The Wednesday Protests: Comfort Women and Their Fight for Recognition
CW: sexual assault
Every Wednesday since January 8, 1992, a crowd has gathered outside the Embassy of Japan in central Seoul, South Korea. At the head of the crowd stand several very old Korean women, most of whom are in their 90s. Every Wednesday, rain, snow, or shine, in humid summers and freezing winters, the harlmonies (grandmothers), as they are affectionately known, sit outside the Japanese Embassy and demand that the Japanese government acknowledges what happened to them almost 80 years ago.
They are survivors of Japanese war crimes. They were comfort women.
Although they are generally referred to as former “comfort women,” girls would be a more appropriate term. Most of them were no older than 13 or 14 when Japanese authorities systematically forced or coerced them into serving as sex slaves for soldiers of the regime during the World War II era. Some had not even reached puberty. Regardless, they were raped and beaten by Japanese soldiers over and over and over again. If they became pregnant, their fetuses were forcibly aborted. Anywhere from 70,000 to 200,000 girls were forcibly employed at the so-called comfort stations all over Southeast Asia from 1937 to 1945. And they weren’t just Korean; they were Chinese, Indonesian, Filipino, Taiwanese, and any number of other nationalities from Asia and Europe. The exact number of girls can only be estimated, as most hid their experience in shame and silence and carried it to their graves.
The first Korean victim to come forward, Kim Hak-sun, did not do so until 1991. Her testimony encouraged others to speak up about their experiences. As a result, since January 8, 1992, the halmonies have been joined by crowds of other demonstrators in front of the Japanese Embassy, every Wednesday. The Wednesday Protests are the longest running rally on a single theme in the world, according to the Guiness Book of World Records. And yet, the Japanese government has done little to acknowledge them and what they endured during the war.
Shinzou Abe and his government avoid the issue at all costs. In 2015, the Japanese signed a deal with the then-more conservative South Korean government. Abe apologized and promised to provide one billion yen (or about $8.3 million) to surviving victims for “psychological damage” in exchange for the two sides agreeing to never bring the issue up again. But this agreement wasn’t what the former comfort women are fighting for.
The comfort women don’t want Japanese money. They want a genuine apology and an acknowledgement of the horrible things inflicted upon them by the Japanese. Yet any mention of the comfort women issue causes the Japanese government to raise its hackles. They protest any mention of the issue, purposefully omit their war crimes from Japanese textbooks, and object to the construction of statues memorializing the comfort women. Part of the 2015 agreement included removing a statue across from the Japanese Embassy that was built to commemorate the thousandth Wednesday Protest. Their protests over statues continue; Japan recalled two diplomats in 2017 when the South Koreans refused to remove the monument. The Japanese city of Osaka even terminated its sister-city status with San Francisco last year over the building of a comfort women statue in Chinatown.
Conditions in South Korea are improving under the new, more liberal government; President Moon even established a day of remembrance for comfort women in 2018. But the Japanese government evidently wants the crimes that they committed during WWII, including the Rape of Nanking, forced labor at Hashima Island, and the subjugation of the comfort women, to be forgotten. That is why these women, even as their numbers dwindle, continue to fight for the recognition of what happened to them.
Every single Wednesday.