Why didn't the Japanese take Thailand

The hell of a Korean "comfort woman"

Without stopping, she tells of the day it happened: The men struck on the open road in Busan, in the far southeast of the Korean peninsula. It was late afternoon, somewhere between 5 and 6 p.m., recalls Lee Ok-Seon. They grabbed the girl under the arms and dragged her into a vehicle. Then they took it to a so-called "consolation station" in northwest China. Lee Ok-Seon was 14 years old. Little did she suspect that she would not see her homeland again for almost six decades. That her parents would at some point bury the hope of seeing her again and have her declared dead. Nor did she know what agony she was facing.

Lee Ok-Seon spent three years - until the end of World War II - in this military brothel in Jilin Province and was forced to have sexual intercourse with Japanese soldiers every day. The now 86-year-old does not talk about the details of this ordeal, she sums up the experience in one sentence. "It wasn't a place for people, it was a slaughterhouse." Her voice sounds harder than she says it is. The three years there shaped her entire life. "The war has long since ended, the others have been freed, but not me."

Another term for sex slaves

For sixty years Lee Ok-Seon was silent about what had happened to her

Lee Ok-Seon's fate is far from being an isolated incident. However, it is not known how many women fared similarly to her. "According to estimates, it was around 200,000, but this number has not been confirmed," explains Bernd Stöver, historian at the University of Potsdam, to Deutsche Welle. The term "comfort women" in itself - or in English "comfort women" - creates a crooked picture from the historian's point of view. "Basically, he's wrong. They were forced prostitutes. They are only called comfort women."

Not only girls and women from Korea, which had been occupied by Japan in 1905, were abducted as forced prostitutes in the brothels that were set up throughout the territory of Japan at the time. The victims also came from other countries: besides China, for example, from Malaysia or the Philippines. Officially, the "consolation stations" served to increase the fighting spirit of the Japanese army - and to protect women in the occupied territories from being raped by Japanese soldiers. For the mostly underage women in the "consolation stations", however, they meant daily martyrdom. Many of them did not survive the torture, and it is estimated that more than two thirds died before the end of the war.

Silence out of shame and shame

"We were often beaten, threatened and injured with knives," recalls Lee Ok-Seon. "We were eleven, twelve, thirteen or fourteen years old and didn't believe that anyone would get us out of there." During the time in the brothel, she was completely cut off from the outside world and trusted no one. The desperation was omnipresent. "Many girls have tried to kill themselves. They drowned or hanged themselves." She, too, was at a point where she saw no other way out; she too wanted to grab a rope. But then she thought better of it. "It's easy to say: I would like to be dead. It is much more difficult to actually do it. That is a big step."

"It was such a shameful experience," says Lee Ok-Seon

Lee Ok-Seon shrank from this step - and survived the war. After the Japanese surrender in late summer 1945, the owner of the brothel disappeared overnight and the girls were suddenly free. And completely disoriented. "I didn't know where to go. I had no money. I was homeless and slept on the street," she says. She didn't know the way to Korea, nor did she want to go it. The shame was too great. "I would rather stay in China and die here. How could I have gone home? It was written on my face that I was a 'comfort woman'. I could no longer have looked my mother in the face."

Replacement life in China

Lee Ok-Seon met a Korean man, married him, and looked after his children. "I saw it as my job to raise these children whose mother had died." She kneads her hands and then adds: "I couldn't get one myself." Lee Ok-Seon no longer has a uterus. As a result of venereal diseases such as syphilis, which she contracted again and again in the brothel, she became so sick after her release that she almost died. To increase her chances of survival, the uterus was removed.

In Yanji, China, she then lived a secluded life and tried - as she puts it - to get back on her feet on her own. So decades passed. Her husband always treated her well, says Lee Ok-Seon and laughs for the first time. "Otherwise I wouldn't have lasted so long with him."

Since 2000 Lee Ok-Seon (front row, middle) has also been taking part in the demonstrations by former "comfort women" in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul

Similar to Lee Ok-Seong, it was also the case with the other women who had survived the torments of the "consolation stations". They tried to get back on their feet somehow, but didn't dare to talk about what had happened to them. For fear of being marginalized and bringing shame on the family. Forced prostitution was an absolute taboo, explains Bernd Stöver. "There was no social support. Going publicly would have meant that you were outside of society afterwards." In both Korea and Japan, therefore, the topic practically did not exist after the end of the war. It would take decades for anything to change.

Unprocessed past and nationalism

It was not until 1991 that the first former "comfort woman" went public with her story. Her move encouraged more than 250 more women to do the same, finally speaking and demanding an apology and compensation from the Japanese government. Since then, those affected, relatives and supporters have met in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday. They hold up banners and chant slogans. But so far they haven't got what they want.

Toru Hashimoto caused outrage with his justification of the "consolation stations"

Because Japan is having a hard time with this dark chapter of its own - unprocessed - war past, explains the Potsdam historian Bernd Stöver. A government-commissioned study was published in Japan in 1993 that officially recognized both the existence of "comfort women" and the role of the Japanese military. "As a result, the Japanese government apologized several times. But it never really drew any conclusions from it," said Stöver.

It was always a matter of individual excuses, not a comprehensive admission of guilt - including official compensation payments. Apart from a few hundred individual payments from a private fund set up by the government, the women have received no money to date. And they probably won't either. "In 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that they were not entitled to any compensation."

A slap in the face for the victims. To this day it happens again and again that nationalist politicians in Japan in particular simply deny the existence of the "consolation stations". Or play down what happened there. For example, the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, said during his first term in office in the spring of 2007 that there was "no evidence that coercion had been exercised on women." Abe later apologized for his heavily criticized statement.

It was not until the spring of 2013 that another Japanese politician made headlines in connection with the issue: The mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, told journalists that sex slavery in times of war was "necessary" to maintain discipline within the troops. Lee Ok-Seon thinks it's a monstrous statement. "I can't understand how you can say something like that. Anyone who doesn't want to see what happened back then, what the Japanese did, is not a person for me."

No more family in Korea

Lee Ok-Seon wants to stand up for the interests of the "comfort women" until the end of her life

Lee Ok-Seon now lives in South Korea again. In 2000 - after the death of her husband - she finally felt the urge to return and make her story public. Since then she has lived near Seoul in the so-called "House of Sharing", a supervised housing project for former forced prostitutes. There she was given psychological support for the first time and got help in everyday life. And finally a new passport again.

While doing research on her person, she learned that her parents had passed away. But her youngest brother was still alive. He helped reconstruct their data. But then the contact ran in the sand. Because exactly what Lee Ok-Seon had always feared happened: The brother wanted nothing to do with her. He was too ashamed that his sister was a former "comfort woman".