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‘Comfort women’ victim dies, survivors down to 48

Another victim of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery has died from a chronic illness, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, Monday.

Seven former “comfort women” have died this year. Only 48 victims are still alive in South Korea, where 238 women were once registered with the government as former sex slaves.

Choi Kum-seon passed away around 11:20 p.m. at a hospital on Sunday. She was 89.
She suffered from pneumonia and septicemia and has been hospitalized since 2007.

A memorial alter was set up at Shinhwa Hospital in Yeongdeungpo-gu, southern Seoul, and Gender Equality and Family Minister Kim Hee-jung visited to offer her condolences, Monday.

Choi’s relatives said she will be buried at a cemetery in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province.

Born in 1925, Choi was taken by Japanese police on her way to her friend’s house in 1941 when she was only 16.

She was then “drafted” into a Japanese military brothel in Harbin in eastern China.
Choi escaped the brothel to Pyongyang in 1942 but could not return to her family because she feared being captured again.

She worked as a waitress for a year at a coffee shop in Songnim, now in North Korea.
Choi married there and moved to Seoul with her husband when she was 19.

“There is not much time left for those surviving victims. I hope Japan will look straight at the history and take responsibility for these women,” Minister Kim said.

More than 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, are believed to be enslaved sexually by Japanese military before and during World War II.

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187 prestigious historians all over the world urged Japanese government to recognize the comfort women issues.

The undersigned scholars of Japanese studies express our unity with the many courageous historians in Japan seeking an accurate and just history of World War II in Asia. Because Japan is a second home as well as a field of research for many of us, we write with a shared concern for the way that the history of Japan and East Asia is studied and commemorated.

In this important commemorative year, we also write to celebrate seventy years of peace between Japan and its neighbors. Postwar Japan’s history of democracy, civilian control of the military, police restraint, and political tolerance, together with contributions to science and generous aid to other countries, are all things to celebrate as well.

Yet problems of historical interpretation pose an impediment to celebrating these achievements. One of the most divisive historical issues is the so-called “comfort women” system. This issue has become so distorted by nationalist invective in Japan as well as in Korea and China that many scholars, along with journalists and politicians, have lost
sight of the fundamental goal of historical inquiry, which should be to understand the human condition and aspire to improve it.

Exploitation of the suffering of former “comfort women” for nationalist ends in the countries of the victims makes an international resolution more difficult and further insults the dignity of the women themselves. Yet denying or trivializing what happened to them is equally unacceptable. Among the many instances of wartime sexual violence and military prostitution in the twentieth century, the “comfort women” system was distinguished by its large scale and systematic management under the military, and by its exploitation of young, poor, and vulnerable women in areas colonized or occupied by Japan.

There is no easy path to a “correct history.” Much of the archive of the Japanese imperial military was destroyed. The actions of local procurers who provided women to the military may never have been recorded. But historians have unearthed numerous documents demonstrating the military’s involvement in the transfer of women and oversight of brothels. Important evidence also comes from the testimony of victims. Although their stories are diverse and affected by the inconsistencies of memory, the aggregate record they offer is compelling and supported by official documents as well as by the accounts of soldiers and others.

Historians disagree over the precise number of “comfort women,” which will probably never be known for certain. Establishing sound estimates of victims is important. But ultimately, whether the numbers are judged to have been in the tens of thousands or the hundreds of thousands will not alter the fact of the exploitation carried out throughout the Japanese empire and its war zones.

Some historians also dispute how directly the Japanese military was involved, and whether women were coerced to become “comfort women.” Yet the evidence makes

clear that large numbers of women were held against their will and subjected to horrific brutality. Employing legalistic arguments focused on particular terms or isolated documents to challenge the victims’ testimony both misses the fundamental issue of their brutalization and ignores the larger context of the inhumane system that exploited them.

Like our colleagues in Japan, we believe that only careful weighing and contextual evaluation of every trace of the past can produce a just history. Such work must resist national and gender bias, and be free from government manipulation, censorship, and private intimidation. We defend the freedom of historical inquiry, and we call upon all governments to do the same.

