Every Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, people gather around to demand the Japanese government formally apologize for their forced sexual slavery system during World War II. Even though it has been over 20 years of Koreans raising this issue, the Japanese government has only tried to offer monetary compensation, and has not issued an official apology. The Asian Women’s Fund estimates the number of victims ranges from 50,000 to a quarter million, but the number has remained vague due to incomplete data archives and stigma among victims after the war (1). A few survivors of this sexual slavery system have spoken in front of global leaders to raise awareness: one of them, Hak-sun Kim, delivered her first testimony in 1991.
During this testimony, Kim said that when she was seventeen, she was forcibly sent to the Japanese military’s comfort station (a sexual slavery station) in China (2). She resisted, but soldiers threatened and kicked her to be obedient. She described herself as a “tool to fulfill Japanese soldiers’ sexual desire during the war” (2). She added that military doctors forced pregnant girls to undergo abortion or sterilization without consent, and weekly “sanitary inspections” (coerced exposure of female genitals in front of male soldiers). These experiences traumatized these women. Even after the war ended, many avoided marrying men. After her testimony, more victims of the sexual slavery system shared their narratives to the public. Hearing these stories, the Korean government and activists came together to file a lawsuit requesting an official apology and monetary compensation from the Japanese government.
Much of this story gets lost in translation. The “comfort women” — “ianfu” in Japanese — is a euphemism for “sex workers”, which is contrary to what actually took place: involuntary participation of women in sexual slavery. The correct term to describe “comfort women” is “victims of Japanese military sexual slavery”. Even when Hillary Clinton served as a Secretary of State, she emphasized correcting the State Department official to use “enforced sex slaves” instead of “comfort women” during the speech (3) . However, many historical records, including a massive archive written by Chinese soldiers about wartime sexual violence, use ‘comfort women’ instead of a correct expression for brevity. Now is the time for this to change.
As a Korean, my history teachers always dedicated at least one week of our classes to learn about my country’s painful history under Colonial Japan from 1910 to 1945. I was always interested in looking at human rights violations. Outside of the forced sexual slavery of Korean women during WWII, the Japanese government also issued a forced military draft of Koreans into the Japanese military. It is only recently that the government has begun the process of indemnification for these human right violations.
The Statue of Peace was installed in December 2011, commemorating the 1000th demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Five years later, the same statue was built in Washington D.C. by Korean immigrants to inform politicians of an unresolved — or perhaps forgotten — human rights violation case. However, international politics has been indifferent to helping victims receive a formal apology from the Japanese officials. As a Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. If the international community wants to address wartime violence, it is time to listen to the ordeal of victims of the Japanese military’s sexual slavery system and help them achieve justice.
(1) Asian Women’s Fund. (2007, June 28). The “Comfort Women” Issue and the Asian Women’s Fund. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20070628152156/http://www.awf.or.jp/woman/pdf/ianhu_ei.pdf. 2Han, H. (1991, August 15). ‘Tearful Expose of Wartime Sexual Violence by Hak-sun Kim—’Broken
(2) “Seventeen”. NAVER Newslibrary. https://newslibrary.naver.com/viewer/index.naver articleId=1991081500329112004&editNo=10&pri ntCount=1&publishDate=1991-08-15&officeId=00032&pageNo=12&printNo=14141&publishType =00010
(3) Randall, E. (2012, July 12). Hillary Clinton and Japan Are in a Tiff Over ‘Sex Slaves’ and ‘Comfort Women’. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/07/hillary-clinton-and-japan-are-tiff-over-sex -slaves-and-comfort-women/325986/