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The Independent Culture
Young peasant girls from Korea recruited by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War thought they were going to a better life - they had been promised well-paid jobs doing laundry and cooking for the soldiers. It was not until they were far from home that they found their fate would be very different: they were to be "comfort women", forced to provide sexual services for soldiers on the front lines. Estimates of the number of women involved range from 80,000 to 200,000. Often teenagers, they were expected to provide sex 20 to 30 times a day; most lost their virginity this way and if they resisted they were beaten. By the end of the war, many had died; others killed themselves, and for nearly 50 years the remainder were too ashamed to come forward with their stories.

After the war the Japanese government did everything it could to deny the existence of these women, so it wasn't until 1993 that the award-winning photographer Yunghi Kim first heard of them. "I felt overwhelmed, very sad and angry," she says. "I'm a Korean-American and I felt very connected with them." She immediately decided that she wanted to help the women in their fight for recognition; the photographs she went on to take (some of which are reproduced here) played an important role in furthering their cause.

Kim travelled to Korea, where she managed to make contact with four former comfort women. "I went back many times, spending lots of time with them, before they agreed to let me take their pictures and hear their stories, " she recalls. "You can't imagine how terrible the war was for them. Afterwards they couldn't even tell their families what had happened to them, because Korea is such a conservative society."

Kim found that the women touched her deeply. "If I had been born 50 years earlier, it could have been me. I'm an immigrant - I came to the United States when I was 10, with my mother. The women did exactly the same thing, except that they went to Japan. They went with the blessing of their parents, looking for opportunity and the chance of a better life. Instead they found themselves forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers."

When the women, some now in their seventies, began to go public with their stories, the Japanese government at first claimed they had "volunteered" for their appalling duties. But after Kim's photo-essay was published in the Asian edition of Time magazine, the Prime Minister of Japan publicly apologised to them. And after the piece ran in an American paper, the US listed as war criminals all the organisers of the comfort-women camps and barred them entry to the country.

"I would like to think the piece had an impact," says Kim. "The most important thing the pictures did was give these women a face, show them as real people. Korea is not that important strategically, and while the US knew at the time that this was going on - there are army photos of the women taken at the end of the war - it was never investigated. I wanted to bring about worldwide awareness, let everyone know these women's stories. They are a part of history - a forgotten history." !