Korean Sex Slaves in Japan – The Battle Isn’t Over Yet

Sculpture Dedicated to Korean Sex-Slaves for Japan (©photocoen)It had been a beautiful afternoon of strolling around Seoul. We had left the subway for what it was: efficiently transporting people from A to B. We weren’t here for efficiency but for sightseeing, for getting a feel for the city. And walking is the best way to do so.

Amidst the spic and span of glitzy glass skyscrapers my eyes caught yellow Post-its stuck to a wooden fence that surrounded a high-rise under construction. Between all the silver and transparent cleanliness and somewhat sterile feel of this business part of Seoul, the colorful, randomly pinned notes stood out. I took a closer look.

Sculpture Dedicated to Korean Sex-Slaves for Japan (©photocoen)

I couldn’t read the notes as they were all in Korean but an English text directly written on the wall indicated that this was somehow related to the Japanese colonization of Korea. That drew me in. On the pavement in front of the panel stood a twenty-centimeter high podium on which sat a young woman and two young men. Next to them, right on the side of the pavement, stood a beautiful, bronze-colored statue of a serene-looking young woman.

With hands and feet I managed to speak with the three Koreans who sat next to statue. To my question if the woman spoke English she initially answered with a clear, “No,” but as I tried my questions in simple English her efforts to speak a few words grew into a long, not always entirely comprehensible, but absolute passionate story.

Sculpture Dedicated to Korean Sex-Slaves for Japan (©photocoen)

The History of Korean Sex Slaves

What I already knew was that Japanese had colonized Korea from 1910-1945, during which it used Korean women as sex slaves. Estimates run as high as 200,000 ‘comfort women’, as they are called. Japan never apologized for this, at least not properly enough in the eyes of the Koreans, and it has remained a bone of contention between the two countries.

What I understood from the explanatory panel next to the statue, plus the three persons talking to me, is that weekly rallies have been held outside the Japanese embassy since 1992 to demand a sincere apology from the Japanese government as well as reparations for victims. For Japan, the statue, erected across its embassy in 2011 at the 1000th rally,  has become a symbol of South Korea’s unwillingness to lay the issue to rest.

In December 2015, Japan and Korea signed an accord, compensating the victims. The victims, the few who are still alive and are registered as such, however, claim to not having once been asked what kind of compensation they want, making them feel left out and that the matter had been concluded entirely behind their backs.

Sculpture Dedicated to Korean Sex-Slaves for Japan (©photocoen)

While deeply impressed with the story as it is, it struck a deeper chord within me for personal reasons. My grandparents, mother and uncle (still young kids) lived in Indonesia during WWII (a Dutch colony at the time), and were sent to stay in concentration camps during the Japanese occupation. I remember very well the frustration of people like my grandmother for Japan not apologizing for its wrongdoings (which it finally in the 1990s).

According to the story Japan demands in this contract that the statue be removed while the Korean government claims it would never do this. What I understand is that the Koreans don’t know what or whom to believe, and that these three people here (and many more, taking turns) have now sat with the statue for over 160 days to make sure it doesn’t get removed.

Later Coen showed me a photo he had taken: on the wooden fence hangs a design of what the tower under construction will look like, including greens and pavements in front of it: the statue is conspicuously absent on this image.

Sculpture Dedicated to Korean Sex-Slaves for Japan (©photocoen)

I had heard about the unresolved sex-slave issue between the two countries but I did not know how the younger generation is still so actively fighting for the honor of their (great-) grandmothers. That was beautiful and fascinating to watch, and I wish them well.

Edited to add July 17, 2017: On July 6 the Dutch news program NOS shared this short video, the first video footage of Korean sex slaves. These 7 women were liberated by Chinese militaries in Yunnan when the Japanese soldiers withdrew from that province in 1944. The footage was found in an American archive.

All photos by Coen Wubbels.

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6 thoughts on “Korean Sex Slaves in Japan – The Battle Isn’t Over Yet

  1. Hello, Karin. My name is Tatsuya from Japan.
    I’d like you to be a objective standpoint with certain evidence.

    For Japanese people, this issue is exactly unclear. Some Japanese say it was true as Korean say, but others say it was just lie. Clearly points are there were the women who had sex with Japanese soldiers and some of them were taken with flattery.

    The problem is no one can say who did it. Who tricked that poor women? The suspects are Japanese government, Japanese soldiers and Korean agents.

    My expectation is Japanese soldiers and Korean agents did it. But I can’t prove that, because there were so many cases.Therefore this issue will go on unfortunately.

    Finally, please know this issue have kept blaming us, in spite of unclear and hard to be proved what was the truth. So we want all third countries to cooperate in solving this issue, not only hear claims of one side.

    Thank you for reading this to the end.

    • Hi, thank you for your extensive comment. Yes, obviously the Japanese will look at this issue differently. I think there are a couple of points to consider: first, I understand that Japan did apologize, even though the Koreans say it was not good enough / hollow. Either Japan didn’t do anything and there wasn’t anything to apologize for, or they did because there was some sort of wrongdoing. The apology, no matter how small or big, is a form of admitting that wrongdoings happened.
      Second, it’s not unimaginable that this happened – colonization, wars, conquest all over the world are followed by abuse of women in the conquered nation, which can take many forms and degrees. There are too many testimonies from South Korean women to conclude there is no truth in it, that it didn’t happen. To say, in your words, that Korean women were the ones who chose to have sex with Japanse soldiers – even if there may have been some among them – is an insult to all the women who were involuntarily taken by soldiers.
      Hearing two sides of the story, of course, I’d be interested if you have links to in-depth articles looking at the issue from the Japanese side of the story.
      In what way can a third party help solve this issue, do you think?

      • Hi,Karin.

        I want you be careful and think more widely.

        I’m glad that you know Japan have already apologized to Korea for this issue.
        Our record shows Japan have apologized to Korea more than 20 times including 2 Japanese
        Emperors did it. Do you rearlly think Korean aren’t satisfied with Japanese apologies?

        Anyway, as you said, Japan have already apologized to them. But they are still making
        a great fuss about this issue and erecting statues in not only Korea, but also in USA
        and Australia. So we Japanese start to give up improving the relationship with Korea.

        Who will gain a profit from this dividing? Any country in Western Bloc or?
        Don’t forget that US alliances with Japan and Korea are repugnant to some countries.

        • Japan apologized, many times you add, and has paid / is paying a lot of money to compensate the victims (mention of this issue, e.g. in this article, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2016/08/116_211867.html). Don’t put the blame on outsiders as being the dividers between Korea and Japan – we just listen, watch, and write about it. I think it’s more important, no, it’s essential, that Japanese like yourself openly acknowledge what happened, not just to the outside world but, more importantly, to yourselves, to your hearts. Only then mending can begin which is the base of preventing it ever happening again. Shit happens in every war and conflict and any oppressor has been guilty of it. The sooner the acknowledgment, the realizing wrong was done, the quicker and stronger the healing, imo.

          • So you want all Japanese to acknowledge openly that Old-Japanese army raped 200,000 Korean women in WW2? No way.

            Let me tell you Japanese government have never apologized nor acknowledge about organized kidnapping. Just about our war caused of many tragedies.

            So, you and Korea are forcing us to acknowledge the unclear kidnapping crime with only testimonies from South Korean women.

            I think it’s unfair and irreverent. How do you think?

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