All 14-year-old Lee Ok-Seon wanted to do was earn money to help her mother. When some men approached her one day and offered her a well-paying job, she followed them to the train station, where 26 other girls waited to fulfill the same promise. All 27 of the girls were 14- or 15-year-olds, like herself, except one, who was about 22. Lee fell asleep on the train, so she had no idea where she was when she awoke and was transferred to a truck. After a long journey, she found herself in a house with Japanese soldiers coming and going. The 22-year-old tried questioning what was happening, but none of the girls spoke Japanese.
It was 1942, and WWII raged throughout southeast Asia, including Lee’s native Korea, which had been under Japanese occupation since 1910. Lee had seen the Japanese conscript young Korean men to work in factories and mines to support the Japanese war efforts, but she had no idea they were kidnapping girls and young women — primarily from the poorer, less educated Korean communities.
Hearing From A Survivor
“All 27 of us were raped,” Lee says in a gravelly voice through constant coughs. “They made us do strange things.” She was held captive in Manchuria, China, and repeatedly raped every day for three years.
Now 92, Lee addresses a group of English-speaking tourists through a translator. We’ve come to tour the Museum of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery and an adjacent art center that memorializes Lee’s horrific experience.
She is one of hundreds of thousands of what the Japanese euphemistically called “comfort women” — women (teenagers, mostly) who were coerced and kidnapped and held as sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers during the China-Japan War and in the years leading up to and during WWII. As many as 300,000 women were kidnapped from China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor, and Japan itself. But the vast majority of women came from Korea since it was under Japanese occupation.
To make escape nearly impossible, girls were transported far from their homes to 13 countries as far away as Russia, Brunei, and Papua New Guinea, and held captive — sometimes in isolated homes, sometimes in trucks or trenches on the war front — and raped by as many as 30 soldiers each day, as well as by doctors who performed invasive tests for sexually transmitted diseases. Many of the girls committed suicide; others died from bullet wounds sustained during battles.
When WWII ended, many of the girls were killed or buried alive by the Japanese military to erase evidence of their existence. Girls who did survive were silenced by shame. By the time the war ended, Lee’s cadre of 27 girls had dwindled to seven survivors who were hidden by a Chinese family. Finally, Koreans rescued them. Lee was so traumatized, she initially couldn’t find her way home to her family.
Life After Conscription
Although her family welcomed her return, they were bombarded by questions from their neighbors who were desperate for information about their own daughters. Unable to explain what she’d endured or to sustain the attention — or to marry and bear children — she left the village to live in a monastery.
It’s taken decades for the world to learn about these systematic rapes. For years, the Japanese government has denied knowing about or taking any responsibility for the “comfort station” system. And the victims themselves mostly remained silent about their ordeals in the face of societal ostracizing.
However, there is much evidence that the Japanese government not only knew about and condoned the “comfort women” system, but actively expanded it following the Nanking Massacre in 1938, when tens of thousands of women and children were raped and tortured by Japanese soldiers who stormed the former Chinese capital. By vastly expanding the existing “comfort station” system, Emperor Hirohito thought he could avoid another public blemish to Japan’s image.
Finally, in 1991, Hak-Soon Kim spoke out publicly about her captivity as a sex slave. “We must record these things that were forced upon us,” she declared. By this time, Japanese soldiers had begun unburdening their consciences, and other sex slaves had begun speaking out anonymously about their horrific ordeals.
Today, Lee, along with other halmoni (an affectionate Korean term for respected grandmother) tirelessly lobbies the Japanese government to acknowledge the thousands of women whose lives they shattered.
Every Wednesday, the few halmoni still alive and healthy enough gather with dozens of their supporters on the street across from the Japanese Embassy. They surround a statue of a seated barefoot woman who stares stoically forward. Protesters often sit in the empty seat next to her in a display of solidarity. The noon demonstration is the world’s longest-running demonstration according to Guinness World Records, drawing international supporters and media every week since January 8, 1992. I attended the 1,420th demonstration on Christmas Day, 2019.
Enter The House Of Sharing
In 1992, the House of Sharing opened. Funded by private donations, the assisted living residence houses women whose lives were scarred and defined by their captivity and continuous rapes. Some of those women, like Lee, greet visitors who register for a tour of the Museum of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (more on that below). The monthly English-speaking tour of the museum also includes a private visit to the adjacent art center, which displays the personal effects of several halmoni as well as evocative artwork painted by some of the women. The paintings used to tour the world but are now housed safely at the center after one of the paintings was slashed by a knife-wielding onlooker when the paintings were displayed in Japan.
“If a former Japanese soldier were to walk into your room today, what would you say to him?” I ask Lee during our meeting.
“Those soldiers were just following orders,” Lee responded through the translator. “They didn’t have free will. I can’t say much to them. It’s [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe and his grandfather who loved the killing.” She wants that recognition from the Japanese government; she feels they made her a “useless person.”
To learn more about Lee and the hundreds of thousands of other women held captive as sexual slaves, visit the House of Sharing and Museum of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery.
Opened in 1998, the museum is the world’s first to record the history of Japanese military sexual slavery. Its huge maps display the vast geographic reach of the Japanese military brothels. Individual women’s testimonies personalize the experience. The basement has a replica of a room where a comfort woman would have lived — a small, windowless cubicle with a single bed and a water bucket to wash herself between men.
A separate annex features powerful paintings by survivors as well as rotating exhibits.
To Tour The Museum Of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery On Your Own
Take the Gyeonggang Line to Gyeonggi Station in Gwangju. From there, the museum and House of Sharing are a 20-minute taxi ride.
Address: #85 Gasaegol-gil, Toechon-myeon, Gwangju-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea 12715
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Mondays)
Entrance Fee: 5,000 KRW (about $4 USD)
Facebook (English): www.facebook.com/thehouseofsharing
To Take An English-Speaking Tour (The Third Saturday Of Every Month)
Meet at the Gangbyeon Station on Metro Line 2 at noon. Tour includes an introductory video, a guided tour of the museum, a group discussion, and a possible chat with a surviving resident of the House of Sharing.
Hours: Noon to 6 p.m.
Entrance Fee: 15,000 KRW ($13 USD) which includes museum entrance and round-trip bus transportation between the metro and the museum. Pay in cash the day of the tour.
Reservation & Enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit The War And Women’s Human Rights Museum
The War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul offers visitors an opportunity to learn more about the “comfort stations,” about specific women’s stories, and about these women’s efforts for recognition. Although the displays are thorough, the explanations are in Korean only. There is a free English-language audio guide. The grounds include a lovely memorial garden. The museum rotates exhibits about victims of wars on its ground floor.
Address: #20, Worldcupbuk-ro 11-gil, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea 03967
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Sundays and Mondays)
Entrance Fee: 3,000 KRW ($2.50 USD)
Participate In Or Witness The Wednesday Demonstration At The Japanese Embassy
Every Wednesday at noon since 1992, halmoni and women from around the world have gathered across the street from the Japanese Embassy to support the military sex slaves. In all weather, hundreds of women sit on the sidewalk and demand that the Japanese government acknowledge the victims of their “comfort women” system. Between the demonstrations, volunteers sleep in a tent near the comfort women statue to ensure it isn’t defaced. Guinness World Records has declared this demonstration to be history’s longest running protest.
To Participate In The Wednesday Demonstration
The Japanese Embassy is located halfway between Insa-dong and the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Take the Metro Line 3 to Anguk Station, Exit 6.
Address: 6 Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea