In her 80s, Grandmother Lee Mak Dal has a kind face that makes her seem no different from any other grandmother, but the story she tells reveals her unspeakable scars.
During a testimonial event Tuesday in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, which began with a screening of a short documentary film on Korean “comfort women,” Lee told the story of her abduction from her home at age 17 by the Japanese military, which forced her into sexual slavery during World War Two. More than 200 people attended the event, which focused on Lee’s personal narratives and the widely criticized reaction of the Japanese government to accusations of atrocities. Students who attended the talk said they found Lee’s story powerful and still relevant today.
Lee — who spoke in Korean through a translator — began her narrative by explaining her reasons for speaking in public about her experience as a victim of the Japanese military sexual slavery system.
“I had so much grief, such a deep sense of sadness, that I had to come to this faraway country to tell the story,” she said.
“Comfort Women” is a euphemism for the 100,000 to 200,000 girls and young women who were forced into Japan’s military brothels during the Second World War, said Lim Ji-Young, a representative from the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan who spoke after Lee.
The women were forced to accommodate as many as 50 soldiers each day. The war crime remains largely unresolved, as the Japanese government has yet to take responsibility for its military’s coercion of women from Korea, China and many Southeast Asian countries into sexual slavery, Lim said.
Lee said she was deceived by the Japanese soldiers who came to her village sometime around 1940, who told her that she would be given a job in a factory and abducted her against her will.
She was then shipped to Keelung, Taiwan, where Lee said she was confined in a house for the next six years.
“There were a number of girls there already,” she said. “They fed us three spoonfuls of rice, a small radish and sometimes rice porridge for a meal. Three spoonfuls. The lady who was in charge told us to speak only Japanese. When I didn’t speak Japanese since I didn’t know it, she’d hit me.”
Lee broke into tears as she spoke.
“It is hard for me to say because of the matter,” she said. “Please forgive me.”
She said the lady at the brothel threatened the girls so they would not run away and forced them to submit to soldiers.
“When a soldier came in, I would cry, and he ripped off my clothes, yelled at me, then hurt me,” Lee said. “When he didn’t get what he wanted, he called the lady and asked why she’d taught me this way. They would sometimes take the knife and cut my arm, hit me and kicked me in my head.”
At the comfort station, Lee said she witnessed numerous atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers.
“I remember, one girl had a really bad skin condition, so they dragged her into this den, stripped her of her clothes and locked her inside,” she said. “When she had starved to death, somebody wrapped her body and took her away.”
The war ended six years after Lee’s ordeal in Taiwan began. After weeks on a boat, she was able to return to Korea at age 22, where her family was barely able to recognize her because of her drastic emaciation.
Lee said it was too difficult for her to tell her story even to her mother.
“[My mom asked], ‘Why do you look that way?’ ” she said. “I told her that I was sick. How could I tell my parents what had happened? How could anyone?”
After her return, Lee said she felt isolated from the other villagers.
“Everyone knew that I had been taken away by the Japanese,” she said. “There was no one to marry me because nobody wanted me. People looked down on me. They must have thought I was dirty.”
Unable to bear the ostracism any longer, Lee left her village and spent the next 40 years of her life working as a housemaid in the Korean cities of Busan and Seoul. She lived in anonymity until her 70s, when she learned that the Korean government was inquiring whether any of its citizens had suffered hardships, such as forced labor, during the Japanese occupation.
After Lee reported to the government, she met with the office of Korean Council, which arranged Lee’s trip across the United States to deliver testimonials at various universities. The Korean Council actively campaigns for Japan to be held accountable for war crimes; legal reparations rather than monetary compensations; official apologies instead of the Japanese prime minister’s mere expression of personal “sympathy”; and inclusion of historical facts in education.
Lim said sexual violence during war has continued in a perpetual cycle, as society and the family members of sexual victims try to cover up the incidents and perpetrators are not convicted.
“The grandmothers at first covered their faces in demonstrations,” she said. “But gradually they’ve begun to realize that it wasn’t them who were dirty, it wasn’t them who were to be ashamed. One of our biggest achievements is that we have transformed these women’s self-image and given them the will to voice the injustice.”
The Japanese government, which denies the existence of material evidence proving the coercion by Japanese troops, has not issued any formal acknowledgement of the atrocities despite pressure from the United Nations Commission of Human Rights and a recent resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives that urged the Japanese to admit to and rectify the wrong, Lim said.
The people gathered at the event were probably among the last generation that will be able to meet directly with the living comfort women, Lee said.
Students in the audience said they are taking Lee’s message to heart.
“Comfort women is an issue that not many people at Yale know about,” Uri McMillan GRD ’09 said. “I hope Lee’s tour really draws attention and mobilizes people to get the Japanese government to actually respond.”
Yoo-Jin Cheong ’09 said she thinks it is important for the world to remember the comfort women’s stories in the continuing fight against injustice.
“I hope stories like hers don’t get lost or buried as the generations go on,” she said. “The issue of gender violence and injustice in wars is not a dead issue and is still prevalent, nor is it restricted to Asia.”
Lee said the purpose of her tour is to raise awareness of the atrocities and to inspire audiences to take up the issue even after there are no comfort women alive any longer.
“Study hard so that nothing like this will happen again,” she said. “When I see young people like you, it gives me hope, gives me strength. You’ve eased the load on my shoulders.”