BATTERED and bleeding, 15-year-old Lee Ok-Seon lay sobbing on a threadbare blanket on the floor of a dingy cubicle as a queue of rowdy Japanese soldiers waited in line to rape her.
Abducted off the street while running an errand in her home town of Ulsan, in July 1942, Lee was taken hundreds of miles to China and held captive in a Comfort Station – where she was forced to have sex with up to 50 soldiers a day.
If she refused, she was beaten, cut with knives and threatened with murder – even being forced to watch as a 14-year-old was hacked to death in front of her as an “example.”
But her shocking story is not unusual. It’s estimated that, from 1932 to 1945, between 50,000 and 200,000 women were forced into military brothels in Japan and its occupied territories and used as sex slaves.
The “comfort women” – some as young as 13 – were mostly Koreans, but also Chinese, south-east Asians and a small number of Japanese and Europeans.
Starved, raped and tortured by their captors, many were left infertile by violent abuse and brutal STI treatments where mercury and hot iron bars were used.
Those who tried to escape were often murdered in front of the other girls, with one survivor testifying that the soldiers ordered them eat the boiled flesh of a decapitated victim.
Many of the women took their secrets to the grave, ashamed of their past. But in 1991, South Korean Kim Hak-soon, became the first to speak out saying: “We must record these sins that were forced upon us.”
Lee, now 93, was exiled from her home in South Korea for 55 years but has now returned and lives with five other survivors in the House of Sharing, a care home and living museum which highlights the ordeals of the country’s comfort women.
Now, 75 years after the allies’ victory in Japan led to the release of the women, she tells the Sun she is still fighting for justice against a country which continues to deny its history.
“The Japanese government does not accept yet our demands for an official
apology and legal compensation” she says.
“The prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe is one of the revisionists in Japan who are denying Japanese war time history and war crimes.
“He does not recognize that we were forced to be sexual slaves by Japan during the war.”
The second child of six children, growing up in Japanese-occupied Korea, Lee dreamed of becoming a scientist but her family were too poor to send her to school.
At 15, she took a job at an inn in the local town to help make ends meet. By this time Japan, which had annexed Korea since 1910, had joined Germany and Italy in the Second World War against the British and US allies.
On the night of July 29, 1942, after being sent out on an errand, Lee was grabbed from behind by both wrists and two men, one Korean and one Japanese, dragged her screaming to Ulsan station and threw her onto a train, packed with other girls.
After days of travel, with no food or water, the terrified teenager arrived in Jilin, in China, which had been invaded by Japan in 1937, and was taken to a Japanese army airfield.
“I remember the airfield was surrounded with electric barbed wires so that we could not escape,” she says. “There we did chores like pulling weeds from runways, but the jobs were unbearably hard for a 15-year-old girl and I refused.”
Little did she know but much worse was to come. Angry at her defiance, military personnel transferred her to “Dai-ichi Ianjyo” – or Comfort Station No.1 – in the city.
The Comfort Station in Jilin – one of an estimated 400 throughout China and Southern Asia – was a small house with a long corridor leading to numerous tiny wooden cubicles, barely big enough to spread out a single blanket.
As a Korean, Lee was among those treated the worst by the childless Japanese couple who ran it, left starving by what she calls the “discrimination of rations.”
“The Japanese ate white rice served with meat and we Koreans were allowed to eat only mixed grains and shrivelled vegetables,” she says. “I always felt so hungry.”
In the long corridors outside each cubicle, soldiers lined up to take their turn, often shouting “quickly” through the door at whoever was inside.
During the week, Lee says, there would be “only a few” soldiers but at the weekend the number swelled to 40 or 50 a day.
“If we refused to accept soldiers they threatened us by cutting our bodies with military swords,” she says.
“Or they hit us down to the ground. Some soldiers didn’t use condoms and I was afraid of STIs so one day I tried to escape the Comfort Station but I was captured immediately and brought back.
“A Military Policeman beat me up and threatened to chop my toes off so that I could not escape again.
“You can still see some of the scars he made on my foot and toes with his sword.”
A 14-year-old girl was killed by soldiers in front of us because she refused them.
Some of the girls who dared to refuse a soldier’s advances were tortured and murdered in front of the others, as an example.
“A 14-year-old girl was killed by soldiers in front of us because she refused them.
“She was slashed to her breast with swords and stabbed to death. I believe she was punished as a lesson for the rest of us.
“Life in the comfort station was unbearable for the women. Some committed suicide by drowning or hanging.”
Chong Ok-sun, was 13 when she was abducted by a Japanese soldier from her home in South Hamgyong Province, in the north of the Korean peninsula while her parents worked in the field.
She was bundled into a truck and taken to a local police station where she was raped by several policemen.
“When I shouted, they put socks in my mouth and continued to rape me,” she later testified.
“The head of the police station hit me in my left eye because I was crying. That day I lost my eyesight in the left eye.”
After ten days in a cell, she was taken to a Japanese army barracks in Heysan City where she was one of around 400 Korean ComfortWomen.
“We had to serve over 5,000 Japanese soldiers as sex slaves every day – up to 40 men per day,” she said.
“Each time I protested, they hit me or stuffed rags in my mouth. One held a matchstick to my private parts until I obeyed him. My private parts were oozing with blood.”
