Last month, the first video footage of the Japanese military’s sexual slaves was discovered in the US National Archives after a two-year effort led by researchers from Seoul National University. The seventeen-second silent film shows seven Korean women enslaved in China’s Yunnan Province in 1944, being interrogated by a Chinese officer following Japan’s retreat from the area.
The women stand in a row, hair pulled back, wearing shift dresses and wraps and holding onto themselves or each other for support. Young Chinese soldiers peer into the frame, smiling for the camera, but the women look down, except for one who briefly answers the officer’s questions. Several glance warily at the filmmaker, as if suspicious of the further uses of their bodies. One woman stares directly at the camera. Years later, her gaze still accuses.
Like the woman in the film, survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery — known in Korea as halmoni, or “grandmother” — have, since the 1990s, insisted on their right to accuse, to tell, and to be heard. In what is now the longest running weekly protest rally in world history, halmoni and their supporters are still demanding a full reckoning of the numerous state and military institutions that physically abused women and repressed or misdirected their stories.
A few weeks ago, Kim Kun-Ja, one of the last halmoni, passed away at the age of ninety-one. There are only thirty-seven known survivors still alive.
During its wars of imperial expansion between 1932 and 1945 — collectively known as the Pacific Wars, and encompassing World War II — Japan followed a policy of wartime mobilization, and forced conscription of laborers, factory workers, and sexual slaves in the countries under its control. Colonized by Japan since 1910, Koreans were already prohibited from speaking their language or using Korean names, and were subject to colonial surveillance. Now they became the largest population of forced conscripts for the Japanese military.
With the aid of Korean collaborators and what would today be called traffickers, the Japanese military kidnapped, abducted, and forcibly enslaved more than two hundred thousand Korean women, along with smaller numbers of Chinese, Southeast Asian, and interned Dutch women, to serve in “comfort stations” that provided sexual services for their soldiers.
“Comfort stations” were of course nothing of the sort. To underscore the belligerent intent, condoms distributed to Japanese soldiers were branded with the phrase “Assault #1.”
Kim Kun-Ja was seventeen years old when she was lured to northeastern China and forced to serve in a comfort station in Hunchan. Young women like Kim were often promised a well-paying factory or restaurant job by recruiters, only to be violently coerced into military sexual slavery.
Comfort stations dotted the Asia Pacific region, from Japan and Korea to China’s eastern seaboard, Taiwan, and the island countries of Southeast Asia. Each woman was assigned a small room, usually in a requisitioned school building, that contained just a futon and washbasin, and she was surveilled at all hours by armed guards.
Kim told interviewers that she was forced to sexually service up to forty men per day. Historical documents and testimonies — as well as Japanese soldiers’ diaries — reveal that this was the case at many comfort stations. Survivors and witnesses describe soldiers standing in long lines outside the buildings, waiting their turn.
“Comfort women” endured beatings, cigarette burns, and all varieties of violence soldiers felt like inflicting. Weekly, they were screened for sexually transmitted infections in order to protect the soldiers’ health and fighting capacity.
Kim suffered a permanent injury in one of her ears because of the beatings, caught several sexually transmitted infections, and had one pregnancy and abortion. She attempted suicide seven times during her enslavement.
After Japan’s defeat in 1945, women in comfort stations were usually abandoned or murdered by retreating Japanese soldiers. Those who did find their way home weren’t always welcomed back.
As many feminist scholars have argued, Korean patriarchal customs colored perceptions of survivors: women sexually abused by the Japanese were seen as “defiled,” shameful symbols of Korea’s national impotence. Turning women’s personal stories of trauma into Korean state narratives of disgrace further silenced survivors. Most either could not tell their families or could not return home.
Kim walked for thirty-seven days before reaching her home village. After she arrived, her teenage sweetheart committed suicide when his parents forbid their marriage. When their young child died, Kim was left to live alone.
In the 1980s, spurred by the democratization movement that eventually toppled a series of US-backed dictatorships, Korean women activists and feminist academics began investigating Japanese military sexual slavery.
In 1990, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan formed as an umbrella organization of different feminist groups. The following year, Kim Hak-Soon became the first survivor to publicly tell her story of enslavement; since her testimony, 238 other women have publicly identified themselves as former sexual slaves. Kim Kun-Ja told her story in 2007.
