Published on Monday, 06 July 2015 00:00
Written by Cheryl Teo Kai Lin
We are all aware of the horrible atrocities carried out during the Japanese Occupation. Some of our ancestors even had the misfortune to be subjected to the torment right here in Singapore. So many women were abducted, brutally raped and then tortured till they died to satisfy the Japanese soldiers' perverted needs. Many of these women died excruciatingly slow deaths, where some Japanese soldiers would play with their private parts with weapons, impaling them from their genitalia up just for entertainment. But since WWII happened 75 years ago, many have already forgotten and forgiven Japan for all the inhumane deeds. But there's a Korean lady who can't let her horrible past go. Lee Ok-seon was just 15 years old when she was snatched off the street as she walked home from work and taken to work against her will in a military brothel.
For three years, Lee Ok-seon was held captive as a sex slave for the Japanese army where she was expected to “comfort” up to 50 troops a day. More than 200,000 women and girls were officially captured for the sole purpose of fulfilling the Japanese soldiers' sexual urges and they were given the job title of “comfort women”. Most of these comfort women who were taken hostage came from the Korean peninsula and were forced to work in Japanese frontline brothels between 1932 and 1945.
Lee Ok-seon relives the horrible memories of being a comfort woman
The day that Lee was sentenced to three years of being a sex slave to the whims of the Japanese soldiers is deeply etched in her memory. Now 87 years-old and frail, Lee still feels very strongly about the ordeal that left her scarred for a lifetime. She is locked in a $34 million legal battle with the Japanese government as she and 11 more former sex slaves of the Japanese Occupation seek compensation for the sexual abuse they experienced as comfort women at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII.
Together with the other surviving comfort girls who are seeking $2.8 million each in a Californian court, Lee wants an acknowledgement of their suffering at the hands of the Japanese troops with sexually abused them. She also wants an apology from the Japanese government for their trauma.
Lee Ok-Seon was only 15 when she was forced into sexual slavery
“They grabbed my arms so I couldn't move and the next day they forcibly fastened me into a car,” Lee recalled the very fateful day that her life would change forever.
She was taken to Yanjin, a city located in Japanese-occupied China near the border with North Korea. There, Lee said she was held with five other women and girls, who were subjected to multiple rapes and abuse on a daily basis.
“I was taken away at 15, but even 14-year-olds were told to receive 40 or 50 soldiers every day,” Lee said, her back hunched and eyes staring off into the distance. “It was so painful and difficult to live that many people committed suicide by drowning or going to the mountains to hang themselves.”
Comfort women lined up for the selection of Japanese soldiers
Lee's tragic tale began way before she was captured as a sex slave at 15. It started off when she was seven and her parents told her that they didn't have enough money to pay for her education. In an apparent act of kindness, a woman who was a friend of the family offered to foster Lee and pay for her schooling, which Lee's parents very gratefully agreed to. But the woman had an ulterior motive in mind. Lee was instead forced to work at the woman's restaurant without wage. Later, the woman sold her off to work in a pub and it was there that she fell victim to the kidnappers.
Besides the sexual abuse, Lee recounts the frequent beatings she received at her “comfort station” (a nicer word to describe sex chamber). She said that the higher the rank of the soldier, the crueller they were.
“They said I was impudent and that they would kill me. They hit and kicked me, and just beat me,' she said. 'They would brandish a knife and say they'd kill me,” Lee relates the horrifying experience.
Lee, who now lives about an hour from Seoul in a special centre for sex slave survivors called the House of Sharing, said the conditions of her captivity had a devastating and permanent impact on her health. As well as damage to her senses, she was left unable to bear children. These comfort women had to receive mandatory syphilis injections which left many unable to have children.
Most women who worked at “comfort stations” were given frequent syphilis injections which left them infertile
As well as losing her fertility, Lee also lost her sight, her hearing and her teeth through the countless beatings she received. On one occasion, Lee managed to escape, but before she could feel a sense of relief and freedom, she was quickly found and taken back again. The military policeman who recaptured her attacked her with a knife as a punishment over her attempt to flee, she says she still has the scars to show for it.
“The military police had the power to kill me or let me live. They hit me and threatened me for trying to escape. They asked why I tried to leave,” said Lee. “I said I was hungry, and cold and exhausted because I didn't have proper clothes, so I tried to escape.”
“They slashed my arm. So I have this scar from that time,” she said, revealing an old gash on her left arm.
This young Chinese girl being interviewed by an Allied officer was one of the Imperial Japanese Army's “comfort battalions”
Lee is one of a handful of survivors of the Japanese Empire's system of forced prostitution of Korean and other mostly Asian women. Some do not survive the harsh conditions and brutal treatment. While estimates vary, at least 200,000 women are believed to have been coerced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military from the 1930s until its defeat by the U.S. In 1945.
For the past two decades, Japan has officially recognised its role in coercing the women into sexual slavery. In 1993 then chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, offered the women an apology. But, last year the conservative administration of Shinzo Abe had a change of heart and said it would re-examine the apology.
The House of Sharing is a home for women forced to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers in World War II
The Japan premier suggested the government had no involvement in rounding up women and forcing them into sexual slavery. Tokyo also claims that compensation was paid to the women in a 1965 as part of a Japanese treaty with South Korea. Japan paid compensation to South Korea in recognition of its colonial atrocities, but Seoul used most of the money for infrastructure projects rather than compensation for survivors. The issue continues to be a major diplomatic obstacle between the two countries.