunteer prostitution, but the very fact that comfort women systems were created by the Japanese government is unacceptable.”
Then why is the Japanese government so reluctant to acknowledge their role? According to Choi, the main reason is legitimacy. That is, if Tokyo were to confirm the fact that the Japanese government was behind the comfort women system, they would eventually have to acknowledge everything including their forgotten past, inhumane war crimes, the Dokdo issue and other political controversies. Their legitimacy would eventually be gone. “Everything, including the legitimacy that the country of Japan has built over the years, would collapse like a domino,” says Choi. “The foundations of the whole nation would crumble and Japan would be unable to keep the low profile it has maintained over the years.” Cho Yoon-sook (participant, East Asian History Debate Forum) also believes that if the government planned to take responsibility for such an embarrassing issue, then Japanese citizens would protest and take action in order to prevent it from happening. She also claims that there could be economic reasons. As Japan is heavily concerned with the international image of its companies, if the government admits to having launched a comfort women system, the image of the country as a whole would go down, leading to boycotts of Japanese products.
Echoes for an international awakening
While the Japanese government is yet to acknowledge its involvement in the comfort women system, other governments around the world have succeeded in raising public awareness of the issue on an international level. As Choi Jae-hyung asserts, “Perhaps now is the time for international civic groups and NGOs to take up the matter and indirectly influence Japan through their actions.” According to Hans Schattle (Prof., Dept. of Political Science & Int. Studies), the grandmothers have been visiting universities abroad to share their stories. “Their story is getting more attention through the word of mouth, media and education. Since the issue of comfort women is actually one of the few cases in history with very few shades of gray, individuals show sympathy for the grandmothers’ cause and repulsion for the acts by the Japanese. Global awareness about the issue is growing.” Heather Evans (former volunteer, House of Sharing), says that “when you work with the *halmunis*, you feel sad and angry for the current situation, but also inspired by their courage and determination. This is an issue connected with current situations all across the globe, and everyone should be ready to take action.”
In 2011, a short animation film resembling Kim Hak-soon’s tragedy was released with the title “Her Story.” The movie was included in various international movie festivals, spreading the story of the comfort women abroad. Moreover, a peace statue honoring the victims of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery was set up in Los Angeles, in front of Glendale’s main library in July 2013 and caught worldwide attention. “I don’t see this as a monument designed to shame Japan,” said Laura Friedman, member of the Glendale council. “The monument is meant to remind people of the tragedy that 13- or 14-year-old girls were forced to become comfort women and the horrors of the war.” In the meantime, Aug. 14, 2013 was declared as the first “UN Comfort Women Day,” in remembrance of Kim Hak-soon’s first testimony, and people in 17 cities from 9 different countries participated in various events regarding the issue.
This August, UNESCO also held an East Asian History Debate Forum, during which many discussions focused on the issue of comfort women. According to Cho, “Everyone, including Japanese students seemed to realize the severity of the problem, and showed sincere interest in taking action to help. When the other participants of the forum heard that I would be attending this week’s Wednesday protest, they all sent me inspiring messages in their own languages via Facebook and made a poster from different locations.” Hyun Ji-hye (participant, East Asian History Debate Forum) noticed that although the Japanese students knew about the existence of comfort women, they had never heard of any details, since they are not included in Japanese textbooks. “They were shocked after learning the grandmothers’ stories, and cried a lot when they met one of them in person at the House of Sharing. They seemed determined to go back and raise awareness in Japan. This is how internationalized the issue has become,” she says.
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Yoon Mi-hyun, (Representative, Korean Council) still remembers the first Wednesday protest that took place 22 years ago. At first, she says, the grandmothers used to hide their faces during each demonstration to protect themselves from the criticisms and gaze of the public. However, according to Yoon, “although we might not have succeeded in earning a sincere apology from the Japanese government yet, the grandmothers have now realized that they have nothing to be ashamed of.” Most importantly, they have been able to heal their past traumas through the Wednesday protests and the public encouragement. Next Wednesday, the grandmothers will once again gather in front of the Japanese Embassy to ask for a humble apology for their lost youth. “We cannot know how the issue will evolve in the future,” says Choi Jae-hyung. “Yet, let us hope that the grandmothers will finally be able to accept themselves not as comfort women, but as beautiful women.”