SEOUL, South Korea (WOMENSENEWS)–Nestled on a hill, amid quiet residences in central Seoul, lies a small brick house called the House of Sharing. It shelters five aging Korean women who, during World War II, were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army until its defeat in 1945.

It’s been nearly 60 years since they returnedhome but these women, known as “grandmothers” in South Korea, continue to struggle withhorrifying memories.

Tears pour down the wizened cheeks of Hwang Gum Ju, 84, who still battles nightmares and excruciating loneliness. She is one of the former “comfort women,” the euphemism commonly used here to describe sex slaves. She spoke with Women’s eNews during an interview at the House of Sharing, which she gratefully acknowledges as her final resting place.

She says the day her family was duped by a broker who said he would arrange a secure job for her–and then sold her into sex slavery–is etched in her memory. “My life ended that day. I had just turned 15 years,” says Hwang, who spent her war years in Northern China.

As a result of the damage caused to her body from sex work, Hwang says, she underwent a wrenching hysterectomy that left her unable to marry. Her last hope, she says, is a dignified death, a wish that can only be fulfilled when she receives an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government.

But activists contend that desperate hope is fast disappearing.

Tokyo refuses to pay compensation or issue an apology and several lawsuits during the last few years filed against the government have failed.

Such statements, however, say activists, have only strengthened their fight for justice on the ground.

Keeping Up the Pressure on Japan

“Time is running out for them. We must keep up the pressure on Japan,” says Yoon Min-Hyang, head of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery to Japan, one of the oldest feminist organizations that provides help to the survivors.

Last week, Yoon’s group, based in Seoul, hosted an international conference to push for settlement for comfort women. In addition to human rights organizations and women’s rights groups, attendees included officials and nongovernmental advocates from countries that have survivors, which include Taiwan, the Philippines and China.

International support for the comfort women, according to activists, has been heightened by the growing concern and negative publicity about sex trafficking in Asia, which pulls tens of thousands of impoverished young girls in developing countries into prostitution. Yoon says the situation echoes the sex-slavery system of the Japanese army.

“The gross abuse of human rights of women continues,” she says. “It is only by clearing the past that we can true justice.”

Research dug out by historians on the comfort women system–whose existence the Japanese government denied for years–shows it ensnared between 100,000 to 200,000 women, mostly from the Korean peninsula, as well as China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Survivors Describe Ordeals

Survivors say they had to serve, on average, 30 men a day, endure daily beatings, starvation. They say women had their heads cut off if they fell sick or tried to escape. After the war they were destitute and many committed suicide.

Chung Yun-Hong, 87, who also lives in the House of Sharing, says she has often contemplated killing herself in desperation.

Following her tortured youth, she spent years hiding to protect herself and her family from deep-rooted discrimination in South Korea’s Confucian society, where women were expected to marry and have children.

“I decided to disclose my secret when I was 72 years old, after I was impressed by the brave decision by another comfort woman to speak out publicly,” says the thin elderly woman. “Only then could I have some peace of mind.”

For the past 12 years, every Wednesday, rain or snow, South Korea’s aging comfort women and activists gather outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, demanding an official apology.

Chung and Hwang say they have not missed a day. Dressed in the white chogori–the Korean national dress and a symbol of their lost youth and innocence–they stand patiently on the road, holding placards denouncing Japan.

Activists Focus on Providing Care

For the time being, activists say their work is now focused on providing mental and physical care for the weakened comfort women. According to activists’ surveys, there are currently 132 surviving comfort women in South Korea. All are now their 80s or 90s and heavily dependent on the care of volunteers.

Bowing to activist pressure, the South Korean government now extends medical assistance and a monthly allowance to comfort women. Donations and various campaigns run by the activists also help the survivors to keep fighting.

This month, a landmark step in their fight was the announcement of a plan by Japanese activists to establish the world’s first museum for female victims of violence and war, the Women’s Museum for War and Peace, to be completed in 2006 in Tokyo.

The museum will contain meticulous documentation of the sex slave system including the oral history of survivors. A special section will be devoted to confessions from Japanese soldiers who had committed atrocities on comfort women.

Junko Arimura, spokesperson of the Women’s Fund for Peace and Human Rights, based in Tokyo, says, “The museum is a tribute to the bravery of the former sex slaves who have endured great suffering but continue to fight for their dignity.”

Arimura, who leads the new museum project, says more than $640,000 has been raised for the project from individual donations during the past two years. Supporters include human rights lawyers, historians and activists around the world. She says the outpouring of support shows that “despite Japan’s official resistance to atoning for this crime, private citizens feel a deep sense of remorse.”

Suvendrini Kakuchi is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Tokyo. She writes on Asian issues.

For more information:

The Comfort Women Project:

Women and War
(in Korean):