Before the early 1990s, rape wasn’t taken seriously as an international human rights issue or listed by the United Nations as distinct from general war crimes. But with the new international attention to wartime gender violence — a product of mass sexual violence in the Bosnian wars — the effort in Korea to seek redress and recognition was given new momentum.
Since 1992, the Korean Council has sponsored weekly Wednesday Demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. To this day, they provide counseling and medical services to survivors, host the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul, and run the House of Sharing, a shelter for survivors where Kim Kun-Ja lived. The Korean Council’s research program painstakingly documents the sexual slavery system, using multiple sources and archives, so no one can deny its existence.
State Violence Cannot Be Resolved by the State
The Japanese government hasn’t taken kindly to the spotlight on sexual abuses. After the first public accusations, Japan claimed that women like Kim Hak-Soon and Kim Kun-Ja were voluntary prostitutes, not “comfort women.” The lack of postwar international attention to the issue aided this whitewashing, as did the United States’ decision not to prosecute Japan for international war crimes.
The South Korean state has also aided in the partial silencing of survivors. Since the 1990s, the government has deployed the “comfort women” issue to stoke patriotism and anti-Japanese sentiment. As activist-scholar Lee Na-Young has pointed out, an insistence on having Japan “tell the truth” has turned the issue into one between Korean and Japanese men, and stripped agency from women themselves. Instrumentalizing women’s stories has helped cement gender inequality in Korea, while obscuring Korean collaborators’ active cooperation in the women’s enslavement.
A focus on demonizing the Japanese has also obscured the links between rape, war, modern-day prostitution, and sex tourism in East Asia. After 1945, the defeated Japanese turned over their comfort stations to the United States, which maintained military occupations in both Japan and South Korea. These comfort stations and designated prostitution districts grew into systems of state-regulated prostitution and eventually the Korean gijichon, or camptown, which still sits next to every US military base in Korea. This overlapping history created an unequal, sexualized, and often violent landscape for both Korean and Japanese women during the Korean War and beyond.
In 1995, in a bid to appease Japanese and Korean activists, Japan established the Asian Women’s Fund, which provided reparations for survivors. But most activists and survivors bitterly rejected it as a palliative, arguing that the fund’s nonprofit status and emphasis on Japan’s moral responsibility rather than legal culpability made it an incomplete and partial response. Most also refused the reparations payments.
In 2015, the Japanese and South Korean governments reached another agreement, this one calling on Japan to set up a government fund to care for the women. Then-president Park Geun-Hye, a conservative, described the accord as a “final and irreversible resolution.” But the survivors and their representatives were not included in the negotiations — and Japan still did not admit legal culpability. Activists angrily denounced it. For women like Kim Kun-Ja, a “final and irreversible resolution” was never a possibility.
The country’s incoming president, Moon Jae-In, has signaled a more liberal stance toward the issue, with Gender Equality and Family Minister Chung Huyn-back promising to help obtain UNESCO World Heritage status for documents proving the existence of Japanese military sexual slavery.
This would be a welcome development, but activists and survivors are by now wary of state efforts to speak for survivors. Instead, activists insist on the importance of halmoni telling the stories themselves.
Yell So They Can Hear Us
Every Wednesday morning for the past twenty-five years, a crowd of Korean Council activists, women survivors, and supporters has assembled outside the Japanese embassy in central Seoul. Launched in 1992 to demand an official apology and legal reparations, the Wednesday Demonstration has expanded into a space where supporters and survivors call for global peace and continue to demand recognition, reparations, and reckoning.
By now, the Wednesday Demonstration is a highly ritualized affair. There is a flatbed truck for a stage and full sound system, mats for sitting, and a team of volunteer organizers with bright yellow vests distributing flyers and butterfly-shaped placards, the movement’s symbol of women breaking free of their agony. Uniformed schoolchildren with handmade signs mingle with a group of nuns and a small corps of journalists as they settle in front of the stage. A DJ plays the movement’s signature song, “Like a Rock.”
