June 15, 2020

Hidemi Nagao ( Former Civil and Media Liaison Officer of the Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Japan, Novelist and Non-fiction Writer )



Lee Yong-soo, a self-proclaimed comfort woman, held a press conference in Tague, South Korea, on May 7.  She accused Seigiren by questioning its money management practices.  She added that she would not join the Wednesday demonstrations any longer.

Seigiren (the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan) gets not only private funding from individual and corporate donors but also government subsidies.  What is surprising is it obtained 1.343 billion won (approximately 116.7 million yen) from the South Korean government from 2016 to 2019.[1]  Another surprise is that Kim Eun-Sung, the sculptor who made the 1.3-meter-tall girl statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, made more than 100 replicas and cashed in at least 3.1 billion won (approximately 277 million yen) so far.  Kim is believed to have sold close to ten thousand smaller statues (10 to 50 centimeters tall). [2]  The replicas, large or small, are copyrighted.  He is one of the directors of Seigiren.

While the prosecutors are investigating Seigiren’s accounting irregularities, the intellectuals and media columnists are struggling to find out what the nation and the public can do or should do for the comfort women issue.

Lee’s accusations have not only uncovered personal greed of certain human rights advocates but also brought about an unprecedented change in public perceptions of the issue.

2. Why?

Why did Lee publicly criticize Seigiran at all?  I got intrigued to figure out what prompted her to do it.  Putting myself in her shoes, I try to make a guess below.

(1) Lee has not been happy with results of her commitments for the past 30 years.

(2) Though she has been one of the key players, she is getting afraid of being pulled out of center stage as things are going on now.

(3) She has not been duly paid for her commitments in places both domestic and foreign.

(4) Her act to give a hug at President Trump at a presidential banquet has not been properly recognized.

(5) The public is no longer paying any attention to her bold statement that “Yong-soo is the Dokdo and the Dokdo is Yong-soo.”

(6) Because she recently finds it hard to tell which is true, her personal experience of decades ago or what she has been narrating about it, she intended to divert the public attention to something else.

(7) She has, at long last, begun to have qualms of conscience about having practiced hypocrisy.  Or,

(8) She has lately been suffering from isolation.

3. Criticisms against Seigiren and its former leader Yoon Meehyang

Most of Lee’s criticisms are related to money as shown below.

Lee sobbingly said, “The fact that the Korean Council (Seigiren) has been making business of the former comfort women for the past 30 years came to light at last.  I will swear to construct a comfort women history museum.” [3]

Lee appealed, “The Wednesday demonstrations should be terminated.”[4]

Lee complained, “The bear trainer taught bears to do tricks and the trainer swindled all the money for the past 30 years.”[5]

Lee fumingly said, “Yoon Meehyang became a congressperson for her personal greed.  It is unforgivable.”[6]

Lee once asked Yoon to buy some food because she was hungry.  Yoon refused to do so by saying, “I don’t have money.”[7]

4. Proposal of exchanges of South Korean and Japanese students

Lee understands what righteous history is.  She is well aware, at the same time, the authenticity of the hateful Seigiren as well as all self-proclaimed comfort women would be denied if there comes a day when both South Korea and Japan can share common historical perceptions.

Lee preached, “Japan must apologize and pay reparations to the comfort women for the next one thousand years, even ten thousand years.  It is necessary, as a prerequisite, for the students both in South Korea and Japan to learn history from a proper perspective.  Both nations must become friendly to put the process on the right track.”[8]

5. Dilemma of the self-proclaimed former comfort woman

5.1.    Promotion of human rights activities

The comfort women issue made a big wave in South Korea in early 1990s when Seigiren was established.  Seigiren launched a policy to restore honor and respect and to secure stability and freedom of the victims of the licensed prostitution system and began a variety of protest activities against Japan.

Lee came forward as a former comfort woman in June 1992.  She became one of the victims of the system and took part in Seigiren activities.

