A typical winter scene outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea: Three elderly Korean women, too old and too weak to stand, sit with gloved hands frantically waving butterfly-shaped signs written in Korean: “Apologize to us on your knees.” The air is cold. They and their supporters—nuns, the elderly, the young, and the non-Korean—are bundled in heavy winter coats and woolen caps, noses peeking out over tightly wound scarves. A cane sticks out from below the banner draped across the elderly women’s knees. In Japanese, Korean, and English the banner reads, “Wednesday Demonstration to Solve the Japanese Military Comfort Women Issue.”
Since 1992—16 years and counting—these elderly Korean women, former inafu, or “comfort women,” and their supporters have braved the elements—rain, sun, heat, and cold—to demonstrate each and every Wednesday at noon. Victims of the Japanese Imperial Army’s comfort-women system, these women were forced, some as young as 10 years old, to sexually service male soldiers from the Japanese armed forces throughout a complex network of state-run brothels in operation from 1931 to 1945—the period known in Japan as the 15 Years War. Originally, more than a dozen former comfort women attended the Wednesday demonstrations. But as the years have passed, their numbers have dwindled as age and sickness have taken its toll. They seek closure in the form of an apology and compensation from the Japanese government for its role in forcing them into sexual servitude during World War II. An apology they have been denied.
“I was only 13 years old and did not even know the word ‘menstruation,’” former Korean comfort woman, Kang Duk-kyung, told Sangmi Choi Schellstede and Soon Mi Yu, editor and photographer, respectively, of Comfort Women Speak: Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military (2000, Holmes & Meier), where Kung’s story is recorded. “Many soldiers had come and gone. I could not even begin to count the number of soldiers who raped me,” Kang said. “As I think back on my past, nightmares working as a comfort woman, I want to believe that it was just a terrible dream. And if it were not a dream, I would like to think of it as my fate, over which I had no control.”
Of the estimated 200,000 women who served as sex slaves to Japanese soldiers, 140,000 perished under the well-organized sex-as-comfort system set up and run by the Japanese government. Those who survived did so in silence for 50 years in order to avoid bringing shame on themselves and their families. Former comfort women, scattered throughout Japan’s former colonies and occupied territories—Korea, Taiwan, South Sakhalin, Thailand, Burma, French Indo-China, British Malaysia, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Macao, and others—only began telling their stories in 1991, soon after the late Kim Hak-Sun, a former South Korean comfort woman, came forward and began speaking publicly about her experiences. Filing a lawsuit in 1992 in a Japanese court against the Japanese government, Kim demanded an apology and compensation. Her case was still pending when she died in 1997. Inspired by her actions, however, other comfort women came forward, carrying on the fight for apology and compensation in both US and Japanese courts. To date, all cases have been thrown out or ruled against the comfort women.
One small victory was achieved in 2007, when the US House of Representatives passed nonbinding House Resolution 121. Fought against by Tokyo, HR 121 calls on Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces’ coercion of young women into sexual slavery.”
Establishing sex for comfort
Founded in 2000, the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women (WCCW) is a nonprofit organization that has worked tirelessly on behalf of the former comfort women. One project WCCW funded was Schellstede and Soon’s book, which involved recording and photographing the lives of 17 elderly Korean comfort women. While rape is a known tool of war used by oppressors to demoralize the oppressed, the specific stories of these women offer a glimpse at a sexual slavery system that differs from wide-scale accounts of warfront rape or present-day rape accounts of Japanese women raped by American military men stationed in Japan. As Mindy Kotler, director of the Washington-based Asia Policy Point, an organization instrumental in the passage of HR 121, says, “The argument you hear all the time is, ‘Everyone else had prostitutes from the locals, why can’t we [the Japanese]?’ That’s true, the Russians raped their way through Eastern Europe, the Germans set up brothels, but no one ever did this in such a large-scale, organized, state-sponsored way.”