Seoul, South Korea – Lee Yong-soo was 14 years old in 1942, when she was dragged away from her home and family by Japanese soldiers, to become a sex slave at what the military euphemistically called a “comfort station”.
“I am definitely here. I am a victim for certain,” she told Al Jazeera.
But today, the reality of Lee’s experiences, and those of other women who worked in the stations, has come increasingly under attack.
A recent essay by Harvard Law Professor J Mark Ramseyer, “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” asserted that the women were rational actors choosing relatively positive outcomes based on game theory.
Ramseyer is the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. Mitsubishi, one of Japan’s largest conglomerates, is the defendant in dozens of lawsuits before South Korean courts demanding compensation for forced labour during and prior to World War II.
Following the digital publication of Ramseyer’s work in late 2020, a deluge of criticism forced the journal, The International Review of Law and Economics, to issue an “Expression of Concern”, informing readers that they would share more information following their investigation. Prominent historians have attacked the quality of his research and sources, with petitions – reportedly signed by thousands of academics around the world – demanding the paper’s retraction.
Some of the women went voluntarily and some of the local population assisted in the trafficking of the girls. But, according to most sources, between 50,000 and as many as 400,000 young women were coerced or kidnapped into sexual slavery in a process that was largely managed by the Japanese imperial army.
Some 200,000 came from Korea. But the women also came from other occupied territories including the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
What some critics of Ramseyer’s work have found especially egregious, is the characterisation of a 10-year-old girl as consenting to be a sex worker for the Japanese military in Borneo, and in making that decision, “knew what the job entailed”. Ramseyer also writes, “hers was not a story either of paternal oppression or of sexual slavery.”
The book he referenced is described by its publisher as “the life of one such prostitute … persuaded as a child of ten to accept cleaning work in Sandakan, North Borneo, and then forced to work as a prostitute in a Japanese brothel.”
The question is whether or not the women volunteered.
“Most of them were tricked into believing that they were going to get a job overseas,” Professor Andrew Kim, an expert in Korean culture and social change at Korea University, told Al Jazeera. “That they were going to be earning money to send home. That they were going to eat well and be studying. So if they were tricked into going, could we say that they went there voluntarily?”
As the decades have passed the issue has become highly charged, and has affected relations between Japan and South Korea.
“Both sides politicise the whole issue,” Kim said. “We cannot just fault the Japanese, because the Korean government also plays this anti-Japanese card whenever it feels it’s advantageous for public approval.”
On January 8, a South Korean court awarded $90,000 in damages to 12 comfort women for Japan’s “crime against humanity,” and the “unimaginable, extreme, psychological and physical pain suffered by the victims,” as Judge Kim Jeong-gon put it in his ruling.
Lee Yong-soo has spoken frequently of her experience since 1992. She was the first to offer her testimony to a 2007 Congressional hearing in the United States.
“I could see a Japanese soldier inside the room so I said, ‘I am not going in,'” she told the hearing. “I am not going in but they held me like this, and they just dragged me inside the room. The room had a big lock, and they put me in there. They kicked me, and they had sticks they beat me with. They even had a knife. They put it here, and they wrapped something around my wrists, and at that point, I remember I screamed out, ‘‘Mom, Mom.’’ I screamed out, and right now, right now I can hear that sound ringing in my ears.”
Lee also described being subjected to electric shocks and torture at the hands of her Japanese captors, and told of being physically abused and raped by as many as 40 Japanese soldiers a day for three years.
Her 2007 testimony was supported by two other survivors of sexual slavery.
Jan Ruff-O’Herne was in a Japanese prison camp on the Indonesian island of Java, and became one of the hundreds of colonial Dutch young women to endure sexual servitude. She was chosen, at 19, and taken from her missionary family to a brothel.
Ruff-O’Herne, a virgin, said she was raped on the first night.
“I gathered up what was left of my clothing and fled into the bathroom,” she said. “There I found some of the other girls … in shock … I tried to wash away all the dirt and shame of my body. Just wash it away. Just wash it away. But the night was not over yet. There were more Japanese waiting, and this went on all night. It was only the beginning.”
In her testimony Kim Koon-ja did not use the word rape: “I was lying there naked. I did not even have time to put my clothes back on. And another soldier came in … I was just lying there as if I was dead. I do not even remember how many … I lost consciousness … And the soldiers, they still came.”
Kim also told Congress she had attempted suicide.
In response to their testimonies, Shinzo Abe, Japanese prime minister at the time, responded that “there was no coercion.”
Kim died in 2017. O’Herne two years later.
Lee herself is 92 and one of fewer than 20 registered South Korean comfort women who remain alive today. With so few women left to speak for themselves, it is increasingly the academics, campaigners and politicians who are framing the debate about what happened during the war years.
On March 1 each year, South Koreans remember the day in 1919 when Koreans across the peninsula declared independence and rose up against Japanese colonial rule. More than 7,000 were killed and 50,000 jailed. It was not until the end of the second world war that Korea was able to free itself of Japan’s colonial rule, which had begun in 1910.
This week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke of the need for Seoul and Tokyo to move beyond their tragic history. But first, he said, must come a lesson by “looking squarely at the past”.
Previous South Korean governments have reached agreements with Japan for its conduct during the war. In 1965, Tokyo paid some $500m in compensation with the establishment of diplomatic relations. In 2015, Tokyo set up a foundation for comfort women. And Japanese leaders have apologised. But the victims argue that they have never been addressed directly.
“The Korean government will always pursue wise solutions based on a victim-centred approach,” Moon said on Monday, adding that a “forward-looking development” would proceed in the interests of South Korea – Japan relations and considering the trilateral alliance with the United States.
But, referring to the declaration back in 1919, Moon added, “Our spirit is the same now as it was then.”
Amid the furore about his paper, Ramseyer has been somewhat muted in defending his work. In response to an email requesting comment, he told Al Jazeera he was not doing interviews.
However, some academics in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere have suggested he deserves to speak freely, and that critics are engaged in “anti-Japan tribalism”.
For Lee, the controversy created a new opportunity to push home the need for justice.
At a news conference last month, she asked Moon to take Japan to the International Court of Justice, “to hold Japan accountable … resolve the issue permanently … and live in peace with each other.”
Her motivation for speaking out is simple.
“Even for history, this is very evil history. This must never happen again.”
Additional reporting by Crystal Ro.