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Comfort Women

Why statues of women are appearing on South Korean buses

The figures commemorate ‘comfort women’ forced into sex slavery in World War II

This week marked International Comfort Women Day on August 14, a day commemorating the east and southeast Asian women abducted and forced into sex slavery by Japanese soldiers in World War II. Buses across Seoul, South Korea have installed statues of the women to keep their memory going.

As Channel News Asia reports, similar statues have appeared in public venues for years – the figures are usually young, barefoot women in traditional outfits known as hanbok.

"It is designed to remind South Koreans of suffering the women went through," Rim Jin-Wook, the head of Dong-A Traffic Service that organised the statues, told CNA. “We wanted to urge people not to forget our painful history.”

It’s intended that the figures would remain on Seoul bus routes until the end of September, and then they will be sent to other locations to be put on permanent public display.

Over 200,000 women are thought to have been coerced into brothels ran by Japanese soldiers in World War II, across Korea, Taiwan, China and the Philippines. Records of survivors’ accounts detailed that they were promised legitimate work under false pretences, and many were abducted and brought to ‘comfort stations’ in their home countries, while others were trafficked elsewhere.

37 comfort women are reported to live in South Korea, mostly in their eighties. According to the Korea Herald, Kim Gun-ja was the latest comfort woman to pass away last month aged 91. “I was beaten almost to death and I had to serve 40 men every day. I returned to my country after walking for 38 days,” Kim told a hearing about her experiences in February 2007.

The horrific story of comfort women creates some tension: for years, Japan denied the comfort women’s existence, or said they were consensually doing sex work. It was only in 2015 that Japan signed a deal with South Korea offering an apology and one billion yen to open a foundation for the still living survivors.

Last year, Japan temporarily recalled some of its diplomats after a 1.5m statue of a comfort woman was set outside the Japanese embassy in Busan, South Korea, by activists. It was removed, and then reinstalled following public protest.

“It's so heartbreaking to see this girl statue partly because she looks about my age," Jennifer Lee, a 19-year-old college student, related to AFP. “It horrifies me just to imagine what these women went through.”