This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
On June 9, outside of Seoul, 91-year-old Bae Chun-hui took her last gasp of air at the House of Sharing, a communal home established for former “comfort women” in South Korea to live out their remaining years in peace.
Bae was kidnapped at the age of 19 and taken to Manchuria, where she was forced into sexual slavery until the end of the Second World War.
Not only did Bae die without achieving justice. In her final days, she also witnessed Japan’s shameful efforts to wash its hands of war crimes that its military committed against an estimated 200,000 women and girls from throughout Asia during the Pacific wars of the 1930s and ’40s.
Bae was among the Korean women who spoke out after the former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun broke her silence in 1991 and publicly recounted her abduction and sexual torture by Japanese soldiers. In her testimony, Kim painfully recalled: “A commissioned officer took me to the next room which was partitioned off by a cloth. Even though I did not want to go he dragged me into the room. I resisted but he tore off all of my clothes and in the end he took my virginity. That night, the officer raped me twice.”
Kim lifted the floodgates for other Korean women to come forward. Burmese, Chinese, Japanese, Filipina, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Pacific Islander women verified that their experiences were not isolated, but were the outcome of a systematic, well-organized government program to establish “comfort stations” for Japanese soldiers throughout Asia and the Pacific.
The Japanese government has vigorously resisted calls to repent for its actions. But a growing global movement is ensuring that if Japan won’t hold itself to account for its grievous crimes against these women, then history will.
In 1991, three Korean comfort women filed a lawsuit in Tokyo demanding an official apology from the Japanese government, to which Japan responded that there was no proof verifying their stories. These women, many of whom had lived their entire lives in shame and in isolation from their families, had risked everything to challenge the state’s official narrative.
They were finally vindicated when Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi scoured the Japanese Defense Ministry’s library and uncovered documents bearing the personal seals of Imperial Army officers that outlined the military’s direct management of the so-called comfort stations.
The groundswell of testimonies and official historical evidence forced the Japanese government to respond. In 1993, following an official review, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged his government’s role in organizing military brothels and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery—an admission that became known as the Kono Statement. “Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities,” he said. Women and girls “were recruited against their own will” and “lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.”