Many countries still struggle to acknowledge past injustices. It took over forty years for the United States government to compensate Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II. The promise of equality for African Americans was not realized in US law until a century after the abolition of slavery, and the reality of racism remains ingrained in American society. None of the imperial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the United States, the European nations, and Japan, can claim to have sufficiently reckoned with their histories of racism, colonialism, and war, or with the suffering they inflicted on countless civilians around the world.

Japan today values the life and rights of every individual, including the most vulnerable. The Japanese government would not tolerate the exploitation of women in a system like the military “comfort stations” now, either overseas or at home. Even at the time, some officials protested on moral grounds. But the wartime regime compelled absolute sacrifice of the individual to serve the state, causing great suffering to the Japanese people themselves as well as to other Asians. No one should have to suffer such conditions again.

This year presents an opportunity for the government of Japan to show leadership by addressing Japan’s history of colonial rule and wartime aggression in both words and action. In his April address to the US Congress, Prime Minister Abe spoke of the universal value of human rights, of the importance of human security, and of facing the suffering that Japan caused other countries. We applaud these sentiments and urge the Prime Minister to act boldly on all of them.

The process of acknowledging past wrongs strengthens a democratic society and fosters cooperation among nations. Since the equal rights and dignity of women lie at the core of the “comfort women” issue, its resolution would be a historic step toward the equality of women and men in Japan, East Asia and the world.

In our classrooms, students from Japan, Korea, China and elsewhere discuss these difficult issues with mutual respect and probity. Their generation will live with the record of the past that we bequeath them. To help them build a world free of sexual violence and human trafficking, and to promote peace and friendship in Asia, we must leave as full and unbiased an accounting of past wrongs as possible.

SIGNED,

  • l  Daniel Aldrich, Professor of Political Science, Purdue University.
  • l  Jeffrey Alexander, Associate Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
  • l  Anne Allison, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University.
  • l  Marnie Anderson, Associate Professor of History, Smith College.
  • l  E. Taylor Atkins, Presidential Teaching Professor of History, Northern Illinois University.
  • l  Paul D. Barclay, Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies Program Chair, Lafayette College.
  • l  Jan Bardsley, Associate Professor of Asian Studies, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  • l  James R. Bartholomew, Professor, Department of History, The Ohio State University.
  • l  Brett de Bary, Professor, Asian Studies and Comparative Literature, Cornell University.
  • l  Michael Baskett, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Film and Media Studies, University of Kansas
  • l  Alan Baumler, Professor of History, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
  • l  Alexander R. Bay, Associate Professor, History Department, Chapman University.
  • l  Theodore C. Bestor, Professor of Social Anthropology, Harvard University.
  • l  Victoria Bestor, Director of the North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources.
  • l  Davinder Bhowmik, Associate Professor of Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington.
  • l  Herbert Bix, Professor Emeritus of History and Sociology, Binghamton University.
  • l  Daniel Botsman, Professor of History, Yale University.
  • l  Michael Bourdaghs, Professor of Japanese Literature, East Asian Languages and

    Civilizations, University of Chicago.

  • l  Thomas Burkman, Research Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, SUNY Buffalo.
  • l  Susan L. Burns, Associate Professor of History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago.
  • l  Eric Cazdyn, Distinguished Professor of Aesthetics and Politics, Department of East Asian Studies & Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Toronto.
  • l  Parks M. Coble, Professor of History, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
  • l  Haruko Taya Cook, Instructor of Languages and Cultures, William Paterson

    University.

  • l  Theodore F. Cook, Professor of History, William Paterson University.
  • l  Bruce Cumings, Professor of History, University of Chicago.
  • l  Katarzyna Cwiertka, Professor of Modern Japanese Studies, Universiteit Leiden.
  • l  Charo D’Etcheverry, Associate Professor of Japanese Literature, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • l  Eric Dinmore, Associate Professor of History, Hampden-Sydney College.
  • l  Lucia Dolce, Chair, Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions, University of

    London, SOAS.

