“I don’t want to live anymore,” the frail woman said in a husky voice. Reaching the end of her life, in pain from several severe diseases, she has terrible memories of her earlier days. Zhang Xiantu is one of the surviving Chinese “comfort women”, as those forced to work in Japan’s wartime military brothels are euphemistically called.
When I met Zhang in her dark and shabby home, she recalled the day Japanese soldiers broke into her house and abducted her at the age of 15.
As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two approaches, I visited surviving former “comfort women” in China and South Korea. The long years have not been able to heal their scars, both mental and physical.
Scholars continue to debate the number of women exploited, but activists say there may have been as many as 200,000 Korean victims, few of whom came forward. In China, estimates are sketchier, but also range as high as 200,000, with historians having identified 200 victims.
When I visited another survivor in China, Hao Yuelian, she was having intravenous treatment on her emaciated foot in her room decorated with big posters of babies.
They seemed out of place in this barren house; but her adopted daughter explained that the biggest scar of her life was her lost fertility, something her family consider is related to what happened to Hao during World War Two.
After many years, evidence of this tragic experience is no longer visible. Instead, I saw women suffering physically and socially in desperate financial circumstances. With little or no support other than from their families, these women seem to be silently fading away into history.
Chinese researchers told me they have only been able to locate fewer than 20 former Chinese “comfort women”. Most of them are in the same wretched situation.
After my journey to document Chinese victims, I flew to South Korea to meet another four survivors. I found that, though the victims from both countries share similar experiences, their current lives are very different.
South Korean Kim Bok-dong was abducted when she was 15. According to her testimony, on weekdays she was forced to have sex with around 15 Japanese soldiers a day. On weekends she said it seemed like it was more than 50 in what were called “comfort stations”.
She now takes a public role in acknowledging what happened to her rather than being shamed into silence.
Every Wednesday, she attends a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to demand an apology from Japan; hundreds of people support her by participating in the rally. Far from a listless victim, I saw an impassioned peace activist striving not only to restore her dignity but also help other victims.
In South Korea, 238 victims came forward and shared their stories of abuse and all survivors receive financial support from the government. Only 47 South Korean former “comfort women” are alive today.
Twelve of them live in special shelters for former “comfort women” funded by an NGO. In these facilities, care workers and medical staff look after them and therapy is provided to help treat their trauma.
After witnessing how former “comfort women” live in both countries, there is an obvious difference in their quality of life.
“The Chinese government overlooked the issue of comfort women in their attempt to focus on normalising the relationship with Japan,” said Su Zhiliang, Director of the China Research Center of Comfort Women.
Despite these differences, for all of the ageing survivors there is little time left for them to get the apology and compensation they want from Japan.
Kim Bok-dong told me that many of the “comfort women” have already passed away. It’s very painful to realise they didn’t receive even an apology from Japan before they died, she said.
Japan has said a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties with South Korea settled the issue of compensation for women forced to work in the brothels. Japan also set up a fund in 1995 to make payments to the women from private contributions, but South Korea has said that was unofficial and so not good enough.
Japan’s Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that Chinese individuals lost their right to claim war compensation from Japan and its companies under a 1972 Japan-China joint communiqué.
In South Korea, eight former “comfort women” have died this year, five since June and South Korean President Park Geun-hye said last week the August 15 anniversary marking the end of the war 70 years ago may be the last chance for a Japanese leader to resolve the issue.
While working on this story, one South Korean victim in her 90s, Park Yu-nyeon, died in her foster son’s house in the United States.