Ben Hills

Still, as though it were yesterday, Kang Duk Kyong remembers the day they came for her. She had just turned 16 and was attending junior high school near the town of Chinju, in the rice-bowl of southern Korea. “The teacher came to our house and asked for volunteers to work in Japan for the Women’s Labor Corps,” she says. “My mother wept after the teacher left, but I felt I had to go – in those days, the teacher was God.”

For young Kang and 50 other girls from schools around the district, it was the start of a 2,000 kilometre voyage into hell, from which most would never return. Those who did were condemned to live out their lives as social pariahs, shunned by their families, tortured by injury and illness; some sent mad by the ordeal they went through.

Conditions were dreadful enough to start with. Shipped across the Sea of Japan to the port of Shimonoseki, bundled onto a northbound train, the girls discovered they had been sent to work in an aircraft factory in Toyama prefecture.

The tide of war had well and truly turned – it was 1944 – and they were forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, operating lathes and other machinery. At night, they slept in barracks surrounded by armed guards. Food was a portion of rice so tiny that the girls counted each grain to make it last.

But escaping one night turned out to be the worst mistake of Kang’s life. She was recaptured, she was raped – a virgin, before her first period – and she was thrown into a military brothel. Kang Duk Kyong had become what the Japanese still euphemistically call “ian-fu” – a “comfort woman.”

Throughout Asia, as the Japanese reich spread like a bloodstain, the sexual needs of the troops were catered for by women tricked, terrorised or abducted to serve as prostitutes in front-line brothels. Only now, 50 years later, is the wall of secrecy and deception that the Japanese erected over what the women regard as a war crime being gradually prised apart.

And only now, as they reach their 70s, have the women – shamed and shunned by the conservative societies in which they live – been prepared to break their self-imposed silence and come forward to tell their stories and demand retribution.

“Before I die, I want the Japanese to admit their guilt,” says Kang, now aged 66.

The Japanese have a lot of unfinished business from World War II, particularly in Korea where they are still universally hated. Survivors among Koreans transported to China and Russia as slave labour, victims of Hiroshima who are denied medical care, men drafted into the Japanese army and condemned as war criminals – all have outstanding claims. But the comfort women are in a class of their own.

From the archives that survived the war’s end bonfire – and the few Japanese veterans courageous enough to come forward and testify – it is becoming clear that Operation Comfort Women was approved by the highest levels of the Japanese military command.

Although successive Japanese governments have issued scarcely plausible denials since an international campaign began four years ago – they claim that”civilian contractors” were to blame – there is now overwhelming evidence that the military organised, transported, provided medical inspections and even issued the condoms for the brothels.

About 200,000 women were involved. A few were Japanese (they were for the officers) but the vast majority were from China, Taiwan, the Philippines, South-East Asia, Indonesia – and from the Korean peninsula, which provided between 80 and 90 per cent of the “sex slaves”.

Like Kang – who now lives with half a dozen other survivors in a tile-roofed “safe house” in the suburbs of Seoul lent by a Buddhist human rights organisation – they suffered loathsome treatment at the hands of the Japanese military, who had been occupying Korea since 1910.

“We were treated as though we were subhuman,” says one of Kang’s friend, Kim Seun Duk, 74.

Survivors speak of being forced to service up to 100 men in a day – the soldiers used to queue with their flies unbuttoned for their few minutes of sex.

“I hated Saturdays worse than death,” says Kang. Many were beaten, mutilated and even killed if they tried to escape. They suffered permanent internal damage, and were infected with venereal diseases. Some committed suicide; others became insane – they were, remember, teenage girls, some as young as 14.

Most did not survive the war. Park Ok Yun, now 76, was recruited to be a nurse, and found herself a month later in a brothel on the front lines in Indonesia. With the Allies advancing, the Japanese tried to evacuate the women- but the troopship was sunk and the survivors were machine-gunned as they struggled in the water. Of 50 women in her group, only four ever saw their homeland again.

After the war, most of the women were disowned by their families. Kang, for instance, was pregnant when she returned home. She was forced to give the child up to a Catholic orphanage, leave her home town and work as a farm labourer. She was never able to marry.