  • l  Ronald P. Dore, Honorary Fellow, London School of Economics.
  • l  John W. Dower, Professor Emeritus of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • l  Mark Driscoll, Professor of East Asian Studies, UNC, Chapel Hill.
  • l  Prasenjit Duara, Raffles Professor of Humanities, National University of Singapore.
  • l  Alexis Dudden, Professor of History, University of Connecticut.
  • l  Martin Dusinberre, Professor of Global History, University of Zürich.
  • l  Peter Duus, Professor of History (Emeritus), Stanford University.
  • l  Steve Ericson, Associate Professor of History, Dartmouth College.
  • l  Elyssa Faison, Associate Professor, University of Oklahoma.
  • l  Norma Field, Professor Emerita of East Asian Studies, University of Chicago.
  • l  W. Miles Fletcher, Professor of History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  • l  Petrice R. Flowers, Associate Professor Political Science, University of Hawaii.
  • l  Joshua A. Fogel, Professor of History, York University, Toronto.
  • l  Sarah Frederick, Associate Professor of Japanese and Comparative Literature, Boston University.
  • l  Dennis J. Frost, Wen Chao Chen Associate Professor of East Asian Studies, Kalamazoo College.
  • l  Sabine Fruhstuck, Professor of Modern Japanese Cultural Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • l  James Fujii, Associate Professor, East Asian Languages and Literatures, University of California, Irvine.
  • l  Takashi Fujitani, Professor of History, University of Toronto.
  • l  Sheldon M. Garon, Professor of History and East Asian Studies, Princeton

    University.

  • l  Timothy S. George, Professor of History, University of Rhode Island.
  • l  Christopher Gerteis, Chair, Japan Research Centre, SOAS, University of London.
  • l  Carol Gluck, Professor of History, Columbia University.
  • l  Andrew Gordon, Professor of History, Harvard University.
  • l  Helen Hardacre, Professor of Religions and Society, Harvard University.
  • l  Harry Harootunian, Emeritus Professor of History, New York University; Adjunct Professor of Japanese History, Columbia University.
  • l  Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Professor of History, University of California at Santa Barbara.
  • l  Akiko Hashimoto, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh.
  • l  Sally A. Hastings, Associate Professor of History, Purdue University.
  • l  Tom Havens, Professor of History, Northeastern University.
  • l  Kenji Hayao, Associate Professor, Political Science Department, Boston College.
  • l  Laura Hein, Professor of History, Northwestern University.
  • l  Robert Hellyer, Associate Professor of History, Wake Forest College.
  • l  Manfred Henningsen, Professor of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Manoa.
  • l  Christopher L. Hill, Assistant Professor of Japanese Literature, University of Michigan.
  • l  Katsuya Hirano, Associate Professor of History, UCLA.
  • l  David L. Howell, Professor of Japanese History, Harvard University.
  • l  Douglas Howland, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
  • l  James L. Huffman, H. Orth Hirt Professor of History Emeritus, Wittenberg University.
  • l  Janet Hunter, Saji Professor of Economic History, London School of Economics and Political Science.
  • l  Akira Iriye, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University.
  • l  Rebecca Jennison, Professor, Department of Humanities, Kyoto Seika University.
  • l  William Johnston, Professor of History, Wesleyan University.
  • l  John Junkerman, Documentary Filmmaker.
  • l  Ikumi Kaminishi, Associate Professor of Art and Art History, Tufts University.
  • l  Ken Kawashima, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto.
  • l  William W. Kelly, Professor of Anthropology, Yale University.
  • l  James Ketelaar, Professor of History, University of Chicago.
  • l  R. Keller Kimbrough, Associate Professor, University of Colorado at Boulder.
  • l  Miriam Kingsberg, Assistant Professor of History, University of Colorado.
  • l  Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies and Professor of History, Temple

    University Japan.

