Story by: Ok-sun Lee, Photos by: James Little
I was born on Oct. 10, 1927, the second of six children. I had an older brother, two younger brothers, and two sisters. My older brother’s name was Bongjo, and my sisters’ names were Okju and Oki, but I can’t remember the names of my younger brothers.
My family was very poor. My father was a laborer, but he didn’t earn enough money. He drank a lot, so my mother had a very hard time. My mother did everything she could to make money; she cleaned bean sprouts in the market, sewed and sold vegetables in the street. She worked hard. One time we didn’t have anything to eat, so she brought us bean sprout roots that were thrown away at the market.
When I was 15 my mother surprised me with a question.
“There is a noodle restaurant in Busan, and the owners want to adopt a daughter. Do you want to go there?”
I asked if they would let me go to school, and she said they would make me study and give me a lot of food. I said yes and was adopted. But when I arrived, they made me do all the chores and wait tables in their restaurant. I told my foster parents that I had to earn money to study, but they didn’t listen.
I ran away twice, but was caught both times and beaten.
They sold me to an inn in Ulsan after a few months. I couldn’t even visit my family and had to work until midnight.
I was kidnapped while running errands in the late afternoon. Two men — they were big — in their 40s grabbed my wrists and held me from behind. I protested but they covered my mouth. They said, “be quiet and let’s go.” I was dragged away.
Ulsan was a rural town, so there was no one around. They took me to Ulsan Station on a truck. There were several other kidnapped girls at the station. Five girls, including me, were made to get on the train. There were civilians and soldiers. We were put into a freight compartment, so we couldn’t see or do anything.
There were 15 girls on the train.
One girl I spoke with was 14 and another was the same age as me — 15. We talked about killing ourselves by jumping off the train, but we couldn’t go through with it.
After a two-day journey we arrived at Tumen, China. I still had the pigtails and traditional Korean clothes I wore when I was kidnapped. It was July 14, 1942 — less than one year after I was sold to the inn.
It was dark when we arrived at Tumen Station. I don’t know how many of us got off. Five, including me, were locked up near the station, where we spent the night. I was the only one locked up alone — I still don’t know why they separated me from the rest.
The Korean men who took us there didn’t sleep in the same place with us, and I didn’t know where they spent the night.
They didn’t give us any food.
We got on a train the next morning and arrived at an airfield in Yanji, Jilin province.
Not long after that, they built a new brick house and gave each of us a room. The managers of the comfort station were a Japanese couple — civilians. They told us to call them Obasan (aunt) and Okasan (mother). There was a Japanese woman among us. She voluntarily came from Japan to earn money. We called her Nesan (older sister). The managers weren’t harsh on her and she had more freedom than us.
They changed my name to Domiko in Japanese. The other women were kidnapped from various parts of Korea and their names were changed to Japanese.
In the beginning, we did chores like cleaning the yard and picking weeds.
We weren’t given any decent clothes. We wore what the soldiers gave us and if we needed anything else we had to get it on our own.
There was a girl from Jeolla Province in Korea who said she had been sold to the comfort station. Her behavior was bad. She stole things and sold us clothes for money, such as socks and underwear. They were expensive.
Because I didn’t bring anything with me from Korea, I had to buy clothes from her. I fell into debt, so it became even harder for me.
The food was horrible. They gave us steamed kaoliang, cooked millet, kimchi, radish leaves and cabbage. We also ate the same plants as pigs. We steamed and ate them with soybean paste. There was no getting used to the food.
The food was distributed according to class. Japanese were the first class, Koreans second and Chinese third.
We were always hungry. I can’t even talk about the horrors I went through at that place. I witnessed many girls die of hunger or illness.
One day, soldiers came in and raped us like animals in front of other soldiers. They took turns raping us in the rooms. I just wanted to die at that time. At first they didn’t use condoms and we didn’t get health checkups.
They came regularly.
We began to have checkups not long after. Doctors came from the military hospital once a week. Soldiers were required to use condoms, but some didn’t. If I asked them to use one, sometimes a quarrel broke out and I was beaten.
They never talked about their military unit. They were from a squadron, so they carried out sorties. We couldn’t go near the airfield and I didn’t know how many planes were there. I couldn’t go anywhere near the planes. I just saw them taking off and landing.
