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South Koreans pause protests to grieve for Japanese

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Lee Jin-man/AP

(Read caption) South Korean women, known around the world as 'comfort women,' pay silent tribute to victims of Friday's earthquake and tsunami in Japan, in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on March 16.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

A vociferous band of South Korean women known around the world as “comfort women” have been a thorn in the side of the Japanese government for nearly two decades. Each Wednesday almost without fail, they gather outside the Japanese Embassy in the heart of downtown Seoul to denounce their one-time use as sex slaves as Japan’s military blitzed a trail across Asia during World War II.

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But the first Wednesday after the devastating earthquake rocked Japan and triggered a devastating tsunami, the women turned their protests into a vigil for those who died.

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It marked only the second time they had halted their otherwise ritualistic demonstrations, according to local media. On that previous occasion, in 1995, Japan had been struck by a quake in the city of Kobe, losing more than 6,000 people.

As they prayed for the dead and those suffering, the women said they wanted to show they had compassion for the Japanese people, separating them from the “sins” perpetrated by the military more than 66 years ago.

The comfort women, now elderly and few in number, pushed envelopes of cash into collection boxes. They have also pledged to dampen their demonstration while Japan deals with the aftermath of the quake.

More than 200,000 women from across Asia are thought to have been forced into brothels for Japanese soldiers during wartime. Most of the women were Korean or Chinese. It was a band of around 200 Korean comfort women who, in 1992, launched a campaign seeking justice and reparations from Japan.