  • l  Victor Koschmann, Professor of History, Cornell University.
  • l  Emi Koyama, Independent Scholar, Japan-U.S. Feminist Network for Decolonization (FeND).
  • l  Ellis S. Krauss, Professor Emeritus, University of California, San Diego.
  • l  Josef Kreiner, Professor Emeritus, Rheinische Freidrich-Wilhelms Universität Bonn.
  • l  Shigehisa Kuriyama, Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History, Harvard University.
  • l  Peter Kuznick, Professor of History and Director, Nuclear Studies Institute, American University.
  • l  Thomas Lamarre, James McGill Professor, East Asian Studies , Art History and Communications Studies, McGill University
  • l  Andrew Levidis, Fellow, Reischauer Institute, Harvard University.
  • l  Ilse Lenz, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany.
  • l  Mark Lincicome, Associate Professor, Department of History, College of the Holy Cross.
  • l  Sepp Linhart, Professor Emeritus of Japanese Studies and Sociology, University of Vienna.
  • l  Yukio Lippit, Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University.
  • l  Angus Lockyer, Lecturer in the History of Japan, Department of History, SOAS,

    University of London.

  • l  Susan Orpett Long, Professor of Anthropology, John Carroll University.
  • l  David B. Lurie, Associate Professor of Japanese History and Literature, Columbia University.
  • l  Vera Mackie, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Wollongong.

l Wolfram Manzenreiter, Professor of Japanese Studies, University of Vienna.

  • l  William Marotti, Associate Professor of History, UCLA.
  • l  Y. Tak Matsusaka, Professor of History, Wellesley College.
  • l  Trent Maxey, Associate Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations and History, Amherst College.
  • l  James L. McClain Professor of History, Brown University.
  • l  Gavan McCormack, Professor Emeritus of History, Australian National University.
  • l  Melissa McCormick, Professor, Harvard University.
  • l  David McNeill, Journalist and Professor, Sophia University.
  • l  Mark Metzler, Professor of History, University of Texas at Austin.
  • l  Ian J. Miller, Professor of History, Harvard University.
  • l  Laura Miller, Ei’ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professor of Japanese Studies, University of Missouri-St. Louis.
  • l  Janis Mimura, Associate Professor, State University of New York, Stony Brook.
  • l  Richard H. Minear, Professor of History (Emeritus), University of Massachusetts

    Amherst.

  • l  Yuki Miyamoto, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, DePaul University.
  • l  Barbara Molony, Professor of History, Santa Clara University.
  • l  Yumi Moon, Associate Professor of History, Stanford.
  • l  Aaron Moore, Lecturer in East Asian History, The University of Manchester.
  • l  Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Professor of Japanese History, Australian National University.
  • l  Aurelia George Mulgan, Professor of Japanese Politics, University of New South Wales.
  • l  R. Taggart Murphy, Professor, International Political Economy, University of Tsukuba, Tokyo Campus.
  • l  Tetsuo Najita, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Chicago.
  • l  Miri Nakamura, Associate Professor of Japanese Literature, College of East Asian Studies, Wesleyan University.
  • l  John Nathan, Takashima Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • l  Christopher Nelson, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • l  Satoko Oka Norimatsu, Editor, Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.
  • l  Markus Nornes, Professor of Asian Cinema, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • l  David Tobaru Obermiller, Associate Professor, Department of History & Japanese Studies Program, Gustavus Adolphus College.
  • l  Eiko Otake, Visiting artist, Wesleyan University.
  • l  Simon Partner, Professor of History, Duke University.
  • l  T.J. Pempel, Jack M. Forcey Professor of Political Science for Study of East Asian Politics, University of California, Berkeley.
  • l  Matthew Penney, Associate Professor, Concordia University.
  • l  Samuel E. Perry, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies, Brown University.
  • l  Catherine Phipps, Associate Professor, University of Memphis
  • l  Leslie Pincus, Associate Professor of History, University of Michigan.
  • l  Morgan Pitelka, Associate Professor and Director of the Carolina Asia Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • l  Janet Poole, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto.
  • l  Roger Pulvers, Author and Translator, Sydney, Australia.
  • l  Steve Rabson, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies, Brown University.
  • l  Fabio Rambelli, Chair, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies and Professor of Japanese Religions and Cultural History, University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • l  Mark Ravina, Professor of History, Emory University.
  • l  Steffi Richter, Professor of East Asian Studies, Universität Leipzig.
  • l  Luke Roberts, Professor of History, University of California Santa Barbara.
  • l  Jennifer Robertson, Professor of Anthropology and History of Art, University of Michigan.
  • l  Jay Rubin, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University.
  • l  Ken Ruoff, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Japanese Studies,

    Portland State University.

