“Japanese military sexual slavery is an act of atrocity... closely examined and purposely established system“
“Where did all the girls go? What happened to them? Why aren’t they here even after independence?”
Her passion to bring justice for comfort women started when Yoon was 18 years old and the above questions came to her mind. She’s almost ninety years old now, but her passion shows that she was destined to work for the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery. She is strongly committed to bringing justice for the victims because she herself was on the brink of becoming a sexual slave, but she fortunately got away.
When we look at the history of Korean women’s rights movement, the abolition of hoju system (patriarchal family registration system) in 2005 was a remarkable achievement. However, we still face many unresolved problems such as military sexual slavery by Japan. Sexual violence during war is the problem of the past, the present, and the future. Therefore, bringing justice for comfort women is not only a solution to past crimes but also a solution for the future.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Women News, we had an interview with Yoon Jung-ok (first co-representative of Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan) who brought the comfort women issue out from the shadow for the first time. She left hectic Seoul in 2010 and moved to Chuncheon, which is known as a city of lake. At her new place, she is recollecting, recording, and writing about the Japanese military sexual slavery issue.
Almost became a military sexual slave: an unforgettable nightmare
Strongly committed to bring justice to the victims
“When the Women’s Tribunal found the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito guilty of crimes against humanity in December 2000, many comfort women and I thought the Japanese government will sincerely apologize for their wrongdoings. Then I was planning to leave my position as the representative and let my young colleagues lead the organization. The truth is I don’t want any compensation from the Japanese government. All I want is a sincere apology for their wrongdoings. This is the only way to restore the dignity of the victims.”
Yoon was an English professor at Ewha Womans University for 30 years, but the real turning point in her life came when she retired in 1990 at age 65. With 15 women’s organizations, including Korea Church Women United and Korean Womenlink, she established Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. As a first co-representative, she traveled around the world to collect testimonies and persuade the victims to break the silence on comfort women issue. She put her utmost effort for 10 years to bring international attention to the issue.
“The Japanese Army enslaved countless women and girls in 1940s. Unmarried and unemployed women were the most wanted. Back then, I was a student at Ewha Womans University. One day, the school made students gather at the auditorium and made us fill out an application for military sexual slavery. This incident made many students quit school the next day. I dropped out of school and lied that I was getting married to a student soldier. Fortunately, the dean accepted my drop-out excuse even though she knew it was a lie. Also, a young Japanese professor got me a job as a teaching assistant at the department of biology of Kyungsung Imperial University. With their help, I was not forcibly taken from my home.
“When male student soldiers returned home from war, I went to Seoul Station and asked them about the women and girls taken away by the Japanese army. However, they refused to answer my question. After about 10 days, I asked the question to a man in his 40s, and he said “They all became comfort women!” That was when I first heard the word comfort women. Since then the word never left my mind even when I was abroad studying and teaching.”
Yoon emphasized that the ‘comfort women’ issue is an act of atrocity caused by patriarchal and hierarchal system. Heads of townships threatened parents to give away their daughters by ceasing rice ration or forcing their sons to join the army. But even after daughters were taken away as comfort women, sons were still forcibly conscripted. As a scholar who studied the comfort women issue since the late 1970s, Yoon points out that Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’ system is much more atrocious than that of other sexual violence against women in wars. This is because it was closely examined and purposely established as a systematic sexual violence.
“According to Professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi (Chuo University), one of Japan’s most respected experts on comfort women, and references collected from old books at Hokkaido and Sapporo, Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’ system is a crime involving the Japanese government. For example, in 1941, the Japanese Government-General of Korea was ordered to mobilize 20,000 Korean comfort women in two years as a part of the Gwandong district project. Within just a few months, 8000 women and girls were sent to Machuria. The conscription of comfort women was led by the Japanese administration and police department, which hired private recruiters.”
“What is even worse is that just like Japan’s notorious Unit 731, comfort women system was closely examined and studied with questions like “how many men can a healthy woman sleep with?” or “what is the most efficient way to prevent STDs for soldiers?” According to results from various human experiences, Japanese Army decided that one comfort woman can handle 27 men a day. In order to prevent STDs for soldiers, unmarried girls and women were preferred as comfort women instead of commercial sex workers.”
One woman can handle 27 men a day?
