During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army ran comfort houses — military brothels — throughout Japan and its occupied territories. The comfort women forced to work there were often not women at all but young girls who had been kidnapped or sold into sexual slavery. The exact numbers are still debated by scholars, but estimates put the numbers of comfort women as high as 400,000.
Lee Ok-sun was one of these women. She grew up in Korea in extreme poverty. Her parents could not afford to send her to school, and she was often weak from hunger; her parents were unable to buy enough food to feed the entire family. One day, her parents informed her that she was going to be adopted by a childless couple who would be able to feed her and send her to school, and that she would still be able to come home to visit the family.
She would never see her parents again. The couple wanted a servant, and when Ok-sun proved useless to them, they were only too happy to sell her, setting off a chain of hardships that would ultimately end in her kidnapping as a teenager. She was forced into a train car with other young girls, one of whom was still a child, and trafficked from Korea into China. The girls were still innocent and did not fully understand what would happen to them. Everything changed when a soldier barged in one day and brutally raped her in front of her friends. After that, Ok-sun recounts, the girls knew that even if they escaped, they could never show their faces back home because of what they had been through; in captivity, they were expected to service dozens of soldiers a day.
The book moves fluidly between the past and present. When we first meet Ok-sun, she is Granny Lee Ok-sun and is living in a home for former comfort women. The author/artist, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, inserts herself into the narrative, charting the various interviews she had with Ok-sun in the creation of the book. The book is presented in stark black and white, moving into the past through Ok-sun’s grim recollections. There’s a lot of emotionally heavy material to cover — the girls that Ok-sun was captive with all had hard, often sad lives filled with violence, poverty, and displacement — but Gendry-Kim leaves readers to think for themselves. It is beautiful, powerful storytelling.