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 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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.