When Japan launched its conquest of east Asia and the South Pacific in the 1930s, guns and tanks were not the only high-priority items dispatched to supply the far-flung armies of the emperor. For decades after the end of the Second World War, there were rumors that thousands of women had been sent along as well to satisfy the sexual appetites of Japanese soldiers in the field. Then, in December, 1991—on the 50th anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor—35 Korean women came forward to tell horrifying tales of abduction and brutal sexual servitude in Japanese military camps. Historians subsequently unearthed evidence that the wartime Japanese government had enslaved as many as 200,000 of the so-called comfort women. For more than a year, amid increasing pressure from women’s groups and human rights activists, Tokyo waffled over its responsibility. Then, last week, it relented. The Japanese government, said spokesman Yohei Kono, offered its “heartfelt sentiments of reflection and apology” to the victims of sexual slavery.
That declaration was a long time in coming. At the outset, the Japanese government maintained that wartime brothels were privately run. Then, on July 6, 1992, following a seven-month government investigation begun after a historian found documents implicating the wartime government, Japan admitted that it had recruited women from
Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia to furnish sex for its troops. However, it added, there was no evidence that the women had been abducted. Although last week’s announcement finally conceded that the Imperial Japanese Army had alone been responsible, the controversy is unlikely to end. At least two lawsuits by former captives, seeking compensation of more than $8 million, are pending in Japanese courts. North Korea deemed the apology insufficient and South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo said Seoul still wants to know how many Korean women were taken and by what means. “Japan has refused full responsibility for its action,” said the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Service by Japan, “and has only partially acknowledged its crimes.”
The details of those crimes have emerged almost exclusively from the victims, almost all in their 60s and 70s, many of them physically infirm and psychologically scarred. Thou-
sands of others died of disease or were killed by retreating Japanese troops. Kim Hak Sun, 70, said she was abducted in 1939 at age 16 from her home in northern Korea and deposited in a brothel in China. “I was raped that first day and it never stopped for a single day for the next three months,” she said, adding that she was forced to submit to 20 to 30 men a day. She eventually escaped with the help of a Korean man whom she eventually married. Ever since, Kim said, she feels sick when “close to a man.”
Memories of degradation and brutality are commonplace. At a Tokyo forum on Second
World War atrocities in March, Kang Soon Ae, 67, said she was thrown into a military brothel at age 14. “I had to provide sex for 30 Japanese soldiers every day,” she said. ‘When I cried for my home, I was beaten. I cried so often that by the end of the war, every tooth was knocked from my head.” Japanese lawyer Kenichi Takagi, acting for one group of South Korean women who have sued the Japanese government, said: “The Japanese military behaved like beasts.”
Interest in the issue has not been confined to Asia. In February, 1993, at a Los Angeles conference of the Coalition Against Military Slavery by Japan, Jeannie Sung Eun Cho, a University of California graduate student who wrote a master’s thesis on the subject, said she had talked to a 72-year-old Korean woman who had been taken to a brothel in China at age 17 where she was raped nearly every night by 20 to 30 soldiers for nearly seven years. Kim Hak Sun also spoke at the conference. ‘We have to educate everyone about this issue so that our daughters and sisters, regardless of their nationality or status, will never be subjected to such atrocities,” she said. Perhaps the best guarantee of that lies in the courage of women who have endured unimaginable pain.
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