Japan's shame: Sex slaves await justice

November 18th, 2012 |

Kim Bok-dong is 87 years old. She is articulate, smart, dignified and kind. And for eight years she was raped every day by Japanese soldiers.

Kim described how when the Japanese colonized Korea in the early 20th century, she was “unlucky” enough to be 14 years old. She was taken — she didn’t explain exactly how.

“When asked where I was being taken, they said I was being taken to a factory to make military uniforms,” Kim said in an interview. If she didn’t go, she was told, her family would be exiled. So she went.

But she was not taken to Japan or to work in a factory. “It was a very distant country,” Kim said. “On the battlefield.”

It was the South Pacific. She was there with about 30 other women and girls. “I went to a base camp of the Japanese military,” Kim said. From there, the Imperial Army took her wherever it conquered: China, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand. “Every place the army went, (we) followed. It lasted eight years.”


The war ended while Kim was in Singapore. Uniformed men told her to get into a truck with just the clothes on her back. “The truck had a big cross on it, and it drove to Bangkok.” There were no soldiers there, just a hospital. She lived in the hospital, trained as a nurse, treated wounded soldiers, cleaned clothes and “was forced to give blood until I fainted.”

Later, when there were no more Japanese soldiers, the U.S. Army came. She was put in their custody and lived in a detention camp. They examined her and found out she was Korean, and after a few months she was sent back to Korea. She was 22 years old.

Kim was not willing to give details of what happened to her at the hands of the Imperial Japanese armed forces. But other women have. In testimonies collected by the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 10 “comfort women,” as the Japanese referred to them, have told their stories in brutal detail. They were among some 200,000 Korean sex slaves in the service of the Japanese Imperial Army. 

Lee Ok-sun was 15 when she was “adopted” to a noodle shop in Busan, because her parents could not afford to care for her. She was promised an education. Instead, she was made to work before being sold to an inn in Ulsan. It was in Ulsan where she was kidnapped by two men, forced onto a truck, and driven to the train station. She ended up in China with other women. They were given Japanese names and were then “raped like animals” by the soldiers, in front of other soldiers. From then on she was kept in a series of “comfort stations” in China, where she was starved, beaten and raped daily by Japanese soldiers until the end of the war. She stayed in China after the war, and didn’t return to Korea until 2000. 

In 1944, Kim So-ran volunteered to work in a hospital in the Philippines. Upon arrival, she found it disturbing when doctors gave her a vaginal exam. Then she was forced to live in a comfort station with 10 other girls, where they were raped daily by Japanese soldiers. After the base was bombed, she managed to escape with some others, trekking through the jungle and staying alone on the beaches for a month until they were found by an American patrol ship.

Park Doo-ri thought she was going to work in a Japanese factory when she boarded a ship in Busan in 1940. She was sent to Taiwan instead, and was raped every day until the war ended. She was beaten repeatedly by the house owner, and she developed swelling in her left thigh that had to be operated on. When anyone doubts that Park was taken to a comfort station, she has the scar to prove it. 

Kang Il-chul was kidnapped from her home in Usan-ri, North Gyeongsang Province, by a police officer in 1944. She was put on a truck, sent to China, and raped and beaten for the first time by a high-ranking official. When she refused him the second time, the man broke her arm and thumb, so that her thumb bone jutted out from her skin. She was raped even after she contracted typhoid fever. After she could no longer serve soldiers because of the fever, she was sent to a mountain to be burned to prevent the spread of typhoid fever. She was freed by Korean resistance soldiers.

Kim Kun-ja was 17 in 1942 when her foster father, a police officer, sent her away to make money. She was taken by a Korean man in his late thirties, put on a train to China, and sent to a comfort station. One Japanese soldier hit her so hard it ruptured her right ear drum, from which she still can’t hear today. Even though the soldiers were ordered to wear condoms, Kim still contracted syphilis. She later became pregnant and was forced to have an abortion. 

She was captive at the station until the war ended.


