The beatings Lee Ok-seon endured in three years of sexual enslavement to Japanese troops during World War II left her nearly deaf from blows to the head, with speech slurred from missing teeth and scars on various parts of her body.
So she was shocked to hear the Japanese prime minister say last week that there was no proof that she and other so-called “comfort women” had been coerced into prostitution.
The proof, she says, is all over her body.
“They took away other people’s young daughters only to beat them to death, make them sick to death and starve them to death,” said Lee, now 79. “And now they say there was no coercion in taking us. How evil are they?”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was commenting on a proposed resolution before the U.S. House of Representatives that urges Japan to formally apologize for its wartime brothels.
‘We will not offer a fresh apology’
Japan acknowledged in the 1990s that its military set up and ran brothels for its troops. But it has rejected most compensation claims, saying they were settled by postwar treaties. And though the government issued an apology in 1993, it was never approved by parliament.
Abe said Monday there is no need for Japan to apologize again, and his government made it clear Wednesday that it was sticking to that position.
“The U.S. resolution is not based on objective facts and does not take into consideration the responses that we have taken so far. Therefore, we will not offer a fresh apology,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki.
He said, however, that Tokyo still honors the earlier apology. “The prime minister’s recent remarks are not meant to change this government’s position,” he said.
No military involvement, Japan insists
Historians say thousands of girls and women in Asia — as many as 200,000 by some accounts — were kidnapped and forced into providing sex for Japanese troops during World War II.
But prominent Japanese scholars and politicians routinely deny direct military involvement or the use of force in rounding up the women, blaming private contractors for any abuses. The government also has questioned the figure of 200,000 women.
In South Korea, only 113 of the former sex slaves are still alive. A shelter has been set up for them in Gwangju, 30 miles south of Seoul, where Lee lives with eight other women.
For years, the women have staged weekly rallies at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, demanding an apology and compensation from Tokyo.
Abe’s comments have incensed critics in China, North and South Korea, and the Philippines who have demanded Japan acknowledge its responsibility.
‘The worst flesh traffic’
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing on Tuesday called the use of sex slaves “one of the serious crimes committed by Japanese militarists during the second world war,” and urged Tokyo to “stand up to this part of history, take responsibility and seriously view and properly handle this issue.”
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday called the military brothels “the worst flesh traffic in the 20th century.”
“No matter how desperately the Japanese authorities may try to whitewash the crime-woven past of Japan and cover up the crimes related to the ’comfort women’ ... they are historical facts that Japan can neither sidestep nor deny,” it said in a statement.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry has expressed “strong regret” over Abe’s remarks, accusing Tokyo of trying to gloss over its wartime past.
Opposition lawmakers in Japan have also urged Abe to issue a clear acknowledgment of the military’s role in coercing women to work in the brothels and apologize to victims again.
“Japan must have the courage to face up to the truth ... that Japan caused much suffering as victimizers,” Yukio Hatoyama, head of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, told a meeting of opposition lawmakers and residents in Tokyo.
“Abe is showing his true colors ... and leading Japan in a dangerous direction,” Hatoyama said.
Recalls enslavement at 15
Lee said she was abducted in July 1942 in the southern city of Ulsan. Two large men snatched her off the street in broad daylight as she was on her way to the restaurant where she worked. She kicked and screamed, to no avail.
Just 15 at the time, she was thrown into a truck with five Korean girls of about the same age and taken by train to Yanji in northeastern China, which was occupied by Japan. There, she said she was confined to a brothel and forced to “serve as many soldiers as we can to pay them back for providing us clothes and food.”
A woman might have sex with as many as 30 soldiers a day. Typically, she was in a 40-square-foot room furnished with a wooden bed and a hard mattress, according to replica at the museum in Gwangju. Often the only other object was a tin basin, dimly lit by a single bulb.
Women who refused to comply were beaten and stabbed, Lee said, showing scars on her right arm and foot. She said she nearly went deaf from blows to the head and lost several of her lower front teeth. Her injuries include a weakened uterus that had to be removed.
Beatings, starvation killed women
Many women died, if not from the beatings then from starvation, she said, and their bodies were tossed out on the streets “to be eaten by dogs.” One of her friends at the brothel became pregnant and the baby was taken away at birth, never to be seen by its mother again.
After the war ended, the stigma stayed with the women.
Like many former sex slaves, Moon Pil-ki said she couldn’t even think of marrying because she was so ashamed of her past.
“It wasn’t my fault, but still I was shameful,” Moon said. “Do you know how much it hurts to have your whole youth stolen? They made us all cripples.”
“If I ever see Abe, I want to slap him, and knock some sense into his head.”