The Lives of Comfort Women
Here are a few stories out of the 200,000 girls who perished in Comfort Stations.
We remember their survival, endurance, and legacy.
Click to read their full story.
Kim Hak Sun
Kim Hak Sun was born in 1924 in Jilin, China, after her parents emigrated from Korea during the oppressive Japanese colonial rule. When she returned to Pyongyang, Korea, after her father's death, she attended a missionary school. However, when she had a hard time adjusting to her remarried mother and her family, she was sent to live with a foster family. Kim's foster father sold her to Beijing, where she was forced to work as a Comfort Woman with four other women. After four months, she was able to escape. The man who helped her escape became her husband and the father of her children. However, Kim lost her children and husband due to illnesses. After 50 years of silence, on August 14, 1991, Kim officially testified in front of the press at the Council for the Issue of Comfort Stations. After Kim's groundbreaking testimony, other victims began to come forward and officially registered as a Comfort Woman. In total, around 200 victims form the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, China, Korea, and the Netherlands came forward.
Kim continued to be a powerful activist in the women's fight for justice. She was part of a lawsuit filed at the Tokyo District Court in 1991, requiring reparations and an apology. She regularly attended at spoke at rallies in front of the Japanese Embassy of Korea. Despite her illness, she gave her final interview in which she continued to demand a proper apology from the highest Japanese official. On December 16, 1997, she passed away, but her legacy remains. August 14 is officially the day of the Comfort Women, commemorating the day Kim Hak Sun had the courage to speak up for thousands of silent victims.
Kim Bok Dong
Kim Bok Dong was born in Yangsan in Gyeongsangnamdo on May 1, 1926. When she was 14, she was taken to work in a factory. Instead, she endured years of sexual slavery in Guangdong Province, China. According to Kim, “On weekdays, I had to take 15 soldiers a day… on Saturdays and Sundays, it was more than 50.”
She came back home when she was 22. Like the other Comfort Women, Kim was ashamed of her experience and kept her story a secret until finally 50 years later, in 1992, she stepped forward and demanded an official apology from the Japanese government. She quickly became a prominent and beloved activist who fought for victims of sexual violence all over the world. In June of 1993, she testified at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria.
In 2012, along with Gil Won-ok, another surviving Comfort Woman, Kim set up the Butterfly Fund to raise funds for victims of sexual violence and war crimes all over the world. She later donated 50 million Won to the Butterfly Fund and continued to donate to the fund until her last breath. Despite the pain she suffered from the Japanese, in 2011, when a tsunami swept the Japanese mainland and killed over 15,000, she began fundraising efforts to help with recovery efforts.
After years of torture, 50 years of silence, and 20 years of activism, she passed away in January 2019, at the age of 92.
Lee Ok Seon
During the height of the Pacifc War, Lee Ok Seon was 15. She was kidnapped and taken to a Comfort Station in Jilin, China -- one of an estimated 400 stations throughout China and Southern Asia. When recounting her experience, she said, “If we refused to accept soldiers they threatened us by cutting our bodies with military swords." After the end of the war, the women were abandoned in the mountains, and Lee had to beg for a living before meeting her husband. She was unable to bear children because of a disease she contracted in the Comfort Stations. While Korea continued to develop, Lee did not have the courage to go back to her homeland and her family officially registered her death. On December, 1996, at age 68, Lee landed in Kimpo airport and arrived in Korea for the first time in 53 years.
In 2000, she officially began to live in the House of Sharing, a nursing home for surviving Comfort Women. In 2002, she went to Brown University to actively spread awareness about the Comfort Women issue. She has been an active voice in the fight for justice. She is one of the 12 Comfort Women represented in a current legal battle against the Japanese government to pay 100 million won to each victim. “We want an apology, not compensation,” she added. “If we sought money, 300 million won, let alone 100 million won, will not be enough.” Lee is one of the 5 surviving Comfort Women from the original 12 plaintiffs. Out of the 5, she and another Comfort Woman are the only ones who are able to communicate. Her testimony will be crucial in the fight for justice.
Kim Koon Ja
Kim Koon-Ja lost her father when she was 10 and her mother when she was 14. When she was 17, she was kidnapped by the Japanese military to serve as a Comfort Woman in China. For 3 years, she was raped and tortured. She was beaten so hard during her captivity that she permanently lost hearing in her left ear. Eventually, when the war ended, she returned home, where for a brief period of time she lived with her fiancé. However, he later committed suicide due to Kim’s family’s strong opposition.
When other Comfort Women began to officially register as a Comfort Woman, Kim also broke her silence. She testified before the US Congress in support of House Resolution 121. In her testimony she said, “The Japanese government did not treat us as humans… Although many Comfort Women have passed away, history is alive. You cannot compensate for my ruined life with money.”