Seigiren’s purpose was to denounce Japan by appeal violations of the women’s rights to the world.  It required funds to promote and continue its campaigns.  Its leaders decided to collect donations from the public.  As donations came in from students and people and from businesses, so Seigiren expanded its campaigns overseas and to the United Nations.  Once it succeeded in obtaining subsidies from the government, Seigiren became a government-endorsed entity.

Funds would never be sufficient.  So, Seigiren committed itself to raise money by selling girl statues and other comfort women related goods.

It was only recently when Lee got concerned about three things.  One is a long-standing criticism against her personality, the image of which Seigiren created.  The second is a question of who should be at center stage as far as the comfort women issue is concerned.  The third one is Yoon is no longer a civic leader but a congressperson.

Lee’s outcry derives from the three things above.

5.2.    Misgivings about stereotypical views

Lee reflected on her life for the past 30 years.  Some recollections were embarrassing but others were elating and pleasant.  She always narrated her sufferings at seminars and media availabilities, meeting with a variety of people.  She took a witness stand at the U.S. Congress and at a Harvard University hall in 2007.  She cried loudly at Palisades Park in New Jersey in 2011 when a comfort women cenotaph was unveiled, an inscription of which stated that the Japanese military abducted 200,000 women to warfront.

The knowledge of those people Lee met at various places is limited to the two years since 1944 when she was in China and Taiwan.  The timeframe—too short for anyone’s adolescent years—was, at best, a fragmentary phase of her long life.  And they regard her only as an accuser.

One goes through a life being a child, an adolescent, and an adult before becoming an aged.  Lee did so, too.  Being born and raised in Taegu, she had painful days because she had to work for four younger brothers.[9] She still remembers voices of her father, mother, and an aunt.  When she was 14, 15, or 16, a Japanese who put on a military cap gave her a dress and a pair of shoes and took her away though her memories are not so clear today.

After the war ended, Lee returned from Taiwan to Taegu.  Working as a waitress at taverns and grab-joints, she managed to live through such hard times as the Korean War.[10]  After her mother’s death, she worked as an insurance vender, too.[11]  She got married to an elderly man in 1989 but got divorced in two years as he was very suspicious and violent.[12]  In August

1991 when she was sick and tired of the personal trouble, Kim Hak-sun came to the fore as a former comfort woman.  Quite a few women followed her suit in response to Seigiren’s encouragement.  Lee decided to join them.  She viewed it as a godsend.

Those recollections did not help her overcome the three embarrassing questions.  Things are moving; Yoon would soon become a congress person.

Lee remains as a woman putting on a comfort woman mask, which is nothing but a symbol of depersonalization.

5.3.    Overcoming the depersonalization

One grows being told not to tell a lie.  Reality is the world is full of lies, which Lee also personally experienced.  Lee allows her to tell a lie for the purpose of convenience.  It is unforgivable, however, for others to tell her a lie.  Likewise, she does not mind using others for personal benefit, but she does not want to let others use her.

Lee gave a serious thought about the status quo for a while.  Her personality was a work-up of Seigiren and Yoon; an idolized creation for the two years since 1944.  It was a product intentionally defying her memory, reason, and conscience.

Lee made up her mind that she should create a new personality.  What should she do?

One way is to appeal to the public the Han of a thousand years against Japan more loudly than ever before.  She knows it has already become a

cliché.   A proposal of historical reviews by students of both South Korea

and Japan—which Lee talked about a few years back somewhere—is superficial at best.  For, she is aware of its limitations.

There must be other means.  Lee wants to be a central player on stage again and leave the stage as one.  …  It dawned on Lee.  Exposing hidden malpractices would do.  The world would pay attention to her once again, which ushers in her new image.  Even if her exposure tactics fails, Seigiren and Yoon would not survive unscathed.

Lee finally decided to cry out loud.  She or Seigiren or the government could care less about an academic criticism that Pavlovian anti-Japanese campaigns alone would not solve the issue.