My first time on — or even near — a plane was when I came back to Korea.
At my second station, the system worked like this: Soldiers bought tickets from the manager and we had to collect them to prove that we served. Sometimes the women received money from the soldiers and took it to the manager to exchange it for tickets. I served from 10 to 40 soldiers a day — more than when I was at the airfield.
There were not a lot of soldiers on weekdays. Sometimes there were only one or two. When there were no soldiers, we sat outside and talked. There were a lot of them on Sundays. They finished quickly, so they didn’t have to wait in long lines.
The price was the same for the rank-and-file and the officers. Sometimes the officers slept over, but they didn’t have to pay extra for this. Rich officers gave us some extra money.
For most of us, there was no escape. I did try, but it was difficult because we couldn’t get out of the house. The managers watched us day and night. Even though there were no guards at the gate, there were soldiers everywhere.
Sometimes we couldn’t bear it. A young 14-year-old girl came to my second comfort station in 1942 or 1943. She ran away but was caught and made to serve only the old commander. She was also Korean, but I can’t remember her name.
She escaped a second time and they couldn’t catch her. The whole unit looked for her. After she ran away, everything was restricted for us and the monitoring became stricter.
No one could even think about running away after that.
RELATED: JAPAN’S WARTIME SEX SLAVES STILL MATTER
Besides the Japanese soldiers, there were Korean and Chinese men working at the airfield as laborers — hundreds of them. I got to know one Korean man. We accidentally got to know and like each other. The laborers couldn’t come to our place, but his friends helped him to meet me secretly.
On the move
I was moved to Yanji in the spring of 1943 — after less than a year at the airfield’s comfort station. There were not a lot of houses in Yanji. There was a Japanese police station and a new school. There was a Japanese military base near the train station and many others nearby. The comfort station was far from the nearest base. I didn’t know if ours was the only comfort station. There were 19 women there.
We simply called it “comfort station,” and the soldiers called us “comfort women.”
The entrance of the comfort station had a big gate. Inside, there were many wooden name plates on the wall with the names of the comfort women. There were no numbers or names on the doors. If a girl had a venereal disease, the manager simply turned over her name plate. Our rooms lined both sides of a main corridor.
The rooms had Korean-style heated floors. The soldiers took their shoes off in the corridor before entering the rooms.
Once I got syphilis, I couldn’t serve soldiers, so I went to the military hospital. I was injected with No. 606, but I didn’t get better. The doctor gave the manager mercury for my treatment. He boiled it and made me steam myself; he made me take off my underwear and steam my vagina with the vapor.
The syphilis was cured after a while, but I became barren because of the treatment. I still hold a grudge against them for this. I couldn’t bear children because of the Japanese. No protest will ever change that.
If I didn’t obey the managers or the soldiers, or if I rejected them, I was severely beaten. The managers didn’t hit us — they brought the military police to beat us. We couldn’t do anything about it; they beat us everywhere with leather belts.
I was out of favor with the managers, so I was beaten a lot. Once the manager made me run some errands at a store next to the comfort station. I came across a Japanese police officer of Korean origin.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m from that house,” I said in reference to the comfort station.
“Where is your hometown?” he asked again.
I said, “Osu-jung, Busan-bu, Gyeongnam.”
He started to beat me terribly. I still clearly remember my hometown address because I was beaten so much for saying it. He hit my ear very hard — so hard that I still can’t hear from it.
They only treated us for venereal diseases and nothing else.
I started menstruating when I was in China. I was 16, and I didn’t know what it was at first. I was very scared. I thought I got sick because I served too many soldiers. My friends in the house told me I was having my first period. I didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t get any cloth for my period. My friends lent me theirs. I went through so much trouble every month when I had my period.
The rules stated that we couldn’t serve soldiers when we were menstruating, but the manager didn’t let us take a break. She stuffed us with cotton and made us serve soldiers.
The doctor who came in once a week didn’t let us take a break, either.
Our comfort station was moved near Yanbian hospital because the old house was too small for all the girls and soldiers.
I arrived in China in July 1942 and the war ended in August 1945. I was a comfort woman for three years.
This account was edited for length and clarity with permission from War and Women’s Human Rights Museum. Read the original at www.hermuseum.go.kr. — Ed.