Among other things, Kim was a passionate supporter for education and helping orphans. She saved every little penny she earned and donated her life savings to the Beautiful Foundation to help students who, like her, had lost their parents and could not receive a proper education. Upon her first donation (50,000 dollars) she said, “I was an orphan. All I had was eight months of night school. I think life was difficult because I lost my parents as a child and didn’t learn anything… I often think that if I had learned a little, my life wouldn’t have been this hard. I want to help poor and parentless children have an opportunity to learn… But I’m sorry and embarrassed that this is so little money.” The Kim Kun-Ja Fund eventually raised around 960,000 dollars and has helped fund education programs for poor and orphaned students. Kim was able to give 250 students a chance at a better life and funded their life-long education. On July 23, 2017, 91 years old and penniless, she passed away.
Lee Yong Soo
When Lee Yong Soo was 16, she was kidnapped with her friend and taken to a military unit in Hsinchu County, Taiwan. On the ship to Taiwan, where 5 girls and 300 Japanese soldiers were aboard, Lee was raped for the first time. “At the time, I didn’t even know the term rape,” she recalled, “I only thought, ‘This is why they brought me.’ It would have been better for the boat to sink and everyone to have died there. Afterward, the other girls and I were continuously violated by the soldiers over and over again.” She was forced to service an average of four to five soldiers a day and at most 20 men a day, regardless of injuries or days she was menstruating. Lee was 17 when the war ended. Upon returning home, she was unable to marry and instead she took on many different jobs.
In 1991, when Kim Hak Sun publicly recounted her experience as a Comfort Women, Lee found the courage to speak up and register with the Korean government as an official Comfort Woman. In December 2000, she testified in the Tokyo Tribunal and began to become a powerful voice in the Comfort Women’s fight for justice. She received a Masters’ degree in 2001 from Kyungpook National University. In 2007, decked in fine Korean traditional Hankbok, she testified in front of the U.S. Congress about the passage of House Resolution 121.
Recently, Lee exposed the corruption of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, also known as the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance. The organization was established in 1990 and had been entrusted with taking care of the surviving Comfort Women and organized Wednesday demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy. Lee, in another explosive press conference which paralleled Kim Hak Sun’s testimony in 1991, exposed the corruption of the Korean Council. She said “…when they collect donations, the money should have been spent on the victims, but they never did that.” After an investigation, it was revealed that the Yoon Mee-Hyang, former head of the Korean Council for Justice, embezzled funds that were donated to support surviving Comfort Women. Lee continues to be a powerful voice who demands proper compensation and a sincere apology on behalf of the 200,000 young victims of Japanese military.
Jan Ruff O'herne
O'Herne was born on January 18, 1923 in the Dutch East Indies, a former colony of the Dutch Empire. During the Japanese occupation, O'Herne and thousands of Dutch women were forced to perform hard physical labor. In February 1944, O'Herne was one of the girls chosen and taken by Japanese officials to a colonial house that was converted into a brothel called "The House of the Seven Seas.”
Both handkerchiefs were signed by Comfort Women from "The House of the Seven Seas" and the other from ‘Kamp 1A' which held about 3,000 Dutch women and girls. O'Herne kept these as evidence for the crimes done to them. Until Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, she was repeatedly raped and beaten every single day. In 1946, she married Tom Ruff, a British soldiers whose unit had rescued the camp O'Herne was in. In 1992, she became the first white European woman to testify as a Comfort Woman. In order to explain to her daughter what had happened, O'Herne wrote down her story in a notebook and handed it to her daughter. This story was published in 1994 as her memoir, "Fifty Years of Silence." O'Herne testified at the Tokyo Tribunal and before the US Congress in 2007 along with the Korean Comfort Women. When asked why it took half a century for people to truly understand what had happened, she replied, “Perhaps the answer is that these violations were carried out against women. We have all heard it said: This is what happens to women during war. Rape is part of war, as if war makes it right.”
She passed away on August 19, 2019, after receiving numerous awards such as the Centenary Medal and dedicating her life to exposing the truth of war-crimes against women.
