Photos: Portraits of ‘comfort women’

August 12, 2015 10:21AM ET

A Reuters photographer seeks out the few remaining women who were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese in WWII

World War II
Sexual Violence

Activists in the Koreas, China and Taiwan have repeatedly sought official apologies and reparations from the Japanese government on behalf of surviving "comfort women," as the Japanese called women it forced into sexual servitude during World War II.

In the early 20th century, Japan colonized much of Asia, forcing the Japanese language and culture onto its subjects. During the war, the Japanese conscripted hundreds of thousands of boys and girls, men and women as forced laborers — some as sexual slaves in military brothels. Despite documentary evidence showing that Japan's imperial military established sex camps in an effort to indulge soldiers, Japan maintains that the women were voluntary prostitutes and has erased their claims from history textbooks.

Marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon offers intimate portraits of surviving comfort women in China and his native South Korea.

Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

South Korean former "comfort woman" Kim Bok-dong displays a reproduction of her painting "The Day a 14-year-old Girl Is Stolen Away." She lives at Our Home, a shelter for survivors of Japan's World War II system of military sexual slavery. Her painting came out of an art therapy session. She says she was forced into a Japanese military brothel in 1940, where she was raped by dozens of soldiers every day. She was later taken to similar "comfort stations" in China, Hong Kong, Sumatra, Java, Malaysia and Singapore until Japan's surrender in 1945.  

Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

Hao Juxiang, 92, was abducted by Japanese soldiers when she was 15 or 16 years old and forced to serve as a "comfort woman" for nearly 20 days during World War II. At her advanced age, she fears she will not live long enough to receive an apology and compensation from the Japanese government — which she feels is long overdue.

Zhang Xiantu, a Chinese woman living in Shaanxi province, was also forced into sexual servitude. She is the only surviving comfort woman among the 16 Shaanxi plaintiffs who sued the Japanese government in 1995. She says she was abducted by Japanese soldiers at the age of 16 and made to service multiple Japanese soldiers every day for nearly a month.

Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

Survivor Ren Lane describes her experiences as a sex slave, at her house in the town of Gucheng in Shaanxi, in July. She was abducted by Japanese soldiers at the age of 15 and rescued by her mother, who paid a ransom of rice and flour. She later married and had three sons and a daughter. 

Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

Hao Yuelian says she was abducted at 17 and forced to work as a sex slave for 20 days. She became sterile as a result, according to her adopted daughter. The poster of babies on her wall offers solace.  

Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

South Korean survivor Gil Won-ok sits in her room at Seoul's Our Home shelter. She was born in 1927 in what is now North Korea and was taken to China by the Japanese military in 1940. As a victim of repeated rape, she contracted syphilis and developed tumors, leading a military doctor to remove her uterus. Sterile as a result, she demands an apology from the Japanese government.

Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

For years, every Wednesday survivors and allies have demonstrated outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. On Aug. 12, one of them set himself on fire to protest Tokyo's continued unwillingness to take responsibility for its wartime actions. Surviving "comfort woman" Gil wears a butterfly-shaped pin at a protest in July — a nod to the Butterfly Fund, which helps women around the world affected by wartime sexual violence.