Korean comfort women, as the Japanese refer to them, suffered sex enslavement during World War II, but their plight continues to influence Korean-Japanese politics.

Kidnapped, Forced into Sex Slavery

During World War II, Japanese soldiers forced young women into sex slavery, kidnapping them off the streets. Women from China, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines were taken and relocated to brothels, called comfort stations by the Japanese Army. One such woman, Lee Ok-Seon, kidnapped at aged 14, described the daily treatment the 11 to 14-year-old girls received: “We were often beaten, threatened and attacked with knives.” They were also raped daily, as she told the Deutsche Welle.

Ok-Seong is one of many Korean comfort women who came forward during the 21st century to talk about their experiences. Although no exact number exists, the involved governments estimate that the Japanese abducted about 200,000 women for the brothels, or comfort stations. About 50 known survivors live in Korea today. Their testimonies brought to light the sex camps operated from 1940 to 1945.

Painful Memories

The Japanese government recognized the atrocity of Korean Comfort women publicly in 1993, issuing an apology. Its leaders sometimes deny the brothels, but on December 28, 2015 Japan issued another apology and offered settlement payments to the remaining Korean survivors. Some of the women refused the money.

Two months following the apology, a film about the World War II sex slavery, “Spirits’ Homecoming,” debuted. The documentary became a box-office hit its opening week with 1.7 million viewers. Film-maker Cho Jung Rae completed the project during a 14 year period, funded by the micro donations of 75,000 people.

For years a commemorative statue has stood across from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The women on the statue sit with their hands in their lap, staring straight ahead. Erected by a community organization, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, citizens visit it often, dressing the statute to symbolically comfort the women. A cardigan rests on the shoulders of one statue figure. Another has a knit scarf wrapped around her neck.

On the one year anniversary of the apology and reparations, another community group, the Committee of Youth for Erecting a Peace Monument, erected a second commemorative statue in Busan, the second largest city in South Korea. This statue stands across from the Japanese consulate. The statue embarrassed Japanese authorities and Busan officials removed it. A visit by Japan’s Defence Minister Tomomi Inada to the Yasukuni Shrine, a Japanese war hero memorial, angered Koreans though and the government re-installed the Busan statue.

Political Fallout Remains

The statue’s reinstatement spawned a new wave of political reactions. At the time, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called home its leading diplomats in Seoul and Busan. It also spurred Tokyo threats to cease talks for a currency agreement that would help stabilize the Korean women.

The issue, brought to light decades after its occurrence by the testimonies of its brave survivors, cannot yet rest. In countries where families continue to be controlled by so called crimes of shame, the present situation marks an important aspect of healing for the violated women and their outraged countrymen. Japan, too, needs its healing time, to deal with its embarassment and shame. As a country known for its politeness and honor, its people feel deeply hurt and betrayed by the actions of their ancestors. Although the two countries need to remain allied, both also need time to come to terms with this atrocity.