Wearing a woolen coat, knitted hat and school-marm glasses, Kim Bok-dong shuffled haltingly into a tiny auditorium in Seoul and sat down on the folding chair to tell her wartime horror story once again to a group of foreign visitors.
Kim, now 89, said she was only 15 in 1941 when a local official came to her village in South Korea and took her away. She was told she was being drafted to work in a factory that made military uniforms. Instead, she was sent to a military brothel, one of thousands the Japanese Imperial Army set up for its troops across Asia from the late 1930s until the end of World War Two. For the next four years, Kim said, she worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week—a half day on Saturday—as a traveling “sex slave” for Japanese soldiers. When Tokyo surrendered in September 1945, she was in Singapore.
Only 30 or so women like her are still alive in South Korea, officials say. (The number in North Korea is unknown.) And the few who are able to speak, like Kim, insist on telling their stories publicly—to the great chagrin of officials in Japan, and to some extent even South Korea, which has a deeply conflicted relationship with its former occupier and, for the past six decades, military ally and, more recently, economic rival.
The issue remains prickly mostly due to what critics refer to as Japan’s growing historical revisionism. On Friday, the nation’s largest newspaper, the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, sparked an uproar in South Korea by apologizing for using the explicit term “sex slave” instead of the softer, fuzzier expression “comfort women” that Japanese officials and media have long employed. Some articles, the paper added, also mistakenly “defined comfort women in such terms as ‘forced into prostitution by the military,’ as if coercion by the Japanese government or the army was an objective fact.” The paper and its associated website, The Japan News, said it “apologizes for having used these misleading expressions and will add a note stating that they were inappropriate to all the articles in question in our database."
Since the end of the second world war, Japan has often exhibited bouts of selective amnesia when it comes to the dark side of its imperial past. But the tendency has become more pronounced as the country’s politics have tilted further right, in the process alarming its neighbors and former victims in the region.
In 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that there was no evidence of Japanese sex slaves, even though the Tokyo government had admitted in 1993 to coercing at least some Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Taiwanese, Indonesian and other women (including captured European colonials) into servicing Japanese soldiers in occupied territories during World War Two. (The estimates range from a low of a 20,000, a number cited by some Japanese “authorities,” to more than 400,000, a figure used by China. ) Japan set up a fund to compensate the victims, but less than 200 South Korean women have received any cash or apologies. In 2007 the fund was dissolved.
Abe “has has made restoring pride in Japan’s past a central theme of his political career and has shown a willingness to intervene against news media outlets that he believes stand in the way of that cause,” according to a report over the weekend by the New York Times’ Tokyo correspondent, Jonathan Soble.
To some Koreans, the Yomiuri Shimbun retraction was hardly surprising. “To me, it’s nothing new,” a university student told Newsweek by email. “Major newspapers being pressured by Abe and the ultra-right wing is a well known fact [here].”
Well known, but no less tiresome, judging by the reaction of Korea’s nationwide Chosun TV network on Sunday.
"Three months ago it was Asahi,” it said of another Japanese newspaper’s retraction, according to a translation supplied by the student. “Then Hokkaido. And now Yomiuri is retracting and apologizing. There are rising suspicions of whether the streak of apologies reflects Abe’s influence."
Early this month, Seoul’s JoongAng Daily complained that “the hard-line Abe cabinet has been on a full-fledged campaign to methodically deny the forced recruitment of sex slaves by crowing about” how the accounts of one self-proclaimed former sex slave recruiter in Asahi turned out to be a fabricated. But Japan’s most prestigious society of historians, the Daily noted, had responded that, “regardless of the authenticity of [his] testimony, the existence of forced sexual slavery is undeniable.”
Evidence of Japan’s official culpability is abundant at the modest War and Women’s Human Rights Museum, located on an out-of-the-way, narrow side street on a hill in northwestern Seoul. Artifacts on display at the three-story conference center and museum, which opened in 2012, include black-and-white photos of the assembled sex slaves and their customers, pictures of their barracks, samples of Japanese army-issued condoms, venereal disease warning pamphlets and even sex “discount coupons” for lucky soldiers. Most telling is a Japanese lieutenant’s diary describing visits with the sex slaves.
Previous Japanese acknowledgments of responsibility for the sex slaves, including apologies and even offers of compensation, have fallen far short for the victims, their relatives and supporters, who since 1992 have held sometimes raucous lunchtime demonstrations every Wednesday outside Japan’s embassy in Seoul.
The South Korean government’s advocacy for the women, meanwhile was belated and muted for decades after the war, complicated by its own failure to prosecute local officials who were complicit in sex slavery, among other war crimes, not to mention Japan’s long occupation of Korea, which predated World War Two by forty years. Even today, many South Koreans maintain some admiration, however begrudging, for Japan’s culture and its technological and even military triumphs—especially over the West. After the war, Washington strung the two together in a Cold War alliance against communist China, the Soviet Union and Moscow-backed North Korea. Criticism of Japanese war crimes was discouraged.
“Korean society hasn’t taken any responsibility for this issue,” Yoon Mi-hyang, president of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, said through an interpreter at the museum on November 19.
All the more reason, said the frail, but still combative, Kim Bok-dong, that pressure be kept on Japan.
“All of us,” she said through an interpreter, “must fight against these Japanese bastards.”