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Life as a "comfort woman": Survivors remember a WWII atrocity that was ignored for decades

A Korean survivor of wartime Japanese sexual slavery weeps at a conference for survivors
A Korean survivor of wartime Japanese sexual slavery weeps at a conference for survivors

Japan and South Korea announced on Monday that they'd reached an historic agreement over Japan's use of Korean "comfort women" during World War II.

From 1932 to 1945, the Japanese military forced tens of thousands of women and girls, many of them Korean, into sexual slavery as "comfort women." Under Monday's agreement, Japan will formally apologize and offer symbolic compensation payments to the remaining survivors. South Korea will in turn treat the matter as officially resolved.

As I wrote yesterday, this dispute, and the agreement to now resolve it, is about much more than just 70-year-old Japanese war crimes. It's about Japan's evolving national identity and the fascist history it has never quite fully confronted, about liberalizing social norms in Korea that finally allowed survivors to come forward, and about negotiating what kind of place Japan and Korea will have in 21st-century Asia.

Still, the "comfort women" are not just symbolic figures and this isn't just about present-day politics. These women, it is easy to forget, have endured, in their lifetimes, crimes so terrible and violent that they are difficult to fathom. But it is important that their stories, already barely known in the West, aren't lost in all this.

What follows, then, are testimonies of Korean women who survived Japan's system of mass sexual slavery, excerpted from a 1996 United Nations report on "comfort women." These are, I believe, important to remember, though I will warn you that they are extremely graphic and can be difficult to read.

From Chong Ok-sun, born 1920:

One day in June, at the age of 13, I had to prepare lunch for my parents who were working in the field and so I went to the village well to fetch water. A Japanese garrison soldier surprised me there and took me away, so that my parents never knew what had happened to their daughter. I was taken to the police station in a truck, where I was raped by several policemen. When I shouted, they put socks in my mouth and continued to rape me. The head of the police station hit me in my left eye because I was crying. That day I lost my eyesight in the left eye.

After 10 days or so, I was taken to the Japanese army garrison barracks in Heysan City. There were around 400 other Korean young girls with me and we had to serve over 5,000 Japanese soldiers as sex slaves every day - up to 40 men per day. Each time I protested, they hit me or stuffed rags in my mouth. One held a matchstick to my private parts until I obeyed him. My private parts were oozing with blood.

One Korean girl who was with us once demanded why we had to serve so many, up to 40, men per day. To punish her for her questioning, the Japanese company commander Yamamoto ordered her to be beaten with a sword. While we were watching, they took off her clothes, tied her legs and hands and rolled her over a board with nails until the nails were covered with blood and pieces of her flesh. In the end, they cut off her head. Another Japanese, Yamamoto, told us that "it’s easy to kill you all, easier than killing dogs." He also said "since those Korean girls are crying because they have not eaten, boil the human flesh and make them eat it."

One Korean girl caught a venereal disease from being raped so often and, as a result, over 50 Japanese soldiers were infected. In order to stop the disease from spreading and to ’sterilize’ the Korean girl, they stuck a hot iron bar in her private parts.

Once they took 40 of us on a truck far away to a pool filled with water and snakes. The soldiers beat several of the girls, shoved them into the water, heaped earth into the pool and buried them alive.

I think over half of the girls who were at the garrison barracks were killed. Twice I tried to run away, but both times we were caught after a few days. We were tortured even more and I was hit on my head so many times that all the scars still remain. They also tattooed me on the inside of my lips, my chest, my stomach and my body. I fainted. When I woke up, I was on a mountainside, presumably left for dead. Of the two girls with me, only Kuk Hae and I survived. A 50-year-old man who lived in the mountains found us, gave us clothes and something to eat. He also helped us to travel back to Korea, where I returned, scarred, barren and with difficulties in speaking, at the age of 18, after five years of serving as a sex slave for the Japanese.

From Hwang So-gun, born 1918:

When I was 17 years old, in 1936, the head of our village came to our house and promised me to help me find a job in a factory. Because my family was so poor, I gladly accepted this offer of a well-paid job. I was taken to the railway station in a Japanese truck where 20 or so other Korean girls were already waiting. We were put on the train, then onto a truck and after a few days’ travel we reached a big house at the River Mudinjian in China. I thought it was the factory, but I realized that there was no factory. Each girl was assigned one small room with a straw bag to sleep on, with a number on each door.

After two days of waiting, without knowing what was happening to me, a Japanese soldier in army uniform, wearing a sword, came to my room. He asked me "will you obey my words or not?," then pulled my hair, put me on the floor and asked me to open my legs. He raped me. When he left, I saw there were 20 or 30 more men waiting outside. They all raped me that day. From then on, every night I was assaulted by 15 to 20 men.

We had to undergo medical examinations regularly. Those who were found disease-stricken were killed and buried in unknown places. One day, a new girl was put in the compartment next to me. She tried to resist the men and bit one of them in his arm. She was then taken to the courtyard and in front of all of us, her head was cut off with a sword and her body was cut into small pieces.

From Kum Ju-hwang, born 1921:

I thought I was drafted as a labour worker when, at the age of 17, the Japanese village leader’s wife ordered all unmarried Korean girls to go to work at a Japanese military factory. I worked there for three years, until the day that I was asked to follow a Japanese soldier into his tent. He told me to take my clothes off. I resisted because I was so scared, I was still a virgin. But he just ripped my skirt and cut my underwear from my body with a gun which had a knife attached to it. At that point I fainted. And when I woke up again, I was covered with a blanket but there was blood everywhere.

From then on, I realized that during the first year I, like all the other Korean girls with me, was ordered to service high-ranking officials, and as time passed, and as we were more and more ’used’, we served lower-ranking officers. If a woman got a disease, she usually vanished. We were also given ’606-shots’ so that we would not get pregnant or that any pregnancies would result in miscarriage.

We only received clothes two times per year and not enough food, only rice cakes and water. I was never paid for my ’services’. I worked for five years as a ’comfort woman’, but all my life I suffered from it. My intestines are mostly removed because they were infected so many times, I have not been able to have intercourse because of the painful and shameful experiences. I cannot drink milk or fruit juices without feeling sick because it reminds me too much of those dirty things they made me do.

These stories are not outliers; tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of women and girls were enslaved by the Japanese military from 1932 to 1945. While many were Korean, the Imperial Japanese Army took "comfort women" from virtually every country it invaded in Asia.

While these stories may feel like distant memories, they are recent enough that some of the women who endured it — many of them only children at the time — are still alive to talk about it. During the 1990s, when the legacy of "comfort women" first surfaced as a major political issue, the survivors were far more numerous, and would for a time hold weekly protests outside of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. That's how recent this was.

The survivors' plights did not end in 1945 with Japan's defeat. Many kept their experiences secret out of shame, or were pressured into silence by their communities and families back home, who often blamed the young women for what had been done to them. This is part of why it has taken so long for these stories to be told, and why it is important, now, seven decades later, for the world, including but not only the Japanese government, to acknowledge what happened. That is a form of justice as well.

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