Human experiments were conducted on women like Unit 731
Yoon’s first journey to bring justice to comfort women started when she went to sugarcane plantation in Okinawa to meet Ms. Bae Bong-ki (first former comfort woman to tell her story, died at age 77 in 1991). Since then, in order to meet more former comfort women, she traveled around the world including Sakhalin, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea. In 1992, Yoon went to northeastern area of China and heard testimonies of former Japanese soldiers and locals. Based on their testimonies, she located former comfort women stations and graveyards of late comfort women. To appease the souls of those suffered, Yoon co-hosted memorial ceremony with Japanese people. When she visited Pyongyang in November 1993, South and North Korea cooperation system for the comfort women was established. Her achievements were not welcomed by the Japanese government. As she became the representative of Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, she urged Kim Young Sam administration to demand official apology from the Japanese government and the Japanese government to express sincere apology while compensating victims. All she received, however, was a crude response from the Korean government that they will try and a thin information booklet on the issue from the Japanese government. Although not easy, Yoon’s efforts never stopped. Finally in August 1993, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono announced a statement that comfort stations were established in response to the request by military authorities at the time and that many comfort women were coerced into it, admitting it was an act that severely injured the honor and dignity of those women.
In September 1992, along with Lee Woo-jung and Lee Hyo-jae Yoon participated in South and North Korea Women Forum, where she had a chance to sit with Kim Il-sung. He extended the meeting for 20 minutes to carefully listen to what Yoon had to say. Yoon recalls that “Kim seemed at ease since he was talking to a person who didn’t almost deify him.” Yoon emphasized that “The two Koreas should cooperate together to resolve the issue of comfort women since it occurred when the two Koreas were one.” She added, “Therefore, North Korea should urge the Japanese government to express sincere apologies to the victims.”
“Kim Il-sung was not intimidating at all. He even invited me to a luncheon, which was not part of our schedule. At the luncheon, he asked my opinion on installing cable cars in Mt. Geumgang. I told him it was a bad idea since it will hurt the nature. After that conversation, North Korean women representatives avoided talking to me, saying ‘How dare she oppose to the leader’s idea when we can’t even look at him’ (laugh).”
Yoon’s father was a progressive pastor, and her parents had 8 children. She was the third daughter among 5 daughters. During the Japanese colonial period, the Japanese military police would barge into her house countless times at night for investigation. Despite such nightmares, Yoon confesses that the difficulties in her life are nothing compare to what comfort women had to go through.
To Il-sung Kim, “South and North Korea should cooperate together to resolve the comfort women issue… North Korea should pressure the Japanese government for an apology”
“I met about 100 victims. When I was young, I had a great interest in 19th century English literature and among them I particularly liked ‘Great Expectation’ by Charles Dickens. I thought through books I could learn everything from politics, to economics, medicine and psychology. However, I found out that until I met the victims I didn’t know anything about the nature of humankind.
Ms. Kang Deok-kyeong (died in 1997 due to lung cancer) taught me about true nature of humankind. During the colonial period, Kang worked at Mitsubishi munitions factory but she had to escape due to starvation. One day she was raped by the Japanese Military Police and was sent to the comfort women stations. Later she found out that she was pregnant with a child of the Japanese Military Police. After independence was regained, she came back home with the child, but her family refused to take her back. She had to leave her child at an orphanage and work as a waitress. But her child died due to an illness… When Ms. Kang was telling me her story, she was wailing out loud saying, ‘what did I do to deserve this… I was a victim of horrible incidents but why do people shun me out?’ In the end, Ms. Kang overcame her trauma. She knew that during the Japanese colonial rule, women were the vulnerable victims and she was one of the countless victims. Even though I was not able to resolve the comfort women issue until now, I feel very relieved that I was able to listen to the feelings and frustrations of women who lived in the same time period as me.”
Yoon emphasized that heroes of a nation should be those who suffered the most when their nation went through the worst. In fact, 1930s and 1940s were the worst period for Korea, and it was young and naïve women who suffered the most during that time. However, these victims are being shunned and ignored.
When Yoon was asked, “What will happen if the Japanese government refuses to apologize until all the victims pass away?” she firmly stated, “Even if the victims pass away, I’m still alive! I will work even harder for the victims and will testify for them every chance I get.”