These and the other stories are characteristic of what Korea and Japan were at the time: Japan, a brutal occupying army intent on conquering Asia, while making sure their soldiers had access to women’s and girls’ bodies whenever they wanted; and Korea, a dirt poor, badly educated and rigidly patriarchal society occupied by the Japanese, whose daughters were forced into the sexual service of the Empire.

Today, two organizations struggle alongside the surviving wartime sex slaves for public awareness and recompense from the Japanese.

The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, or Korea Council for short, was, according to its website, established in 1990 “with its goals to resolve the issue of the military sexual slavery by Japan and thereby recover the human rights and dignity of the victims, stop the revival of the Japanese militarism, prevent sexual violence against women in armed conflicts, and contribute to world peace.”

It is an amalgam of 20 different women’s organizations researching the disappearance of Korean women during the war, and trying to find out why so many did not come back.

The second organization, the Women’s Global Solidarity Action Network, or WGSAN, is also an organization that fights to recognize the horrors of the Japanese “comfort” system and to eradicate sexual slavery and violence today. It includes more expatriates than the Korea Council. 

Fielding Hong and Heather Inghram are both volunteers with WGSAN, and give English-language tours of the new War and Women’s Human Rights Museum, which opened in Seoul this May. Hong is a 27-year-old American graduate student at Yonsei University. Inghram, 28, is also American, and an English teacher. Both are concerned not just with helping the former sex slaves but also with issues of war, sexual slavery and violence today.

The new museum in Seongsan, Seoul, is small but richly detailed. In front of a large map of the Japanese Empire at its height, Hong explained that the first comfort station was set up in 1932 in Shanghai. But it was the infamous Rape of Nanking in 1937 that became the catalyst for making the system empire-wide. 

During the Rape of Nanking, between 20,000-80,000 women were raped and mutilated by Japanese soldiers. The Japanese, with the idea of stopping sexually transmitted infections, preventing espionage, boosting morale and preventing the rape of local women, decided to implement the comfort station system throughout the Japanese empire. By 1942, that empire stretched from Manchuria in the north to Indonesia in the south.

According to the 1996 United Nations document “Report on the mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the issue of military sexual slavery in wartime,” approximately 200,000 Korean women were involved in the sex slave system. The number of women from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other countries conscripted by the Japanese Imperial Army to work as sex slaves is estimated to be as high as half a million. 

As the testimonies show, some were kidnapped, some were coerced, and many were tricked. “Not only do (the regulations) reveal beyond doubt the extent to which the Japanese forces took direct responsibility for the comfort stations and were intimately connected with all aspects of their organization, but they also clearly indicate how legitimized and established an institution the stations had become … It is the belief of the Special Rapporteur that the Government of Japan has both a legal and a moral obligation towards the women kept in military sexual slavery during the Second World War.”


“These were poor, colonized women, women who thought they were going to work overseas or going into the women’s volunteer corps,” Hong said. “Think of the choice — you are hungry and desperate. Only 5 percent of the population had elementary school education or higher. Men often thought the women would go away and send money home.”

Some did go away to work in factories and hospitals, but most didn’t.

The system “was a top-down, planned and highly regulated system,” Hong said. “They kept meticulous records on the women,” such as information about their virginity statuses, histories of sexually transmitted infections and menstrual cycles. “It was the most efficient system made to serve as many soldiers as possible.”

Comfort stations could be static or mobile. More permanent ones looked much like brothels today, with one long corridor and rooms branching out. But sometimes it was simply a ditch, where women were sometimes raped in the middle of battle, “with bombs and bullets whizzing overhead.”

Though there was no direct evidence at the time in Korea, there was a realization that something was going on. There were ads in newspapers looking for missing daughters. And there were those Koreans who were complicit in the system.

Korea then had a strict patriarchal system. Women had no control of their own bodies. They could not leave home without the senior male’s permission. They could be bought and sold as house servants. At the same time, state-sanctioned “pleasure zones” were set up in Korea for the service of colonial officials, and often Koreans themselves used them.

