A single picture captures the regret, shame and rage that Kim Gun-ja has harbored through most of her 89 years. Photographed in a long white wedding gown, she carries a bouquet of red flowers and stares at the camera, her deep wrinkles obscured by makeup and a diaphanous veil.
A local company arranged wedding-style photo shoots as gifts for Kim and other elderly women at the House of Sharing, a museum and nursing home for South Koreans forced into brothels by Japan during World War II. Kim and many of the other women never married, giving the pictures a measure of bitterness.
“That could have been my life: Meet a man, get married, have children, have grandchildren,” Kim said in her small, tidy room at the nursing home south of Seoul. “But it never happened. It could never be.” Japanese soldiers stole her youth, she said, and now, “The Japanese are waiting for us to die.”
There are just 55 women left who registered with the South Korean government as former “comfort women” from WWII — down from a peak of more than 230. Their average age is 88. As their numbers dwindle and a rising Japanese nationalism provokes anger from war victims in South Korea and China, the 10 women who live at the House of Sharing know they are running out of time to pressure Tokyo to make amends.
“Once the victims are gone,” Kim said, “who will step in and fight for us?”
At first glance, the women might seem an obstacle to soothing the decades-old war tensions between Seoul and Tokyo.
“I want the Japanese to come here, kneel before us, state everything that they did wrong to each one of us and apologize,” Yi Ok-seon, 88, said, showing what she said were sword wounds from Japanese soldiers on her arms and feet.
However, the women may also be the last chance for the US’ two most important Asian allies to settle a dispute that has boiled over in recent years, as more of the victims, also known as “sex slaves,” die and Tokyo and Seoul trade increasingly bitter comments about their bloody history.
“It will be much harder to solve, or more realistically mitigate, the issue after these women pass away,” Robert Dujarric, an Asia specialist at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, said in an e-mail. “Now, there are people — the former sex slaves — to apologize to. Afterward, there will be no one left to receive the apology.”
Some historians say that as many as 200,000 Asian women, mostly Korean but also Chinese and others, were forced into Japan’s military brothel system during the war. Japan has apologized many times over the years, including a landmark 1993 statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that acknowledges Japan’s responsibility over military brothels and says wartime documents, statements and other records were enough to assume many women were deceived or forced into them. Some past premiers have also written letters of apology to the women.
However, many South Koreans see the repeated apologies and past efforts at private compensation as insufficient. One big reason is because they have been consistently undermined by the incendiary comments of many Japanese politicians, officials and right-wing activists.
The new head of Japanese public broadcaster NHK, for example, recently downplayed the issue by saying the use of women as military prostitutes was common worldwide during the WWII. Despite testimony from many of the women, Japanese nationalists have said there is no clear evidence proving the military or government systematically used coercion to recruit them. Many average Japanese are sympathetic to the women, but some also see a steady politicization of the issue by South Korean lawmakers and activists stoking anti-Japanese anger.