OSAKA, Japan — More than 70 years ago, at age 14, Kim Bok-dong was ordered to work by Korea’s Japanese occupiers. She was told she was going to a military uniform factory, but ended up at a Japanese military-linked brothel in southern China.
She had to take an average of 15 soldiers per day during the week, and dozens over the weekend. At the end of the day she would be bleeding and could not even stand because of the pain. She and other girls were closely watched by guards and could not escape. It was a secret she carried for decades; the man she later married died without ever knowing.
Tens of thousands of women had similar stories to tell, or to hide, from Japan’s occupation of much of Asia before and during World War II. Many are no longer living, and those who remain are still waiting for Japan to offer reparations and a more complete apology than it has so far delivered.
“I’m here today, not because I wanted to but because I had to,” Kim, now 87, told a packed audience of mostly Japanese at a community center in Osaka over the weekend. “I came here to ask Japan to settle its past wrongdoing. I hope the Japanese government resolves the problem as soon as possible while we elderly women are still alive.”
The issue of Japan’s use of Korean, Chinese and Southeast Asian women and girls as sex slaves—euphemistically called “comfort women”—continues to alienate Tokyo from its neighbors nearly 70 years after the war’s end. It is a wound that was made fresh this month when the co-head of an emerging nationalistic party, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, said “comfort women” had been necessary to maintain military discipline and give respite to battle-weary troops.
His comments drew outrage from South Korea and China, as well as from the US State Department, which called them “outrageous and offensive.”
Hashimoto provided no evidence but insisted that Tokyo has been unfairly singled out for its World War II behavior regarding women, saying some other armies at the time had military brothels. None of them, however, has been accused of the kind of widespread, organized sexual slavery that has been linked to Japan’s military.
Historians say up to 200,000 women from across Asia, including China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Hong Kong and Macau, as well as the Netherlands, were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers.
To many people, even within Japan, Hashimoto’s comments suggest that even after all these years, Japanese leaders don’t want to fully acknowledge wartime wrongs and are out of touch with the sentiments not only of their neighbors and the international community, but also many of their own citizens.
“It’s not a problem of the past. It’s a continuing problem that involves people who are still alive,” said Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University political science professor. “Japan is perceived as merely waiting for them to die while looking the other way and dragging its feet. That looks bad from a humanity point of view.”
According to a survey conducted over the weekend by the conservative Sankei newspaper and FNN television, more than 75 percent of Japanese said Hashimoto’s sex slave remarks were inappropriate, while support for his party slumped to 6.4 percent—nearly half what it was last month.
The comments come amid rising concerns in the region over the nationalistic shift in Japan’s political leadership under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has suggested he wants to revise Japan’s past apologies for its wartime aggression and change its pacifist constitution.
In 1993, Japan officially apologized to “comfort women” in a landmark statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, acknowledging “immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds.”
But Kim and other women want a full apology approved by parliament and official compensation from the government. Tokyo has resisted that, saying war reparations with South Korea were dealt with in treaties restoring relations after the war. In 1995, Tokyo created a fund using private donations as a way for Japan to pay former sex slaves without providing official compensation.
The fund provided 2 million yen ($20,000) each to about 280 women in the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea, and funded nursing homes for Indonesian victims and medical assistance to about 80 former Dutch sex slaves.
In South Korea, 207 women formally came forward and were recognized as eligible recipients. But only a fraction actually accepted the money because of criticism of the private fund. Instead they receive support from the South Korean government and a support group.
In Japan, public sentiment has become less compassionate in recent years toward Asian victims of the country’s wartime aggression. References to “comfort women” once in school history textbooks have disappeared.
Much of the debate over “comfort women” still focuses on what role the government at the time played in organizing brothels, and if—or to what extent—the women were coerced. The Kono statement says the military was involved directly or indirectly in the establishment and management of front-line brothels and transfer of women, and that many women were in many cases “recruited against their own will through coaxing and coercion.”
Nobuo Ishihara, who was then deputy cabinet secretary, said in March 2006 that interviews with 16 South Korean women in Seoul led to the conclusion that there was coercion though there were no official documents showing so.
“After interviewing the 16 comfort women, we came to believe that what they were saying could not be fabrication. We thought there was no doubt they were forced to become comfort women against their will,” Ishihara said. “Based on the investigation team’s report, we, as the government, concluded that there was coercion.”
The government investigation also found that many of the Dutch victims were selected from concentration camps and forcibly sent to brothels, while those in the Philippines and Indonesia were raped at battlefronts, kidnapped and forced to provide sex under confinement.
Hashimoto, 43, sought to calm the uproar Monday, telling a packed news conference that he personally didn’t condone using “comfort women,” which he labeled a violation of human rights.
But he repeatedly insisted that Japan’s wartime government did not systematically force girls and women into prostitution, although he acknowledged that some may have been deceived and coerced. He said the historical record isn’t clear, which is similar to Abe’s view that there is no proof the women were coerced as a result of a state order. He said historians from both Japan and South Korea should settle the matter.
Hashimoto acknowledged that this murkiness probably is the key stumbling block in Japan’s ties with South Korea.
Chuo University historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi, one of Japan’s most respected experts on “comfort women,” criticized the Japanese government for taking an extremely narrow interpretation of what constitutes coercion.
He said documents show “comfort women” recruited in Japan were mostly adult professionals, although many had been sold into the sex industry by their poor families. However, in Asian countries invaded by Japan, there was no consideration of the rights of minors or the right to quit, which he said should constitute coercion by international standards.
“Neither Prime Minister Abe nor Mayor Hashimoto has tried to look at how those girls and young women were abused. Their view is worlds apart from the international view,” he said.
Kim was dragged across Asia, from Hong Kong to Singapore and Indonesia, until the end of the war in 1945. She was freed in Singapore and returned home in 1946. She later was married but— like most former sex slaves—was never able to reveal her past to anyone but her mother—until decades later.
“Even as I returned to my homeland, it never was a true liberation for me,” she told listeners at the community center. “How could I tell anyone what had happened to me during the war? It was living with a big lump in my chest.”
She finally broke her silence several years after her husband died in 1981. Later she joined a group of women seeking official recognition as victims of Japan’s sex slavery.
Kim has since traveled around the world to tell her story and participates in weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Kim and another former sex slave, 84-year-old Kil Won-ok, had been seeking a meeting with Hashimoto for some time when he made his comments this month. He then offered to meet with them, but they canceled, saying they didn’t perceive that he was remorseful and didn’t want to be used by him to rehabilitate his image. Instead, they spoke to the public in Osaka.
“We won’t be around much longer,” Kil said. “But we have to tell you our stories because we don’t want the same mistake repeated again.”