Although in the past twenty years the world has become increasingly aware of the many Korean women - between 150,000 and 200,000 - forced into slavery by Japanese soldiers during World War II, their fight for acknowledgment - let alone reparation - is far from over. As an L.A. Times piece makes clear, It's a complex issue, because for decades many of the women, who were generally abducted or tricked into prostitution, regarded their enslavement as such a shame that they never spoke of it and, in some cases, took it to their graves. As a result, it's hard to know exactly how many were subjected to such treatment, or how many survive; an attempt to locate survivors in the 1990s found only 234, of whom 93 are still living.
Now in their eighties and nineties, eight of these "comfort women" live together in an idiosyncratic retirement community on the outskirts of Seoul, established as non-profit about fifteen years ago. Funded by philanthropists and Buddhist organizations, the House of Sharing, in addition to a museum of "Japanese Military Sexual Slavery," features "a full-time chef and nurse and volunteer caregivers. There are regular art classes, exercise sessions and trips to the doctor." This is a heartening nod to the respect accorded older generations; it's hard, although nice, to imagine a comparable facility here. House of Sharing also a lot of activism, since the residents, whatever their differences, are joined in a need for closure. The women and their sympathizers picket the Japanese Embassy weekly, seeking both reparations and a formal apology from the Japanese government - who, in 1993, acknowledged but did not answer for the Imperial army's practice - and pushing for more support from South Korea. Some have traveled as far as Washington to testify before congress, which has called for Japan to apologize (complex given the U.S.'s own history of sexual exploitation in Korea - albeit not one involving official recognition or forced recruitment.)
Time, as both activists and the victims themselves are aware, is running out. Ideally, reparation can be made while a maximum number of these women are still alive, and, almost as important, enough awareness can be brought to the issue in Korea that the history is destigmatized and more feel emboldened to come forward. Like any issue of sexual assault, it's a deeply complex one, and the desire to respect privacy and individual comfort wars with a very real need to see justice done. Because there are still conservative factions in Japan who deny evidence of these war crimes, it's more crucial than usual that victims come forward - and do so before it's too late, and there really is no living evidence of the kind of crime that's all too often forgotten.