Inghram said later in an email interview, “It is our team’s belief that a (sex slavery) system on this grand of a scale could not have existed without the patriarchal structure. Also, there was not much ‘choice’ in a situation where families were barely subsisting and were starving, struggling to live.”


It wasn’t until 1991, 46 years after the war ended, that the first wartime sex slave came out using her real name. Kim Hak-soon was born in Manchuria to Korean parents, went back to Korea as a child, and was enrolled by her stepfather into a gisaeng (similar to the Japanese geisha) school. She was taken to Beijing by her stepfather during the war, but they somehow became separated. 

She was first raped there and then put into the sex slavery system. She eventually escaped and married a Korean in China, had two children and lived in Shanghai, returning to Korea at the end of the Korean War.

The big question is why she, and hundreds of others, waited until 1991 and later to “come out” as wartime sex slaves, using their real names. (Anonymous stories had been told earlier.) According to Inghram, there was an immense “social stigma in a patriarchal society” about being labeled a prostitute. It was after her husband passed away, and she heard Japan deny any knowledge or involvement in the sex slave system, that she came out.

This set the stage for more women to come out. In total, 235 women registered with the South Korean government as former “comfort women,” 60 of whom are still alive. In North Korea, another 237 are registered, and it’s unknown how many survive. All of them tell stories similar to the testimonies above.

The number of registered women is low. Hong explained that this largely has to do with some women staying in the countries they were trafficked to, often moving into the local sex industry, and others being killed, sometimes thrown into mass graves. Others have stayed quiet or died with their secret.

The surviving sex slaves protested outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul for the first time on Jan. 8, 1992. They have been protesting every Wednesday since, making it one of the longest regular protests in the world. On Aug. 15 this year, the protest coincided with Korean Liberation Day. Despite a torrential rainstorm, over 100 people showed up to voice their support and hear Kim Bok-dong speak.

Outside the embassy is a statue of a young girl on a bench. It was erected outside the Japanese embassy at the 1,000th protest, on Dec. 14, 2011. According to Kim Mi-kyoung of WGSAN, the empty space on the bench next to the girl is meant to invite you to sit next to the women. A bird on the girl’s shoulder represents hope.

The Japanese insist that much of this has already been done. In a Sept. 23, 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said the “matter is closed.” He said compensation had already been paid by the Asian Women’s Fund, which was refused by the Korean side. He said the refusal “hurt the feelings of conscientious Japanese, and is a pity.” 

Some apologies have been mouthed and some money has been spent, but the former slaves and their advocates feel strongly that this doesn’t approach what is needed, or even what’s fair.

In 1965, Japan paid South Korea what was then thought to be $365 million in compensation for colonization — it was later revealed this figure was actually much higher, maybe as much as $800 million. But none of it reached the comfort women. It was used by then-president and dictator Park Chung-hee to boost Korea’s economy. Inghram, citing a Dec. 23, 2005 article by James Card in the Asia Times, said: “Of the huge $800 million pie, Park Chung-hee only distributed about 2.56 billion won ($251 million) to families of workers killed by the Japanese — not recognizing or including the sex slaves — and 6.6 billion won to owners of destroyed property. None of the thousands of South Koreans conscripted into the Japanese military and labor workforce received compensation.” Instead, “Park Chung-hee rerouted the majority of the grants and soft loans into building infrastructure, founding POSCO (Pohang Steel and Iron Co.), and building the Gyeongbu Expressway and Soyang Dam, among other projects.” 

The Japanese would argue that they bear no responsibility for how Korea spent the restitution money. 

On New Year’s Day 1992, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa issued a verbal apology, but it was rejected by the surviving sex slaves because it did not address all of their seven demands. It was neither addressed to them personally, nor to any of their representatives, but rather to the Korean government. 

In 1995, the Japanese government set up the Asian Women’s Fund, which collected donations from private citizens to compensate the former slaves. Jan Ruff O’Hearne, a Dutch former sex slave, described this fund in U.S. Congressional testimony as “an insult to the ‘comfort women’” and she refused to accept it, as did Koreans, because it was solicited from private and industry donations, and not from the Japanese government. 

