Lee Ok-Seon was running an appointment with her parents when this occurred: a bunch of men in uniform rushed out of a vehicle, assaulted her, and dragged her inside the car. At this moment, she would have never guessed that she’d never see her parents again.
The girl was just 14 years old.
On that fateful evening, Lee’s existence in Busan, a city located today in South Korea, ended for the better. She was forced into a military brothel in Japan-occupied China. She was one of the thousands of women forced into such prostitution camps during WWII by the Japanese Imperial Army from 1932 to 1945.
It’s been more than a century since women were first consigned to sexual slavery by Imperial Japan. Still, the specifics of their slavery remain traumatic and politically polarizing within Japan and the nations it used to be a part of. Information about the subjugation of women is scarce. There are only a handful of survivors. Most “comfort women” did not make it through the war.
Although military brothels were within the Japanese military from 1932 onwards, they grew in popularity following one of the biggest and most famous instances of imperial Japan’s attempts to conquer the Republic of China and a large portion of Asia, called the massacre at Nanking. On the 13th of December, 1937, Japanese forces began to conduct a six-week-long massacre that essentially devastated the Chinese city of Nanking. On the way, Japanese troops raped between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese females.
The rape scandal shocked the world. Emperor Hirohito was concerned about the negative impact on Japan’s image. According to legal theorist Carmen, M. Agibay writes in his book, Hirohito ordered the army to increase its “comfort stations,” also known as brothels for military personnel, in an attempt to stop more atrocities, decrease sexually transmitted illnesses and guarantee an unstoppable and secluded prostitution group to fulfil Japanese military personnel’s sexual cravings.
However, obtaining women for these brothels was as cruel as the act they were trying to lessen. Women were forced or kidnapped to participate in these “Comfort Stations.” The women were taken to the streets of territories occupied by Japan. They were promised jobs or told to be part of nursing units; some were even rented/purchased from their parents as workers.
While in brothels, women had to engage in sexual activities with their captors in horrendous and inhumane conditions. Although each woman’s story is distinct, they all have several similarities. They all experienced continuous rape, which were more frequent before battles, physical abuse, births or sexually transmitted infections and depressing conditions.
“It was not a place for humans,” Lee said to Deutsche Welle in 2013. Just like others who were beaten and threatened, Lee was also beaten by the captors. “There was no rest, ” said Maria Rosa Henson, a Filipina woman taken to prostitution in 1943. “They had sex with me every minute.”
The end of WWII did not end these “Comfort Stations.” In 2007, Associated Press reporters discovered that United States authorities allowed “comfort stations” to function long after the war’s conclusion. It was also revealed that tens of thousands of women who worked in brothels were compelled to intimate relations with Americans until Douglas MacArthur shut the system off in 1946.
By the time war had come to an end, 20,000 to 410,000 women were held in at least one hundred brothels. In 1993, the United Nations Global Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Human Rights found that at the time of the conclusion of World War II, 90 per cent of “comfort women” had died.
Following the conclusion of World War II, however, some documents related to the strategy were destroyed by Japanese officials. Thus, these figures are based on estimates from historians relying on many lost documents. When Japan was rebuilt following World War II, the history of their woman’s enslavement was dismissed as a disgusting relic from the past that most people want to forget.
In the meantime, women who were made to be sexually enslaved were society’s exiles. Many died from sexually transmitted diseases or the consequences of their brutal treatment at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Others died through suicide.
The history of “comfort women” went undocumented and virtually unnoticed. However, if the topic was brought up in Japan, government officials dismissed it, claiming that “comfort stations” had never existed.
In the late 1980s, a few women started sharing their experiences. Following 1987, when the Republic of South Korea became democratic, the women began to discuss their experiences openly. In 1990, the topic became a flaming escalation into a global dispute after South Korea criticized a Japanese official’s dismissal of the event.
In the years following, many women stepped forward to provide evidence. In 1993, Japan’s administration finally admitted the crimes. However, since then, the subject has remained controversial. It was in 2015 that the Japanese government eventually declared that it would pay an apology to survivors of “Comfort Stations” 2015; however, after an audit, South Korea asked for an even more robust apology. Japan has recently denied this request as a reminder this is a topic of current foreign relations the past.
A handful of women who were sex slaves by Japan remain in existence. One of these women is Yong Soo Lee, a 90-year-old victim who is vocal regarding her need to get an apology from Japanese authorities. “I never wanted to comfort those men,” she told The Washington Post in 2015. “I don’t want to hate or hold a grudge, but I can never forgive what happened to me.”
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