6. What I wrote above is my guess of Lee’s flow of thoughts. It is quite unfortunate for no one to have mentioned her what Tomoko Yamazaki, a Japanese historian on women, wrote in her book about Osaki-san in 1972 and what Ham Seok-heon, an avid Quaker and a pro-democracy movement leader throughout his life (1901-1989), stated in his book in 1962.

6.1.    Yamazaki wrote the following about Osaki-san.[13]

“Osaki-san was sold as ‘Karayuki-san’ by her brother Funazo for 300 yen when she was ten years old.  She was taken to Sandakan in Borneo, Indonesia and she became a prostitute at the age of 13 (*Karayuki-san are Japanese prostitutes who did business in foreign countries).  After the war, she fled from Manchuria with her husband and a son and lived in Kyoto; upon her husband’s passing, she alone came back to Kyushu; and she peacefully died there years later.”

“Osaki-san, despite her having been exposed to the villagers’

prejudice in Kyushu, elevated her personality to a noble level, without becoming cynical or anti-social.  She had a big heart not only toward other people but also toward nine stray cats living around her house.  Osaki-san gave them food while having barely enough food for herself.  She said to me, ‘They also have a life to live through.’”

6.2.    Ham Seok-heon wrote as follows in his book.[14]

“A human being is born to resist.  Resistance proves the existence of the human being.”

“Life experience derives from a mental process of understanding, scrutinizing, and demonstrating one’s existence as a unique and valuable personality.”

7. Lee Yong-soo’s attempt seems to have achieved an objective. She would not feel lonely for a while.  But the authorities’ investigations to the allegations against Seigiren’s fund management are irrelevant to public appraisal of Lee’s personality.  People always face a harsh reality, but the reality also sees many people being saved by a person(s) of integrity.
Lee Yong-soo will earn her place in history though it has nothing to do with historical perceptions.



[1] The Japanese language edition of the JoongAng Ilbo dispatch at 1017 on May 26, 2020

[2] The Japanese language edition of the Chosun Ilbo dispatch at 1140 on June 3, 2020

[3] The Japanese language edition of Wow!Korea dispatch at 1311 on June 6,2020

[4] Ditto

[5] The Japanese language edition of the Chosun Ilbo dispatch at 0540 on May 31, 2020

[6] The Japanese language edition of the Chosun Ilbo dispatch at 1040 on May 26, 2020

[7] The Japanese language edition of the Chosun Ilbo dispatch at 1010 on May 26, 2020

[8] The Yonhap News dispatch at 1647 of May 25, 2020

[9] The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and Teishintai Research Committee, Ed. (1993). Shogen–Kyosei Renko Sareta Chosenjin Ianfu Tachi [Testimonies – Korean Comfort Women Forcibly Recruited] (author translation). Tokyo. Akashi Shoten Publishing, pp. 131-132

[10] Ditto, p. 142

[11] Ditto, p. 143

[12] Lee Yong-soo and Michiko Takayanagi. (2009). Watashi wa Nihongun Ianfu Datta [I was a comfort woman for the Japanese military] (author translation). Tokyo. ShinNippon Shuppan Publishing, pp. 78-79

[13] Yamazaki, Tomoko. (1972). Sandakan Hachiban Shokan [Brothel Eight in Sandakan] (a/t). Tokyo. Chikuma-Shobo Publishing, p. 255

[14] Ham Seok-heon. (1980). Kunan no Kankoku Minshu-shi [History of hardships of the South Korean people] (a/t). (Kim Hak-hyon, Trans.) Tokyo. Shinkyosha Publishing, p. 399, p. 15


  1. 山崎 純一 says:

    What is surprising is it obtained 1.343 billion won (approximately 1.167 million yen)の部分の日本円の単位が違っているようです。
    誤り:1.167million yen
    正:116.7million yen

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