  • l  Jordan Sand, Professor of History, Georgetown University.
  • l  Wesley Sasaki-Uemura, Associate Professor of Japanese History, University of Utah.
  • l  Ellen Schattschneider, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Brandeis University.
  • l  Andre Schmid, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto.
  • l  Amanda C. Seaman, Associate Professor of Japanese and Director of Comparative

    Literature, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

  • l  Ethan Segal, Associate Professor of History, Michigan State University.
  • l  Wolfgang Seifert, Professor Emeritus of Japanese Studies, University of Heidelberg.
  • l  Mark Selden, Senior Research Associate, Cornell University; Editor, Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.
  • l  Franziska Seraphim, Associate Professor of History, Boston College.
  • l  Sayuri Guthrie Shimizu, Professor of History, Rice University.
  • l  Eiko Maruko Siniawer, Associate Professor of History, Williams College.
  • l  Patricia Sippel, Professor, Toyo Eiwa University.
  • l  Richard Smethurst, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Pittsburgh.
  • l  Kerry Smith, Associate Professor of History, Brown University.
  • l  Daniel Sneider, Associate Director for Research, Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University.
  • l  M. William Steele, Professor of History, International Christian University.
  • l  Brigitte Steger, Senior Lecturer in Modern Japanese Studies, University of

    Cambridge.

  • l  Stefan Tanaka, Professor of Communication, University of California, San Diego.
  • l  Alan Tansman, Professor of Japanese Literature, University of California Berkeley.
  • l  Sarah Thal, Associate Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • l  Michael F. Thies, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, UCLA
  • l  Mark Tilton, Associate Professor of Political Science, Purdue University.
  • l  Julia Adeney Thomas, Associate Professor of History, University of Notre Dame.
  • l  John Whittier Treat, Emeritus Professor, Yale University; Professor, Ewha Womans University.
  • l  Hitomi Tonomura, Professor of History, University of Michigan
  • l  Jun Uchida, Associate Professor of History, Stanford University.
  • l  J. Keith Vincent, Associate Professor of Japanese and Comparative Literature, Boston University.
  • l  Stephen Vlastos, Professor of History, University of Iowa.
  • l  Ezra F. Vogel, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University.
  • l  Klaus Vollmer, Professor of Japanese Studies, LMU Munich University.
  • l  Anne Walthall, Professor Emerita of History, University of California, Irvine.
  • l  Max Ward, Assistant Professor of History, Middlebury College.
  • l  Lori Watt, Associate Professor of History, Washington University in St. Louis.
  • l  Gennifer Weisenfeld, Professor, Duke University.
  • l  Michael Wert, Associate Professor, Marquette University.
  • l  Kären Wigen, Professor of History, Stanford University.
  • l  Tomomi Yamaguchi, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Montana State University.
  • l  Samuel H. Yamashita, Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History, Pomona College.
  • l  Daqing Yang, Associate Professor, George Washington University.
  • l  Christine Yano, Professor of Anthropology, University of Hawaii at Manoa.
  • l  Marcia Yonemoto, Associate Professor of History, University of Colorado Boulder.
  • l  Lisa Yoneyama, Professor of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto.
  • l  Theodore Jun Yoo, Associate Professor of History, University of Hawaii.
  • l  Takashi Yoshida, Professor, Western Michigan University.
  • l  Louise Young, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • l  Eve Zimmerman, Barbara Morris Caspersen Associate Professor of Humanities & Associate Professor of Japanese, Wellesley University.
  • l  Reinhard Zöllner, Professor of Japanese and Korean Studies, University of Bonn. —

This statement emerged from an open forum held at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting held in Chicago during March 2015, and from subsequent discussions on line among a wide range of Japan scholars. It represents the opinions only of those who have signed it and not of any organization or institution.

