Lee Ok-sun was 15 years old when she was kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. She was taken shortly after her parents — who were convinced she’d have a better upbringing outside of their modest home — sold her to a noodle shop’s owners in Busan, South Korea in 1942. The adoption wasn’t permanent. She was sold again, to a tavern that doubled as a brothel. While on an errand for the tavern in July of that year, two Korean men grabbed her and loaded her into the flatbed of a truck. Ok-sun was brought to the site of former military quarters at China’s East Yanji airport, where she labored in dirty construction work outdoors with hundreds of others. The workers, all taken against their will, were building out the facility as part of the Japanese military’s expansion into China. She was fed rotted cabbage and rice that tasted like sand, and one night, exhausted after a day of grueling tasks, Japanese soldiers showed up at her door and raped her in front of two abductee girls she befriended.
More soldiers followed, and Ok-sun was raped over and over again.
The “comfort women” were mostly Korean women victimized in a sprawling human trafficking operation conducted by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. The first comfort stations — sites of state-controlled sexual slavery, staffed largely by teenaged girls who were kidnapped or lured there under false pretenses — were established in the early 1930s. In the ensuing years, Japan’s program expanded considerably, and at least 50,000 women (possibly up to 200,000) were enslaved to engage in sexual servitude with soldiers across Asia. The euphemistic phrase “comfort woman” — the most prominently used term for the victims and a direct English translation of the Japanese word “ianfu,” which means “prostitute” — fails to depict the human rights violations that took place under this system of rape and exploitation. Reservations about legitimizing the phrase preface Grass, a black-and-white work of nonfiction comics by South Korean cartoonist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated by Janet Hong and published by Drawn & Quarterly. It tells Lee Ok-sun’s story.
A mountainous, forested landscape looms behind a village in Busan, framed by painted clusters of imposing trees and their dangling fruit, each defined by Gendry-Kim’s brushy black strokes. Birds and dragonflies swoop in near the clothesline of Ok-sun’s childhood home, where she clashes frequently with her mother about family responsibility. The angular-jawed matriarch — a seamstress, maid, and more to support her family — towers over her animated daughter, her round face and bright expressions rendered in minimal shapes and dashes. Ok-sun is scolded for begging to go to school. She’s instead relegated to finishing domestic chores in the house, where there was lots to be done and little to eat. Bleak economics and a national history of subordinating women (which obviously isn’t exclusive to Korea) meant that Ok-sun wouldn’t be educated on her parents’ watch, but an affluent couple’s adoption might’ve changed that.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be saying goodbye forever,” Ok-sun tells Gendry-Kim of having been sold to the udon shop owners. Grass pivots from interviews with the elderly Ok-sun at a nursing home; to autobiographical pages on how the book came to be; to the horrors of decades ago. The latter yields the most visually arresting sections, although the author breaks from all of it to contextualize the larger story in a documentarian manner that isn’t for the faint of heart.
Ahead of conveying Ok-sun’s experiences at the airport, Gendry-Kim recounts war crimes that created the conditions for the comfort station system. Tightly framed images in six-panel grids of Japan’s months-long “hard-won victory in Shanghai” and its brutalizing raid on Nanjing (also “Nanking”) portray a callous military run amok. In its grainy aesthetic and vintage newsreel sensibility, this sequence is a deviation from how Gendry-Kim tells most of the story, as she pulls back from Grass‘s more immediate scenes of intimate interview segments and darkened, agonizing quarters of East Yanji’s comfort station. Visual details of Nanjing’s attending atrocities are somewhat obscured by swathes of coal-black, smudgy silhouettes. But the soldiers’ barbarity is articulated plainly in captions: At one site “over a thousand civilians were lined up, doused with gasoline, and set on fire.” In the next panel, above a pile of corpses is the body of an infant. “Among them were countless women and children.”
Gentry-Kim draws on a soldier’s journal in reporting that the Nanjing massacre included mutilation, burying civilians alive, and mass rape. We now know that preventing the rapes that occurred during these invasions, in the areas occupied by the Japanese soldiers — as well as the spread of venereal disease — was part of military leadership’s rationale for subsequently enslaving women. Neither was accomplished. In his book Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II, researcher Yoshimi Yoshiaki finds that large numbers of soldiers carried STDs, comfort stations likely helped spread them, the army’s penal code was ill-equipped to punish sex offenders, and that, obviously, establishing a system of rape doesn’t prevent rape.
“The comfort system was a system of officially recognized sexual violence that victimized particular women and trampled upon their human rights,” writes Yoshiaki. “It is impossible to prevent rape on the one hand while officially sanctioning sexual violence on the other.”
Wordless, wholly blacked-out square panels follow the first assault in Grass, which marks the halfway point in the voluminous comic. Narrative text describes the violence, but it’s comparatively mostly implied in the art, with Gendry-Kim’s heavy reliance on blotty black splotches and backlit figures taking the lead — soldiers’ faces are shrouded in shadow. Ok-sun discusses comfort women’s deaths, primitive and invasive medical procedures for deflecting or treating STDs, beatings by soldiers and police, and contracting diseases that rendered childbirth impossible for her.
Toward the book’s conclusion, illustrations of tall grasses outside of the nursing home are reduced in stages to scratchy abstractions, while close-ups of Ok-sun alternate between realist current-day portraiture and unrefined sketches of her young self as a sexual slave. Ok-sun, navigating decades of trauma now but actively fighting to broadcast what took place, chronicles her time after the war, in which unhealthy relationships with men mostly just brought her more suffering.
“I’ve never known happiness from the moment I came out of my mother’s womb,” she says.