Five buses in Seoul were installed with commemorative statues of the women forced into Japanese sexual slavery on August 14th, a day before National Liberation Day of Korea. The holiday, known literally in South Korea as “the day the light returned,” celebrates the anniversary of Korea’s independence from Japanese rule, which lasted from 1910-1945. Similarly, the statues installed a day prior on these buses represent women who embodied many of the injustices faced by the Korean population during the time.
Forced into military prostitution and known as “comfort women,” over 200,000 women worked in brothels for the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Though comfort women came from various parts of Asia, including the Philippines, Indonesia, China, and Taiwan, the majority were Korean. Largely poor, young, and uneducated, the girls were raped, beaten, and threatened repeatedly by soldiers who believed that sexual labor was necessary for the efficiency of an army.
Compared to the other atrocities of World War II, comfort women have received little attention and reparations in the years since the conclusion of the war. The Japanese government did not recognize and admit to playing a role in the comfort women prostitution system until 1992, nearly 50 years following the war. This long-overdue acknowledgment came only after 3 Korean victims sued the Japanese government for compensation, bringing forward gruesome testimonies of former comfort women—and by then, those who offered their experiences were senior citizens who had lived decades with hidden trauma. As of August 2017, there are only 37 known living comfort women.
Even 25 years after the international controversy was sparked, and now 70 years after the end of World War II, activists in South Korea and around the world still demand more attention. The buses in Seoul feature statues akin to those that have previously been erected, with objections from Japan, in front of the Japanese consulate in Seoul and later Busan. Each statue is a young girl staring vacantly ahead, clothed in traditional hanbok and barefoot, with her hands resting on her lap. As the buses pass by the Japanese embassy, audio clips about the wartime crime are played through the speakers.
Although a legal agreement was reached between the Japanese and Korean governments in 2015, creating a fund of one billion yen (around $8.3 million) for former comfort women, a recent poll showed that 75% of Koreans did not believe the issue had been resolved. Activists have pushed for a state memorial day for comfort women on August 14th, and many have condemned the weak apologies given by the Japanese. They argue that there has not been enough done for women who not only faced brutality during the war but also faced the humiliation and shame of having been violated as they returned to a culture that emphasized chastity and made sex a taboo. The statues of today, sitting silently like the women who were similarly silent for so long, are just one small aspect of remembering victims who can never be repaid.
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