Former comfort woman tells uncomforting story

Lee Ok-Seon spent three years in a Japanese military brothel in China against her will during WW II. Nearly 70 years after the surrender of Japan, she visited Germany to make her story known.

Lee Ok-Seong, (Photo: Tsukasa Yajima)

Bravely, she talks about that tragic day when she was abducted off the street in the southeastern city of Busan by a group of men. It was late afternoon – sometime between 5 and 6 pm, and Lee Ok-Seon was 14 years old when she was thrown into a car and trafficked to a brothel, a so-called “comfort station,” in China for the Japanese military where she was raped every day until the end of the war. At that moment, she had no idea that she would never see her family again nor step foot in her home country for nearly six decades. She had no idea what torture awaited her.

The 86-year-old woman does not give specific details as to what she experienced there. She summarizes it in one sentence: “It was not a place for human beings. It was a slaughter house.” After she says that, her voice sounds harder. Those three years shaped the rest of her life. “When the war was over, others were set free, but not me.”

Another name for sex slaves

Lee Ok-Seong sits on a bed (Photo: Tsukasa Yajima)Lee kept her dark secret to herself for nearly 60 years

Lee Ok-Seon’s is not an isolated case, although it is not known exactly how many other women shared the same fate. “According to estimates, there must have been around 200,000 such women. But this has never been confirmed,” explains Bernd Stöver, a historian at Potsdam University. He finds it unnerving that the women are referred to as “comfort women,” a “euphemism for what they really were: sex slaves.”

It was not only women from the Korean Peninsula, which was under Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, who were forced into prostitution; there were also women from China, Malaysia and the Philippines, to name a few. The brothels, which were set up throughout the entire area under Japanese occupation, were meant to keep up morale among Japanese soldiers and avoid the rape of local women. For the mostly underage women forced to work there, on the other hand, it was a daily sacrifice. Many of them did not survive the torment; an estimated two thirds of them died before the end of the war.

Overwhelming shame

“We were often beaten, threatened and attacked with knives,” Lee Ok-Seon remembers. “We were 11, 12, 13 or 14 years old and we didn’t believe anyone would save us from that hell.” During her time there, she explains, she was completely isolated from the outside world and trusted no one. It was a state of constant despair. “Many girls committed suicide. They drowned or hung themselves.” At one point she also thought this was her only alternative. But she couldn’t do it. “It is easy to say, ‘I’d rather be dead.’ It is so much more difficult to actually do it. That is a big step.”

Lee Ok-Seong standing outside near a tree(Photo: Tsukasa Yajima)In Cologne, Lee Ok-Seong talked about the ‘overwhelming shame’ of her past

Lee Ok-Seon decided to live and ended up surviving the war. After the Japanese capitulation in late summer of 1945, the owner of the brothel disappeared. The women were suddenly free again, but also confused and disoriented. “I didn’t know where I should go. I had no money. I was homeless and had to sleep on the streets.”

She didn’t know how to get back to Korea or if she really wanted to go back – the shame she felt was overwhelming. “I decided I would rather spend the rest of my days in China. How could I have gone home? It was written on my face that I was a comfort woman. I could have never looked my mother in the eyes again.”

New life in China

Lee Ok-Seon met a man of Korean descent, married him and took care of his children. “I felt it was my duty to take care of these children, whose mother had died. I wasn’t able to have any children of my own.” As a result of sexually transmitted diseases, such as Syphilis, contracted in the brothel, she became so sick that she nearly died. To increase her chances of survival, doctors removed her uterus. She lived in the city of Yanji, kept to herself and tried to get back on her feet – all on her own. She spent decades like this. Her husband treated her well, she laughs, “otherwise I wouldn’t have put up with him for so long.”

Lee Ok-Seong, in the front row in the middle, stands with other former sex slaves and their supporters and protests in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul (Photo: Tsukasa Yajima)Since 2000, Lee, front row, middle, has met with other victims and her supporters outside the Japanese embassy every week

Many comfort women lived a similar life after the brothels, keeping to themselves and keeping quiet about the horrors they experienced – mostly out of fear of being labeled an outcast. According to Stöver, talking about forced prostitution is an absolute taboo. “There was no support in society for these women.” It took decades after the end of the war to get people talking about comfort women in Asia.

