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Comfort Women and the Discomfort of Acknowledging the Past

Writer: Maria de Jesús Castillo Cervantes

Editor: Pat Sevikul

Graphic Designer: Nasya Nethania

TW: Rape, sexual abuse, violence

Comfort women have become one of the major controversies between the Korean and Japanese governments for many years. It was a horrendous event in which many innocent women saw both their lives and their futures destroyed. But who are they? And where are they now?

“Comfort women” refer to women and girls who were enslaved to provide sexual satisfaction for Japanese soldiers during World War II. During this period, the Japanese military set up brothels called “comfort stations” to occupy soldiers with women whom they would traffic from different parts of Asia. Although the knowledge of “comfort stations” became more popular later during World War II, their existence goes way back before the War. It has been a century since the start of comfort women, but its history remains painful and politically divisive between Japan and the countries it once colonized.

Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The beginning of Comfort Stations

Military brothels, or “comfort stations”, existed in Japan since 1932, but expanded after “The Rape of Nanking” in 1937, when Japanese troops invaded and massacred the city of Nanjing, China. During this incident, men from Japanese troops raped 20,000 Asian women. As a result, Emperor Hirohito became worried for Japan's image and ordered the military to create more “comfort stations” to house sex workers in order to prevent events like The Rape of Nankin, from happening again.

The idea of recruiting women for “comfort stations'' eventually turned into kidnapping or manipulating them into thinking that they were going to work in factories, hospitals, etc. However, there were also women who were sold by their own families to the military to become “comfort women”, many of which were underaged girls. Once they arrived at the comfort stations, they were forced to have sex with the men in the military. Their “shifts” could last from 8 am to 5 pm and consisted of non-stop sexual abuse. Women who were recruited were mostly from Korea or Japan, but there were also women from all over Southeast Asia. Each woman had a different experience, but their stories all had one thing in common: repeated rapes, pregnancies, physical pain, and sexually transmitted diseases. To this day, the number of women recruited for comfort stations still cannot be confirmed, but historian Bernard Stöver estimates that between 80,000 to 200,000 women were taken to comfort stations to become comfort women. The reason behind not knowing is because once the war ended, the Japanese government burnt and destroyed any documents regarding the existence of these comfort stations.

After the war ended, Japan tried to hide any evidence of the military brothels, and many women died of sexually transmitted infections, complications from their violent treatment, such as fractures, injuries caused by constant beating, abnormal bleeding in the reproductive organs, or even suicide. The victims had to live out the rest of their lives hiding the past of what the War had done to them, in fear of judgment from their families and society. Feeling alone and traumatized, many of them could not re-integrate into their communities. Additionally, many women who were able to return to their countries after the war decided that they didn’t want to get married since they thought no one would be able to love them, considering their physical injuries and psychological trauma, which felt too heavy to share with others.

Marry Evans Picture Library

The story of Kim Bok-Dong

During World War II, Korea was under the Japanese regime, so Korean men were forced to fight as part of the Japanese army. However, the men were not the only ones who were taken away from their homes, as Japanese soldiers were also forcibly recruiting Korean women.

When they recruited Kim Bok-Dong, she and her family thought they were hiring her to work in a factory making uniforms for Japanese soldiers. They were told that they did not have enough workers and that she would return to Korea by the time she reached marriageable age. When someone was recruited, it was not a question. If the person recruited refused to go, their family would be exiled. Kim Bok-Dong thought that by going to Japan, she was saving her life. She departed from the port in Busan, Korea, and arrived in Shimonoseki, Japan, the next morning. She recalls that there were about 30 girls with her, from ages 18-20, with her being the youngest at the age of 14. A majority of girls taken to comfort stations were very young, owing to the fact that they hadn’t had sexual intercourse before, and would be less likely to share infections with soldiers. After a few days, the girls took a train to Taiwan, and then a boat to the Canton province in China. When they arrived, they were met with a group of medical soldiers who checked their bodies, and later sent them to their rooms.

The first time they abused Kim Bok-Dong, they took her to a room and beat her up so that she would obey. Afterward, she recalled the sheets being covered in blood and her entire lower body in pain. That night, she and two other girls tried to take their lives because they knew that they could not live their lives in torture and believed that they would be better off dead.

Every day, she was forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers. On Saturdays, her shift was from 12-6 pm, and on Sundays, from 8 am to 5 pm. Men would stand in lines outside the “comfort rooms” and would go in one after the other. By the end of the day, she was not able to walk or stand.

When the War ended, Japanese soldiers tried to hide the existence of comfort women, so they sent her to work as a nurse in a military hospital, where she worked for over a year. After 8 years, she was reunited with her family. Even though she was back home, she felt alone and was scared to tell her family what had happened. It wasn’t until the age of 60 that she had the courage to tell her story. She was mad and resentful of the years of sexual abuse she had to endure and believed that the only way to get justice was by telling the truth. Yet even in her final days, she was never given justice.

Kim Bok Dong - Yonhap news

They deserve justice

The story of the enslavement of women was downplayed as a distasteful remnant of a past people would rather forget. But these women who were victims of this abuse carried the consequences throughout their entire lives. A century has passed, and the Japanese government still denies the existence of comfort women. Many victims have had to live with the psychological and social effects of their actions. Women who were used as sexual slaves during World War II have not been given justice. The problem of "comfort women'' serves as a perfect example of how hiding a part of the story, for the image of a country, can bring about the suffering of hundreds of people.




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