When one girl questioned her treatment, the company commander, Yamamoto ordered her to be beaten with a sword.
“While we were watching, they took off her clothes, tied her legs and hands and rolled her over a board with nails until the nails were covered with blood and pieces of her flesh.
“In the end, they cut off her head.”
The commander then told his soldiers, “since those Korean girls are crying because they have not eaten, boil the human flesh and make them eat it.”
Yamamota told them the girls were “easier to kill than dogs” and the cruelty of the soldiers knew no bounds.
“Once they took 40 of us on a truck far away to a pool filled with water and snakes,” said Chong.
“The soldiers beat several of the girls, shoved them into the water, heaped earth into the pool and buried them alive.
“I think over half of the girls who were at the garrison barracks were killed.”
Sexually transmitted disease was rife in the Comfort Stations, with many of the soldiers refusing to wear condoms.
The girls were given regular shots of “No. 606” – a syphilis cure which contains high doses of arsenic.
“Even mercury was applied to our private area,” says Lee. “Which left me unable to give birth.”
In her 1996 testimony Chong said one Korean girl caught a venereal disease and infected 50 soldiers.
“In order to stop the disease from spreading and to ’sterilize’ the Korean girl, they stuck a hot iron bar in her private parts,” she said.
As well as suffering from diseases, women often fell pregnant and were forced to have abortions.
Hwang Kum-Ju was 17 when she was conscripted to work in a Japanese weapons factopry but after three years there she was taken to a tent by a soldier who cut off her clothes with a bayonette before raping her.
She was then forced into a Comfort Station where she initially served high-ranking soldiers but, as she became “more used”, she was handed over to the lower ranks.
“I became pregnant on at least three occasions,” she said. “The first time I only realized it when I was in the third month of my pregnancy.
“We used to be given a strong injection called 606 for prévention of venereal disease. However, that injection must have been too strong because I had a miscarriage.
“The second and third time I had to be taken to the army hospital and an abortion was performed on me.”
While few of the women escaped the camps before Japan’s defeat, in 1945, Chong Ok-sun did manage to get away – but barely alive.
“Twice I tried to run away, but both times we were caught after a few days,” she said.
“We were tortured even more and I was hit on my head so many times that all the scars still remain.
“They also tattooed me on the inside of my lips, my chest, my stomach and my body. I fainted.
“When I woke up, I was on a mountainside, presumably left for dead.”
Chong and another girl were found by a man who lived on the mountains, along with the body of a third.
The stranger gave them food and clothes, and helped them travel back to Korea.
“I returned, scarred, barren and with difficulties in speaking, at the age of 18, after five years of serving as a sex slave for the Japanese,” she said.
For Lee, liberation only came when the war ended, and Japanese soldiers fled the barracks in China.
“Nobody told us that the war was over in August 1945,” she says. “The owner couple ran away without telling us and one day, a soldier came to us and said, ‘What are you doing here? You are free. Leave here right now or you will die!’
With no money and no idea how far they were from home, the Korean girls didn’t know what to do.
“The soldier asked us to follow him into the mountain behind the comfort station to escape. I saw the whole city on fire while we were going up into the mountain,” she says.
“He told us that he had to go down to the city to bring us some food and left us in the mountain. But he never came back to us again.
“I believe he intended to abandon us concealing their crimes.”
Disorientated and alone, Lee lived on the streets in China and didn’t return to Korea for 55 years, consumed with the shame that was so common among the victims of this shocking war crime.
“How could I have gone home?” she says. “ It was written on my face that I was a comfort woman. I could have never looked my mother in the eyes again.”
Lee married a man of Korean descent and, while she couldn;t have children, she brought up her husband’s two children and now has two grandsons, who she adores.
In the 1990s, when the truth of the atrocities began to be public, Lee began to tell her story and in 2000, she finally moved back to Korea where she lives in the House of Sharing, in the Gyeongigi province of South Korea.
Since 1992, weekly protests had been held outside the Japanese embassy in South Korea with survivors, including Lee, joining student activists to call for an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government.
But successive Japanese administrations have refused to provide official compensation, insisting that all compensation claims were settled under a 1965 peace treaty.
In a further blow to the few survivors of the Comfort Stations, a financial scandal has erupted after seven whistleblowers at the House of Sharing accused charity bosses of misappropriating funds.
The staff members at the home claim millions of pounds of donations, intended to pay for medical treatment for the women, has instead gone towards property deals and construction work on projects owned by The House of Sharing Social Welfare Corporation.
They say the women – four of whom need extensive medical care – were funding their own care or were subsidised by families.
They also claim the victims are forbidden to leave their rooms to eat in the restaurant at the home, or even to go to hospital, and are fed sub-standard meals rather than those tailored to their medical needs.
The directors are currently under investigation.
Lee Ok-Seon, despite her advancing age, is refusing to give up the fight for justice.
“If I were not kidnapped to the comfort station, I could have studied and would become a scientist,” she says.
“The experience in my youth changed my whole life completely. I could not see my parents again.
“I suffer visual disturbance and hearing loss which is worse because of my trauma.
“I am 93 years old now and have been fighting for justice for 20 years but the situation has not changed yet.
“In fact, it is getting worse for us under the administration of Shinzo Abe. But who dies first – Lee Ok-Seon or Mr.Abe? I refuse to die before he does!”