Bundled up against the frigid winds and a temperature of 3°F, survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery, also known as the "comfort women," gathered on Jan. 13 for their 900th Wednesday protest held outside of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea.
The women (or halmoni, the word for grandmother in Korean, as the woman are euphemistically called) have been protesting every Wednesday since Jan. 8, 1992. At the 900th protest, Kang Il Chul, Yi Ok Seon, Pak Ok Seon, and Gil Won Ok were the four surviving halmoni to attend.
Also in attendance were representatives from Amnesty International, the Korean Women's Association United, the House of Sharing, and people from Korea, Japan, and other nations who came to lend support to the halmoni.
Hiromi Ui, a Japanese woman in attendance, protests weekly with the halmoni and volunteers at the House of Sharing, a home for 9 of the surviving comfort women.
"Whether or not it's the 900th protest it doesn't matter to me," Ui stated. "It's important as a Japanese woman to be here week after week. I come here every week. Today is no different."
In a speech, Jude Lee from the House of Sharing called for the punishment of surviving war criminals, compensation for the halmoni, and education to prevent the recurrence of gender-based crimes in Asia and other regions of the world. She expressed her particular concern with the human trafficking of Filipina women, who are being sexually subjugated in US military zones in Korea.
Japanese military sexual slavery had its roots as early as 1932 during the conflict between Japan and China in Shanghai. The estimated 50,000 to 200,000 comfort women who served as sex slaves came from territories occupied by Japan prior to and during World War II, but most came from Korea, which Japan officially annexed in 1910.
Japanese soldiers seized many of the women forcibly through violence or coercion. At the numerous comfort stations scattered throughout Asia, soldiers and officers raped the women from 10 to 30 times per day. Physical abuse was rampant, with soldiers often beating the women to the point of unconsciousness, branding them with hot irons, or cutting them with swords.
On top of the physical abuse, the majority of the women acquired infections and sexually transmitted diseases. Those who became pregnant were administered arsenic-based drugs to abort the fetuses, a process that rendered many of the women infertile.
In 1991, Kim Hak-sun became the first of the comfort women to share her story with the world. Shortly thereafter, 35 war victims from Korea, including Kim and two other comfort women, filed a class action lawsuit demanding reparations from the Japanese government. Japan denied responsibility for the occurrence of military sexual slavery.
Following Kim Hak-sun's courageous decision to "come out," many more former comfort women stepped up to share their stories publically. One of the women, Yi Ok-Sun, was snatched off of the street as a young girl and taken to China to work as a laborer before being forced to serve in a comfort station. She spent 58 years of her life in China and returned to Korea in 2000. Soon after she offered her testimonial and has participated in the Wednesday protests ever since.
At the 900th demonstration, Yi-Ok Sun expressed her frustrations with the Japanese government.
"We think that the Japanese government should just apologize as soon as possible because we were so young when we were drafted. We didn't know anything, but who took our dignity? Who took our honor? Who stole a 15-year-old girl's chastity?"
"Even today the Japanese government keeps denying its involvement," Yi-Ok Sun added. "It's just common sense. When someone commits a crime, they should apologize for it if they are human beings. But the Japanese government keeps denying their involvement in setting up this system. I think it's really unfair, and I feel very wronged."
Yi-Ok Sun is optimistic that an apology will come this year, in light of recently passed ordinances in 15 cities and localities calling for the Japanese government to support the women.
Another halmoni, Kang-Il Chul, was abducted at the age of 16 and was forced to serve in a comfort station in Manchuria. After contracting typhoid, the Japanese military sent her to be cremated with the bodies of fallen war victims. She was subsequently saved by Korean independent fighters.
An energetic woman in her early eighties, Kang-Il Chul was adamant in her demand for an apology and reparations from the Japanese government.
"I delivered my testimony at the Women's International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery in 2000 and two former Japanese soldiers gave testimony that there were comfort stations," Kang-Il Chul stated. "Those soldiers said that they took part in this too and that they went to the comfort stations. Yet the Japanese government still denies it and calls us liars. We don't lie!"
When asked about what Korea's current conservative government is doing to address the issue, Kang Il-Chul responded with a frustrated moan. "What the hell are they doing? The parties are doing nothing but fighting among themselves in the national assembly. They are wasting time when they should be setting history straight."
"The president (Lee Myung-bak) is voted for by the people," Kang Il-Chul added. "He should be working for us. If he can't settle this issue, he should step down."
Today there are only 89 registered survivors of Japanese Military sexual slavery in South Korea. In 2009, five halmoni passed away without receiving a direct, formal apology or reparations.
The international community has called on Japan several times to resolve the comfort women issue. A United Nations report in 1996 highlighted Japan's numerous violations of customary international law in establishing the comfort stations. In 2007 House Resolution 121 from the United States called for a formal, clear, and unequivocal apology. In 2008 the United Nations Human Rights Committee called upon the Japanese to accept legal responsibility and apologize for its system of military sexual slavery in an acceptable way that restores the dignity of the women.
Angela Lytle, a volunteer at the House of Sharing and a feminist research associate at the Centre for Women's Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, offered her words of encouragement and admiration to the halmoni during the demonstration.
"Halmoni, your strength, zest and humor inspires women around the world to know their own strength. You are not alone - women throughout time and place have endured what you endured. It is time for the world to change, and you are helping make that happen."
The aspiration of Lytle and so many of the halmoni's supporters is that Japan's stance will shift before the remaining halmoni pass away with their wishes for justice unrealized and their hopes for humanity shattered. Until then, they will continue to demonstrate every Wednesday.