At this time a year ago, I was in the midst of coping with the end of my schooling years, the impending doom of adulthood creeping up on me as I hurriedly prepared for my upcoming year in South Korea. I knew very little about Korea, especially the recent history of this peninsula and its mother continent, and I began to realize how much knowledge I was about to acquire in the next year. This past weekend was one of the most special realizations of this gap of knowledge, and seriously put into perspective the triviality of those “young adult” worries.

Korea has a tumultuous recent history, due in large part to the Japanese occupation from 1910-1945. During the later years of occupation, falling under the time of WWII, the Japanese military systematically set up euphemistically named “Comfort Stations” throughout their occupied territories all over southeast Asia, which served as brothels for its soldiers. It was in these stations where women placed under sex slavery lived, to service soldiers wherever they were stationed. Impoverished women—as young as 14 years old—from all over southeast Asia (and a very large percentage from Korea) were either kidnapped or told they were being given factory jobs in a different occupied country, and placed at Comfort Stations for as long as 7-8 years.

Photo in the museum of Korean Comfort Women, taken by American soldiers at a refugee camp, during or right after WWII.

They were specifically removed from their home countries so that they could not run away, and were severely punished or killed if they attempted to escape. They were raped 30-50 times per day by Japanese soldiers, and many died from venereal disease or injury. The women were commonly given injections of Mercury 606 to rid them of STIs, and it often forced hysterectomies or worse upon their bodies. It is estimated that 200,000 Korean women were abducted to serve as sex slaves, and they were transported to other countries such as Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, China, and more. Later in life most were unable to conceive children, if they survived the comfort station system. Each woman’s freedom, livelihood, and future was stolen in a systematically organized system run by the Japanese military, in a continent where shame and sexual purity are deeply engrained, major components of the culture.

Map depicting one Comfort Woman’s forced movement throughout SE Asia from Korea; sex trafficking.

On Sunday I visited Nanum, the Museum of Sexual Slavery by Japanese Military, and the House of Sharing, located in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, which educates its visitors on the history of and the current issues surrounding Comfort Stations. It also serves as a welfare home for the surviving Comfort Women, affectionately called “halmonie,” which literally means “grandmother” in Korean, who participate in therapeutic art classes, meeting visitors, and sharing their stories. It was the most disheartening yet inspiring day I have had in Korea thus far, and shed light on an incredibly important issue about which I knew nothing. This is also the only museum in the world solely dedicated to sex trafficking.

Since 1992, only 234 former Comfort Women have been brave enough to come forth about their pain-stricken lives, despite living in a highly conservative country, and have identified themselves to the Korean government. It is estimated that there are more still living, but are too ashamed to come forward. Many of the Comfort Women stayed in the countries in which they were enslaved for over 20 years, unable to find a way to return to Korea or afraid of the shame they would bring upon their families. But the biggest crime of all is the way Comfort Women are regarded by the Japanese government today.

Photos of halmonies who have come forward; some have recently passed away.

Every Wednesday since 1995, the halmonies and their allies have gathered at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to protest the lack of acknowledgement by the Japanese on the topic of Comfort Stations during WWII and the women who inhabited them. They recently held their 1000th protest. In the early 1990s, the issues surrounding Comfort Women began to surface in Korea, when the first former sex slave went public about her past. Although the Japanese government destroyed most documentation of the highly organized Comfort Station system, Japanese professors were able to find photographs and documents proving their existence. More and more women began to come forth after that, and demand official apologies from the Japanese government. On the issue of Comfort Stations and Comfort Women, the museum explained to us that the Japanese government and public are very much divided on this issue, and that the majority of visitors to their museum are actually from Japan.

Copies of documents from the Japanese military outlining the organization of the Comfort Station system.

There were plaques explaining the stories and experiences of all the halmonies living at the House of Sharing. Incredibly moving and deeply infuriating.

The surviving halmonies, many in their late 70s or 80s, and the NGOs that support them, have seven demands. They are:

  1. Admit the drafting of the Japanese military’s “comfort women”
  2. Apologize officially
  3. Reveal truths about the war crimes
  4. Erect memorial tablets for the victims
  5. Pay restitution to the victims or their families directly from the government
  6. Teach the truth in public schools, so the events are never again repeated
  7. Punish the war criminals

Until this point, as was explained by the museum, Japanese officials believe that enough recognition was given in a bilateral claims treaty signed in 1965. The government today filters their monetary donations through private organizations, but refuses to give money directly from the government. They reject the halmonies’ testimonies that they were forcibly sent to the comfort stations, and insist these women were volunteers or prostitutes. It is also hardly included in the curriculum at Japanese public schools. The halmonies feel incredibly betrayed by the government of their neighboring country. This lack of apology or acknowledgement is what drives these women to the embassy each Wednesday, with posters and chanting.

Part of a Comfort Station replica. The wooden plaques have the names of Comfort Women on them, and they were turned over if the women had venereal diseases.

After an informative, guided tour through the museum by young volunteers, we were able to meet with several of the former Comfort Women in a common room at the House of Sharing. They were cheerful and eager to meet us, and passionately described their demands for apologies for the suffering they endured. They spoke with firmness in their voices and deep anger at the pain they had endured, and one woman became so angered her lips were quivering and you could truly see the sadness and pain in her eyes.

Sunday’s experience reminded me of the fact that sex slavery is still a billion-dollar, worldwide industry today, that manages to function and operate in a highly systematized, organized manner. Although a complex issue that cannot be solved with one piece of legislation or treaty, spreading the word and education is critical to the eradication of sexual slavery.

The passionate halmonies, with one of the amazing volunteers. (He even gave my friends and I a ride home!)

We each had a chance to interact with the halmonies, express our gratitude for their bravery, and hold their hands. It was a beautiful experience.

Paintings made by the halmonies depicting their struggles and emotions. It’s a beautiful way for them to cope with the pain, and also spread information about their issue.

When I returned to school this morning, I realized that the kidnapped women were the same age as my bright, energetic, and altruistic students, who still have so much living to do. The halmonies’ lives were stolen from them, and this is the biggest crime of all.

Gorgeous memorial in the museum with gifts from visitors from all over the world, including thousands of paper cranes from Japan.

Some paper cranes and artistic gifts from visitors.

Memorial statues outside the museum.

For information on visiting the museum and the House of Sharing, call: +82-(0)31-768-0064, click:, and check their page. The next English tour is on Sunday the 14th of  April. .

Words and pictures by Julia Bass.

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