The war ended 65 years ago, but the trauma of the atrocities she endured as a sex slave at the hands of Japanese soldiers is still clearly etched on Won Ok Gil’s face, and burns deep in her heart.
Born in what is now North Korea, Gil was only 13 when she was lured from her village by the promise of factory work, only to be beaten and gang raped by Japanese soldiers.
When she developed a sexually transmitted disease, a doctor removed her ovaries, so she could not get pregnant, and put her to work as a sex slave. She was later transported to China and forced to work as a “comfort woman” in a military brothel.
Settling in South Korea after the war, Gil took all sorts of jobs to survive. In 1998 she decided to break her silence and now travels around the world seeking justice for the tens of thousands of women conscripted, coerced or kidnapped by the Japanese to work as sex slaves during the war.
She also wants an apology from the Japanese government, but at 83 fears time is running out. Many of her fellow victims have already passed on and the diminishing voices of the survivors have been forgotten, she fears.
“I only have one wish. That the Japanese government admit that they have committed these crimes so that the world will be in peace,” Gil told delegates to the International Conference for Educators on the History of World War II in Asia on Saturday in Toronto. “That’s the one wish I have. To hear a sincere apology from the Japanese government to me, and that they ask for forgiveness.”
The first Japanese “comfort stations” were set up in Shanghai in 1932. As Japan continued its military expansion in Asia, it found itself short of Japanese prostitutes so the military turned to the local population for women.
The United Nations estimates that some 200,000 women worked in these military brothels. Chinese scholars put the number at double that, saying the UN figures don’t take into account the approximately 200,000 women pressed into sex service during Japan’s occupation of China.
While Canada, the U.S. and the European Parliament have all passed resolutions condemning the treatment of these women, Japan has not. Japanese scholars put the number at less than 20,000 and some argue the women worked voluntarily as prostitutes, the conference heard.
“As recently as 2007 the then-Japanese prime minister denied that any women were force to be sex slaves,” said Joseph Wong, founder of The Association for Learning and Preserving the History of World War II in Asia. “According to the prime minister, these ‘comfort women’ voluntarily worked as prostitutes and were better paid then the soldiers.”
Those remarks were roundly condemned around the world, but Japan has yet to acknowledge that it systemically pressed women into becoming prostitutes during the war, Wong told the conference, held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
“Japan’s attitude has been very wishy washy in that the prime minister told a group of reporters that Japanese government and military had no involvement in the sexual slavery issue,” Wong said.
Gil was in Toronto to say that is bald-faced lie.
She urged the educators who heard her speak to take the message back to their classrooms and spread the word about what really happened to women like her.
And she’s still waiting for her apology.