Maria Rosa Luna Henson
Lola Rosa was a very intelligent girl, obtaining her primary education at St. Mary's College in Pasay. However, when she was 14, she went to help her uncles fetch firewood and was raped by two Japanese soldiers. After her horrifying incident, her mother brough her to Pampanga. Lola Rosa joined the Hukbalahap, a guerrilla movement formed by the farmers of Central Luzon. While she was doing her usual task -- gathering food, medicine, and clothes for the guerilla members, she was abducted by Japanese soldiers and forced to serve in a makeshift Comfort Station in Angeles City for 9 months. After years of silence, she officially testified as a Comfort Woman. Through painful recollection and the English she had learned in school, Lola Rosa published her autobiography, Comfort Woman: Slave of Destiny, in 1996. After years of campaigning for Comfort Women's justice with her clear recollection and remarkable intelligence, Lola Rosa died at the age of 69 on August 18, 1997.
Park Yong Shim
Park Yong Shim was born in 1921 in Nampo, in the Northern part of Korea. She recalled that she was often lonely because her mother died as soon as she was born. When Park was 17, she went to visit her grandma. There, Park and her friend was taken by a Japanese man. The two girls were taken with 15 other Korean girls were taken to Nanjing, China in the spring of 1939 to a Comfort Station called the ‘Ginsuyiru’ Comfort Station. When she entered the station, there were rows of 2-meter by 2-meter rooms with only a bed. Park was assigned a Japanese name and given the 19th bed on the second floor.
In the morning, Japanese soldiers flooded into the rooms. Park was forced to service around 30 men a day and if she resisted in the slightest, she was taken to an attic, stripped naked, and whipped. She said, “On one day, I was in so much pain that I refused an officer’s request. Then he proceeded to punch and kick me and then took out a long knife and threatened me as if he was about to kill me. Then he began to rape me and told me to see how the Imperial army felt like.” On another day, when Park resisted, a soldier cut a 5cm deep line in her stomach. She was sent to a Chinese hospital and given treatment.
After three years of torture in the ‘Ginsuyiru’ Comfort Station, Park was taken to another Comfort Station in Yangoon, Burma. Out of the seven Korean girls there, only four survived. After 2 years in Yangoon, she was transported to the border between Burma and China in around 1943. When she heard Japanese soldiers saying that they were burning the flag, she realized the Japanese military’s defeat and decided to run away with the remaining Korean girls. She was helped by a Chinese farmer and then taken by the Chinese military to a prisoner of war camp in Kunming. She was in her third trimester but miscarried her baby in this camp.
After 8 years suffering in Comfort Stations, Park returned home in 1946. She lived a hard life, suffering from the aftermath of the torture in the stations. She had to get her womb cut out and suffered from neurasthenia (nervous breakdowns). In 1993, Park publicly testified on her experience. She traveled to Tokyo to testify in the Tokyo Tribunal in 2000 but when she saw a shower gown that looked like the kimono she saw in the Comfort Station, she had a breakdown and was unable to speak. In 2003, she returned to Songsan, China, where one of the Comfort Stations she was forced into was built, and cried for hours. After a long life of pain, Park passed away on August 7, 2006.
Park Yong Shim was 22 when the photo was taken in 1944. She's the pregnant woman in the right.
Kang Duk-Kyung was born in 1929 in Jinju, Korea. She lost her father when she was young and her mother remarried. After she graduated middle school, she was sent to perform painstaking factory labor as part of the Female Volunteer Labor Corps in Japan. They were forced to work around 12 hours a day and were given no pay. After two months in the factory, Kang and her friend decided to run away. However, they were caught, and when they were transported to a Comfort Station, Kang was raped by one of the soldiers for the first time. This moment is depicted in Kang’s painting “Purity stolen.”
"Purity Stolen" by Kang Duk Kyung
"Punish those responsible” by Kang Duk Kyung
When she got to the station, she quickly realized the nature of the work she was forced to perform. She was forced to service around 10 Japanese soldiers. Saturdays were when the most soldiers came — for that, Kang despised Saturdays. After being transported to different Comfort Stations, she ran away with the help of a Korean man and returned home. However, her tragedy did not end then.
She gave birth to her son in 1946. When she returned home with the baby, her mother disapproved of the baby’s origins and had to send the child to an orphanage run by a Catholic church. Kang visited her son every week. One day, Kang once again came to the orphanage to visit her son. There, she was notified that her four-year-old son had died suddenly of pneumonia and that the funeral was already over. Kang was not even able to retrieve or see the body of her dead son. This grief, coupled with her numerous health problems, plagued her for the rest of her life.
Kang was initially hesitant to come forward when she saw other Comfort Women on TV, but when the Japanese government began denying their heinous past, she decided to come forward. She played a prominent role in getting the Comfort Women story out to the international community, testifying in front of the Japanese assembly and UN Human Rights Council. Even when she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer on December 1995, she continued to participate in the Wednesday Demonstrations. She is celebrated for her poignant artwork about Comfort Women. Kang passed away due to lung cancer on February 2, 1997.