Japan’s decision to compensate wartime Korean sex workers welcome, if also too late for thousands

Cesar Chelala
6 Min Read
Dr. Cesar Chelala

The Japanese government recently agreed to pay $8.7m to dozens of Korean women who were forced into sex work to serve Japanese soldiers. The payment is meant as compensation for their suffering. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his “deepest regrets” and “contrition” to the victims.

Among the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 women recruited from different countries to serve Japanese soldiers, 80% to 90% were from Korea. Girls as young as 11-years-old were forced to serve five to 40 soldiers a day, and almost 100 soldiers on weekends. Those who resisted were often beaten, burned, or wounded. The abuse was such that many women took their lives. During the Japanese retreat many were left to starve or were executed to eliminate any trace of the atrocities they were subjected to by the Japanese military.

After the end of World War II, the government of Japan had insisted that the euphemistically titled “comfort stations” were private brothels that had been administered by private citizens external to Japanese involvement. Only in 1993 did the government admit that the Japanese military had been “directly or indirectly” involved in establishment and operation of prostitution houses and in the trafficking of enforced sex workers.

The first Korean former sex worker to tell her story was Bae Bong Ki in 1980. Another sex worker, Kim Hak Soon, who died in 1997, related how she was abducted by Japanese soldiers when she was 17-years old, and forced to carry ammunition by day and serve as a sex worker at night. Her testimony sparked several other testimonies by women who were obliged to work as sex slaves in military prostitution stations. Evidence of the stations had already been found in the Koreas, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, New Guinea and Okinawa.

One of the most illustrative accounts of forced sex labour in Korea is provided by Chung Seo Woon in her book Making More Waves (Beacon Press, Boston, 1997). Chung was an only child, born in Korea, to the family of a wealthy landowner. Because of his activities against colonial rule, her father was sent to prison and badly tortured. When she was 16 she was allowed to visit her father. The same Japanese official who allowed her to see her father later came to her house. He told her that if she went to work in Japan for two years her father would be released. Despite strong objections from her mother, she agreed to accept his offer.

Chung was placed on a ship with many other girls and women. She was hopeful that at the end of the two years her father would be released from prison, as she had been told by the officer. After being taken to Japan, the women were relocated to several other countries. After reaching Jakarta, Chung and the other women were taken to a hospital where they underwent a sterilisation procedure.

The group was then taken to Semarang, a coastal city in Indonesia, and placed in military barracks where they were forced into sex work. During the course of her imprisonment and enforced sex work, Chung became addicted to opium and attempted to commit suicide, by swallowing malaria pills.

Two of Chung’s friends reported her attempted suicide to authorities, and she was revived.

“It was then that I made up my mind to survive and tell my story, what Japan did to us”, Chung says in her book.

When the war ended and she returned home, she found her house deserted. From neighbours who came to help her she learned that her father had died while in prison. Her mother, humiliated by the Japanese soldiers’ attempt to rape her, had committed suicide.

Chung decided to rid herself of her opium addiction, a process that took eight months. Despite attempts to readjust to society, she was never able to attain a normal sex life. However, she found companionship and care from a physician who had had a nervous breakdown after serving in the Japanese Army.

In 1993, the Japanese government issued a formal apology to sex workers without admitting that the military enslaved the women.

In November of 1994, an International Commission of Jurists stated that: “It is indisputable that these women were forced, deceived, coerced and abducted to provide sexual services to the Japanese military . . . [Japan] violated customary norms of international law concerning war crimes, crimes against humanity, slavery and the trafficking in women and children . . . Japan should take full responsibility now, and make suitable restitution to the victims and their families.”

Japan has made the right decision by apologising and financially compensating the remaining victims of abuse by Japanese soldiers. However, the gesture only renders partial justice to the Korean sex workers of World War II. There are tens of thousands of Korean women who are not alive to claim it.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.

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Cesar Chelala, MD, PhD, is an international public health consultant who has conducted health-related missions in over 50 countries worldwide. He is also a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.
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