The fund was dissolved in 2007.

Conservative Japanese politicians and activists have denounced the sex slaves and argued that no one was forced into sexual slavery. On Aug. 27 this year, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda denied that women were forced into slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army when he told the Diet: “There are no records confirming that women were taken away by force.” On the same day Jin Matsubara, chairman of Japan’s National Public Safety Commission, told the Diet that not only were Korean women not sex slaves, but that the Japanese government should revise the 1993 Kono Statement that acknowledged and apologized for the system of sexual slavery. (The Korean side feels the apology, by a chief cabinet secretary, fell far too short.)

Just before that, at an Aug. 21, 2012 press conference, rising political star and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto said: “There is no evidence that the comfort women were taken by force or coerced by the Japanese military.” In fact, it was a Japanese historian, Yoshimi Yoshiaki, who first found documentary evidence of the system and its application. 

According to the New York Times, it was a “trove that uncovered the military’s direct role in managing the brothels, including documents that carried the personal seals of high-ranking Imperial Army officers.”

Japanese activists, too, have gotten involved. Last August, three Japanese set up a stake outside the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum, reading in Japanese, Korean and English: “Comfort Women = Sex Slave is LIE.” Regular demonstrations have taken place in Japan. 


The 1996 Commission on Human Rights report urged Japan to take full responsibility for the crime under international law. 

American, Canadian, Dutch and European parliamentary declarations have also demanded Japan own up to its past crimes. 

On Dec. 4, 2001, the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery delivered a judgment at The Hague. The verdict — which was heavily censored within Japan by its public broadcaster, NHK — found Emperor Hirohito posthumously “guilty of criminal negligence … of the crimes of rape and sexual slavery committed as part of the system of military sexual slavery.” It also found the emperor “guilty of rape and sexual slavery as crimes against humanity under individual responsibility pursuant to Article 3(1) of our Charter.”In total, nine top-ranking Japanese were found criminally responsible under international law for the crimes of sexual slavery and crimes against humanity. 

The 265-page report found “abundant evidence, most notably from victim-survivor testimony, that the Japanese government and military were involved in all aspects of the sexual slavery system … Japanese officials at the highest levels participated knowingly in the system of sexual slavery.”

A lawsuit filed in 1993 by 10 survivors made its way through the Japanese courts, until it was thrown out by the Hiroshima Supreme Court in 2001. The lower courts had ordered the Japanese Cabinet to act and provide compensation.

But it isn’t just the rejectionism of the Japanese government that upsets Kim Bok-dong. It’s also the inaction of the Korean government.

“President Lee Mung-bak has to urge the Japanese government to apologize for past wrongdoings,” Kim said. She argued that there should be “a resolution” between the Korean and Japanese governments. “But the Korean government has done nothing yet,” she said. “Is there any government without people, is there any president without people? Why is there a government? … We have to protest to our government for a resolution.” The whole situation, she said, is “sad.”

Kim also said she dreams “of a country without war” with “North Korean and South Korean people together.”

The wartime sex slaves recognize that while their fight continues with the Japanese system, the tragedy of sexual slavery remains today. The mezzanine of the War and Women’s Human Rights museum has displays informing the public about the current tragedy of rape in war, in Congo, Bosnia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Korea Council has set up a charity called the Butterfly Fund to help victims of wartime rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape as a weapon of war is common. Kim Bok-dung and another survivor, Gil Won-ok, have pledged to donate any money they receive in compensation from the Japanese to the fund.

“My last hope is that our country has peace,” said Kim, the 87-year-old wartime sex slave. “I hope that our country never has such tragedies again. For this, the Korean people, people from all countries, should do something.”


More information

The Korea Council


The Women’s Global Solidarity Action Network

Email womens.global.solidarity@gmail.com and find them on Facebook

Verdict of the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal


War and Women’s Human Rights Museum


Wednesday protest

For more information, contact womens.global.solidarity@gmail.com

The House of Sharing

www.nanum.org and comfortwomen.wordpress.com