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Horrors of past still haunt 'comfort women'

Originally published in:
The Providence Journal

Alex Kuffner
BRISTOL , RI-- Ok Sun Kim was 16 years old when the Japanese soldiers dragged her from her home. For the next eight years she would be a sex slave to the Japanese army. She can't remember how many times she was raped.

"I cannot get rid of that pain," she told more than 100 people at Roger Williams University Tuesday night. Yong Soo Lee was 15 when she was taken.

She won't forget the moonlit night when the soldiers came. Her ordeal lasted two years, coming to an end only when the Japanese army was defeated in World War II. "I cannot tell you all I went through," she told the audience. They are just two of the estimated 200,000 women who were forced into sexual slavery in service of the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II. Known as "comfort women," most, like Kim and Lee, came from Korea, but girls were also taken from China, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries throughout Asia that Japan invaded in the 1930s and '40s. Some were abducted. Others were coerced into servitude.

Kim and Lee spoke at Roger Williams as part of a week-long visit to the United States to raise awareness about what happened to them when they were teenagers. Believing that the Japanese government hasn't done enough to atone for the country's wartime atrocities, they are seeking an official apology and compensation.

The women's trip was sponsored by V-Day, an organization started by Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler that aims to fight the abuse of women. The group campaigns for a single issue each year and chose to focus on the plight of the former comfort women in 2006.

Time is running out for the women. Of the 212 former sex slaves in South Korea who have come forward with their stories, only 132 are still alive, according to the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Seventeen died last year, said Heisoo Shin, a member of the advocacy group who accompanied Kim and Lee on their trip along with a translator. "The grandmothers are dying," Shin said of the victims. "And still the Japanese government will not take any legal responsibility. What is more important than compensation is recognition of the crimes that were committed."

Some of the women tried suing the government in Japan seeking an official apology and reparations. None of the lawsuits was successful. Although Tokyo acknowledged that the Japanese army ran brothels for its soldiers, it has rejected claims for reparations, saying that any cases for compensation were closed by treaties years ago. In 1995, a private fund was set up with the Japanese government's permission to compensate some of the former comfort women, but many of the survivors rejected the money, believing the government itself needed to pay.

Convincing the government to make a formal apology now seems more unlikely as Japan experiences a surge in nationalism. Some far-right politicians have denied that Japanese troops committed brutalities when their country controlled much of Asia. Others have said Japan has made enough apologies for its wartime misdeeds. For Kim, 84, and Lee, 79, nothing will erase the memories of what was done to them. It has been 60 years since the end of the war, but the emotional scars are still there.

Although Kim described her experiences in an interview before Tuesday's event, Lee declined, saying she could only talk about it once that evening. "It's very difficult to tell our story over and over again," she said. Later, the two women sobbed while a documentary film about other former comfort women was screened last night. Kim left the room, unable to watch. Both women were taken by the soldiers to the island of Taiwan, which Japan colonized before the war. They were put in "comfort stations" -- long halls separated into rooms by thin partitions.

Each day, soldiers took turns raping them. Kim said that on weekends or holidays hundreds of men would line up. She would beg soldiers to stay longer to delay the arrival of the next man in line. "Sometimes I passed out," she said. Neither woman married nor had children after they returned to Korea. Both live alone.

Lee made her story public in 1992. Every week since then she has protested with other former sex slaves outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea's capital. March 15 will mark the 700th demonstration without a response from the Japanese government. She wants an explanation. "I don't know why they did this to us," she said. "I'm a victim of an atrocity."