The cheerfulness of the protest belies the threat it represents. The Japanese embassy closes each week during the hour-long demonstration, and South Korean police buses are planted permanently in front of the walled and guarded embassy. A police line shows up every week to cordon off the protest area. At the end of the rally, the crowd turns to face the embassy and is urged to “yell so they can hear us in there!”
At the center of the demonstration is a golden bronze statue of a barefoot Korean girl in traditional dress. She sits in a chair, clenching her fists and staring in uncompromising indictment at the Japanese embassy across the street. A bird rests on her shoulder — a symbol of peace — and behind her, the sculpted shadow of an older, hunched halmoni stretches long.
There is an empty chair next to her. You can sit and stare in solidarity at the embassy. You can sit and take a selfie. You can sit and hold her hand. You can sit and yell, since she is a statue and must remain silent.
Designed to commemorate the one-thousandth Wednesday Demonstration on December 14, 2011, the statue has become the symbolic touchstone of the struggle for recognition and reckoning. Several times, Japan has demanded that the statue be removed. Instead, activists continue to congregate around her and tend to her: they dress her in warm hats, scarves, mittens, and blankets during the winter, they leave flowers and small gifts at her feet in the summer.
At the front, under a canopy with an electric fan, there are usually several halmoni. They smile at the protest, clap for the songs, periodically touch hands. At the end of the hour the halmoni receive protesters who want to pay their respects and pose for photographs.
Until her death, Kim Kun-Ja attended these weekly demonstrations.
From the start, the movement for recognition and redress has been led by the halmoni and directed by their testimonies. The Korean Council activists, feminists, and scholars have sought to center the testimony of the halmoni and recognize the personal and political importance of attending to their stories of abduction, sexual torture, and enforced silence. In telling their own stories, the halmoni make their experience and pain central, and make it their own to tell.
At the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul, a project of the Korean Council, visitors are given an entrance card with a woman’s picture and story to guide them through their journey. Statistics and numbers alone, the museum insists, will not tell the greater truth of military sexual slavery. We need to pay attention to the particularity, pain, and resilience of each woman’s story: we need to know their names. Park Ok-Lyon. Lee Soo-San. Park Ok-Seon. Kim Soon-Ok. Gong Jeem-Yup. Park Du-Ri. Kim Hak-Soon. Lee Ok-Sun. Mardiyam. Jan Ruff-O’Hare. Tsai Fang Mi. Han Oo-Soo. And many more.
The museum’s architecture guides you through the emotional and historical landscape each halmoni experienced as a young woman. Paintings and drawings by halmoni detailing their experience line the walls.
The museum takes you first down the gravel road of abduction to the confined basement, eventually moving upward toward a skylit staircase and opening out onto a history of protest and a wall of filmed testimonies. The brick walls of the staircase are inscribed with the words of women’s testimonies, in Korean, English, Chinese. Storytelling, in other words, pulls visitors out of the basement.
As they piece together their own memories, the halmoni also refuse the many state powers that seek to silence them or channel their testimony toward different ends: Japan’s disavowal, postwar Korean culture’s emphasis on defilement and blame, recent South Korean narratives that see military sexual slavery as only an insult to national pride.
The halmoni and their activist supporters refuse to let the story be just about the Pacific Wars, or just about Korean pride and Japanese aggression. Theirs is part of an international struggle against gender violence in conflict zones. Special exhibits at the museum give voice to Vietnamese women raped by South Korean soldiers fighting alongside the United States during the Vietnam War. The Butterfly Fund, started by halmoni Kim Bok-Dong and Gil Won-Ok, sends money to women and children in conflict areas around the world.
Testimony alone cannot prevent wartime sexual violence, but it is the first step toward real reckoning. The history of military sexual slavery shows how sexual violence is intrinsic to state conflict and state building, evidence that women’s bodies become battlegrounds for the devastation of war as well as the patriotism of postwar reconstruction.
In insisting on telling their own stories in their own ways — as drawings, as testimony, as a broken series of memories, as an accusing stare into a camera — the halmoni reject both these further uses of their bodies and their stories. There may be no resolution, but their words urge us all to seek one.
“How bitter a life I shall live! Bring my youth back.”
“I want to be a hope for women suffering from the same pain to mine.”
“It’s like a wild dream that I’ve survived. It’s too wild a nightmare to be called a dream.”