It wasn’t until the year 1991 that the first former “comfort woman” went public with her story. She encouraged and inspired 250 other women to finally talk about their experiences as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the war and demand recognition and an apology from the Japanese government. Since then, the women and their supporters meet every Wednesday outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. They hold placards and shout slogans. But they have yet to receive what they demand.

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto speaks at a policy debate to establish the new national party 'Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Association)' in Osaka, September 2012. (Photo: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/GettyImages) Toru Hashimoto’s statement about the necessity of ‘comfort stations’ caused outrage

Japan has trouble dealing with its dark past, according to historian Stöver. The government in 1993 did commission and publish a study officially recognizing the existence of “comfort women” and the role of Japanese soldiers. “After that, the government did apologize on multiple occasions. But it never really drew any consequences.”

Stöver explained the apologies were isolated occurrences; there was never a full admission of guilt nor was there any official financial compensation program. Aside from payments made to a few hundred people by a fund set up by the government, the women have received no money. And it is not likely they will in the future: “In 2007, the Japanese Supreme Court decided they have no claim to damages.”

A bitter pill for the victims. And even today, on occasion, Japanese politicians simply deny the existence of the comfort women. Or they play it down. During his time in office in early 2007, incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, said there was “no proof that the women were forced” to work in the brothels. He later apologized for the statement.

Earlier this year, Toru Hashimoto, governor of Osaka, told journalists that in times of war, sex slavery was “necessary” to keep the discipline among the troops. Lee Ok-Seon thinks the statement is crass and outrageous: “I cannot grasp how anyone can say such a thing. Whoever refuses to accept what the Japanese did back then is not a human being.”

Back home but alone

Lee Ok-Seon now lives in South Korea. In 2000, after the death of her husband, she felt the urge to go back to her country of origin and make her story public. She has since lived near Seoul in the so-called “House of Sharing,” which provides assisted living for former sex slaves. It was there that she received psychological care for the first time. And she finally received a new passport.

Researching her past, she learned that her parents had died but that her youngest brother was still alive. He helped her in the beginning but after a while, the relationship deteriorated. It was exactly what Lee Ok-Seon had feared: too embarrassed to be the brother of a former “comfort woman,” he wanted nothing to do with her.

Author:Esther Felden / sb
Editor Gabriel Dominguez
DW.DE

China, ROK experts urge protection of “comfort women” documents

SHANGHAI, Feb. 8 (Xinhua) — Experts from China and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have agreed to strengthen cooperation in protecting documents on “comfort women” and to apply for their registration on the Memory of the World, a UNESCO program to preserve documentary heritage.

Su Zhiliang, director of the “comfort women” research center at Shanghai Normal University, said that experts are collecting materials on the “comfort women” issue before making their proposal to the commission.

“The proposal will help preserve the historic records and provide materials for people and experts in the future to understand, research, rethink and condemn,” Su said on the sidelines of the just-concluded forum on “comfort women” held in Shanghai.

Jointly held by Shanghai Normal University and Sung Kyun Kwan University, the forum attracted experts from China, the ROK and Japan to discuss strengthening cooperation and research on the issue.

“Because of misleading by Japanese officials and mass media, many ordinary people, especially the younger generation, have grown suspicious toward history. However, denying history is unwise,” said Matsumoto Kan, who works for a Japanese non-governmental group.

Government document archives, oral records of victims, and witnesses’ testimonies all proved the Japanese government and military’s role in abducting, trafficking and forcing women to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.

“Of those Chinese women who identified themselves as former sex slaves, fewer than 20 are alive,” said Su. “It’s the final moment for us to demand justice and to preserve the historic materials.”

The experts have agreed to strengthen exchange of the records and to build a website on the issue.

Historians estimate that 200,000 women were forced into sexual servitude by Japanese forces during WWII, most from countries invaded by Japan at the time.