Those who kept their secret and managed to marry lived in permanent fear of exposure, and most marriages broke down and the children turned their backs on their mothers. One went mad after she discovered her newborn child had congenital syphilis.

“You will never be able to imagine what these women went through,” says Kwon Hee Soon, a Methodist minister who, in 1990, agreed to head the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan, one of three groups formed to help the Korean “comfort women”. So far, it has tracked down 200 survivors, and believes there are another 200 in North Korea.

SINCE the issue began to emerge in 1990, the council has emerged as a highly organised, highly effective pressure group. It has embarrassed the Japanese Government around the world – protesting against Emperor Akihito during his visit earlier this year to the United States, and demonstrating every Wednesday – for the past 133 Wednesdays – outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, under the watchful eyes of a platoon of riot police.

The attitude of the Korean Government until now has been ambivalent -hardly surprisingly, considering many prominent figures, including the former Prime Minister Park Chong Hee, were collaborators, senior officers in the Japanese occupation forces.

The comfort women are especially inflamed by the Japanese Government’s continuing attempts to evade responsibility. Just last May, Japan’s Justice Minister, Shigeto Nagano, was forced to resign when he described the comfort women as “licensed prostitutes” – implying that they volunteered – and went on to say that the Rape of Nanking, in which 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered in Japan’s bloodiest atrocity, never occurred.

“He was only saying out loud what many in the Japanese Government still believe in private,” says Kwon. “Even 50 years later, they are still trying to deny their guilt and evade responsibility for what they did.”

The comfort women – and there are similar groups in all countries affected except China, where they were locked up to prevent protests during the Emperor’s visit – are demanding not only a resolution of apology from Japan’s Diet, but compensation, a rewriting of Japanese history texts and prosecution of any surviving “war criminals” responsible.

Park Won Soon, an attorney advising the council, says a war crimes tribunal was convened in Batavia, Indonesia, to investigate the case of a group of Dutch women similarly forced into Japanese brothels – 10 officers were imprisoned or executed. But he says, “when the victims were Asian, they were ignored”.

Only this year has the Japanese Education Ministry – which has ruthlessly censored any mention of Japan’s aggression or atrocities from the official histories for nearly 50 years – allowed the phrase “comfort women” to be used in one school text. Even then, a reference to the number of women involved was expunged.

As for compensation, the Japanese Government insists that even if the comfort women exist – this concession was wrung out of the Miyazawa Government just last year – and even if the military had something to do with them, it has no responsibility. The $400 million war reparations paid in 1965 when Japan concluded a peace treaty with South (though not North) Korea absolves them from any claim.

The comfort women had high hopes of a fresh initiative when Tomiichi Murayama, Japan’s first socialist Prime Minister in 40 years, was sworn in last month. The socialists have always been more ready to atone for Japan’s war guilt, and Murayama even promised that “something should be done” when he met a delegation which flew to Tokyo earlier this year, in an unsuccessful bid to file a complaint alleging crimes against humanity with the public prosecutor.

However, last week they learnt what Murayama – or more precisely, Japan’s Foreign Ministry mandarins who write his scripts – means by “something”. There will be a sum of $1.3 billion, to be spent over five years, beginning with the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II next year.

However, none of the money will go to the victims. It will be administered by a trust in Tokyo, and spent on such things as a youth exchange program, historical research and a vaguely defined women’s centre.

“This is completely unsatisfactory to us,” says Kwon, “and we are asking(South Korea’s President) Kim Young Sam to reject it. It does nothing to address the issue of apology and compensation, let alone the prosecution of those responsible.”

The women will continue with their compensation claims – one filed in the Shimonoseki courts on behalf of three of the women claims $7.5 million, including a defamation claim against Nagano. They are seeking adjudication by an international tribunal in The Hague.

And Kwon hopes to attract international attention by staging a show trial in which the wartime emperor, Hirohito, will be the defendant: “Everything, after all, was done in his name.”

As for Kang and her friends, now ill and alone in the twilight of their lives: “They took away part of our lives. Even if the Japanese gave us their entire country, that could never compensate for what we have lost.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 23 July 1994
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section: News Review
Page: 32
Word count: 1843
Keywords: War crimes WWII
Photography: Ben Hills
Caption: “I want them to admit their guilt” … a protest outside the Japanese Embassy, watched by police.