During the Second World War, tens of thousands of women were taken from their homes and turned into sex slaves for (predominantly) the Japanese army.
Most of these women never made it home after the war.
Those that did were faced with a lifetime of shame, guilt and secrecy.
Now less than 35 of these women are alive. Yet in recent years, their story and their unending fight for an apology has sparked an international crisis.
So who were the Comfort Women? What happened to them? And why only now, decades later, are they close to getting justice?
Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic wording around sexual abuse and rape.
The Comfort Women programme was set up by the Japanese military during the Second World War. The main reason for its inception was as a way to ensure troops avoided venereal disease and any instances of rape, abuse and assault of local women.
So the military set up what became known as ‘Comfort Stations’.
The first known station was opened around 1931 in occupied China. This station was staffed by Japanese sex workers who had volunteered to take part in the scheme.
However as the Japanese military progressed and expanded its territory, these volunteers just couldn’t meet demand.
So the army looked to its new territories to fill the gap. Recruiting women from across Asia, in addition to some from The Netherlands and Australia. The vast majority of the women brought in to staff the stations came from Korea.
These women would all became known as, Comfort Women.
The exact number of women who became ‘Comfort Women’ is still disputed, with historians and activists estimating figures from 20,000 to more than 200,000.
What we do know, is how these women and girls became Comfort Women. A small minority joined voluntarily. Some were tricked, promised roles as cooks or maids and then forced to become Comfort Women. Some were sold into the role, and others were kidnapped.
In 2010 Dutch journalists, Jan Banning and Hilde Janssen, interviewed former Comfort Women about their experiences.
One woman, Niyem, told how she had been kidnapped at 10, forced onto a truck with other kidnapped women and sent to Java.
There, the group of abducted women were forced to become Comfort Women.
Niyem was barely fed and slept in a tent with 2 other young girls. There soldiers would visit them and Niyem would watch as her friends were raped, before she was also raped. Niyem explained:
‘I was still so young, within two months my body was completely destroyed… I was nothing but a toy, as a human being I meant nothing, that’s how it felt during the Japanese era.”
This was not an isolated incident.
In 2015, Yong Soo Lee -now in her 80s- spoke to The Washington Post about her time as a Comfort Woman, after she was kidnapped at 14:
‘At first the other girls tried to protect me because I was so young. I saw the soldiers on them, but the girls put a blanket over me and told me to pretend I was dead so nothing would happen to me. I didn’t know what they meant. I was only 14. I didn’t know anything then.”
But Niyem and Young Soo Lee were the lucky ones. They’d get to live to tell their harrowing stories.
You see, the vast majority of Comfort Women didn’t make it home after the war. A small minority managed to integrate themselves with the local community. But the fates of most of the women still remains unknown. It’s thought many died at the Comfort Stations.
For those that did come home, they were met with silence. What had happened to them was not officially recognised. There would be no reparations for individuals, no help, no official apology.
Many of the women were also rejected by the lives they had been taken from.
Met with families and husbands who were now disgusted by them. It was near impossible to move forward to what had happened to them.
Even those women whose families did support them, had almost insurmountable hurdles ahead. Faced with the threat of infertility, due to STDs that were rampant at the Comfort Stations. Some women had even been sterilised, or beaten so badly they could no longer naturally have children.
Without help or acknowledgement of what they’d been through, the women struggled to move forward, to marry, build families and new lives for themselves.
So, they did the best they could. Living alone with the trauma of what had happened.
Then in the 1990s everything changed.
In 1991, Kim Hak Sun, became the first Korean Comfort Woman to speak out about what had happened to her.
Kim Hak Sun was 17 when she became a Comfort Woman. She was 67 by the time she got to tell her story.
50 years after her ordeal began, she held a press conference, explaining:
‘Until now, I did not have the courage to speak, even though there are so many things I want to say.’
Kim Hak Sun filed a lawsuit against the Japanese Government, looking for the government to acknowledge what had happened to her and thousands of others:
‘Why do they lie that we don’t exist even though I am right here? This should now be straightened out.’
In 1997 Kim Hak Sun died, she never saw her acknowledgement.
BUT her bravery inspired other Comfort Women to stand up and demand that their voices finally be heard.
More and more Comfort Women from all over the world started making their voices heard and fighting for their long overdue rights.
By the mid 1990s Korea’s government was working to tell the Comfort Women’s story. School textbooks now clearly outlined what had happened and applications were opened up so the women could finally start seeking financial aid.
Then in 1995, Japans Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, set up a private fund for the women.
But the Comfort Women refused the money.
You see, the money came from private donations, rather than from the Japanese Government.
As it was the government, who they believed were morally responsible for the atrocities that happened, the women would not accept money from any other body.
20 years later, in 2015, Japan and Korea reached an agreement. The Japanese government would set up a fund for Korea’s Comfort Women, worth 1 billion yen (approx $8.3 million at the time)
The agreement declared that issue was:
‘resolved, finally and irreversibly.’
But just 2 years later in 2017, Korea’s new President, Moon Jae-in, questioned the deal’s validity.
Then in 2018 he argued that the current deal did not include a sincere apology. Thus failing to upheld the dignity of the Comfort Women.
What happens next in the reparations saga remains up for debate. But that’s just half of the story. The other crucial factor is:
How do we keep this chapter of history alive?
The number of surviving Comfort Women is dropping rapidly. With just a few dozen remaining.
These elderly women are spending their last years reliving the worst moments of their lives and begging history to acknowledge them.
With so many first hand accounts, in addition to pictures and video you’d think that, of course, historic bodies would take these women seriously.
You’d be wrong…
An application was made for the Comfort Women’s story to be included in UNESCO’s (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ) Memory of The World, which is a register designed to safeguard crucial chapters in history.
However, in 2017, UNESCO postponed any decision around including the Comfort Women in The Memory of the World program.
This decision just confirmed everything the women were fighting against. That what had happened to them had no significance and could be forgotten.
So what happens now?
Well, the Comfort Women continue to fight.
There are regular protests and these brave women continue to tell their stories.
Slowly but surely the women are getting more and more international attention. Pressure is growing, with monuments and projects remembering the Comfort Women starting to spring up across the globe.
The surviving Comfort Women are now in their 80s and 90s and it’s unlikely they will receive the recognition, reparations and apologies that they seek within their lifetimes. But, like Kim Hak Sun, their fight will leave an incredible impact.
These women are fighting not just for themselves, but for the tens of thousands of women who were stripped of their names, dignity and lives.
They are fighting for their right to be remembered. And that is a fight we can all help with.
This was interesting, where can I find out more? If you can find a copy, I would suggest checking out, Jan Banning and Hilde Janssens, book:Comfort Women / Troostmeisjes. It is sold out on most online retailers, but you mind have luck via your local library or second hand book shop.
I’d also suggest checking out 2016 documentary, The Apology, which follows three former comfort women, as they remember what happened to them and fight for change.
This is an ongoing issue, so set yourself up a Google Alert, and stay on top of everything that’s going on!