SEONGSAN, South Korea, July 8 (UPI) -- Oh Shi-jong remembers the seven buttons on the uniforms the Japanese soldiers wore as they waited in line outside the building across the street from his house in Seongsan Village on the southeastern tip of South Korea's Jeju Island.
It was the spring of 1945. Oh was 16. World War II was nearing its end and Japan was shuttling thousands of troops to the island in preparation for a final stand against the United States that would never come.
Jeju, an island of 1,134 square miles in the East Sea, has always been a militarily strategic location in Asia. During its 36-year occupation by Japan, it had been fortified with tunnels, an airport, kamikaze planes and the like and it was further reinforced with troops in anticipation of thwarting a U.S. invasion of Japan.
Now 90, Oh said he still remembers the Japanese Navy officers around 17 years of age training daily in their kamikaze boats on the ocean in the shadow of Seongsan Ilchulbong, a volcanic tuff cone with over a dozen man-made caves dug into its southern slope to conceal the boats for surprise attacks against incoming enemies.
Now, Sunrise Peak, as its name translates to in English, is a tourist destination that is visited by tens of thousands a year and by locals every Jan. 1, to be the first catch the year's inaugural sunrise.
Japanese naval headquarters
In April 1945, however, Oh said the Japanese Navy had selected his hometown for its island headquarters and confiscated several residences, including an inn and the house across the street from his, which were converted into places of work for "comfort women," a euphemism for women forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II.
"I remember they were below 20 years of age," he said of the comfort women Monday during a press conference at the Seongsan Community Office. "There were some older women, too. There were some under 20 and around 25 as well."
The issue of comfort women is a contentious one between Japan and Korea, as Korea has long demanded reparations and an apology to settle the war crimes Japan committed against the thousands of women forced into sexual slavery. Most of the women have since died and the remaining survivors are elderly.
Japan, on the other hand, denies that it forced the women into sexual slavery and that it has sufficiently acknowledged its wrongdoings during its colonial period of the peninsula, though South Korean activists disagree.
Oh's testimony, and accompanying study, is the first published mention of Japanese comfort women brothels on Jeju Island.
"They rarely came out of the houses," he said. "They only came out of the houses when they were looking for food. I assumed they were controlled" by the Japanese military.
He said there were five to seven women at each house and the soldiers would visit only on the weekends. He said he and his friends would watch the houses, watch the women and wonder what occurred within.
Oh's testimony comes as part of a 10-year study by Jeju National University Professor Cho Sung-youn and assistant professor Koh Sung-man on Seongsan Villiage's Japanese Yokaren, or military trainees, often minors, who near the end of the war were encouraged to take on kamikaze missions.
The researchers interviewed Oh for the first time about a decade ago and couldn't believe what they heard, Cho said.
"I couldn't believe it," Cho told UPI. "I wanted to make sure his claim was correct so I tried to interview other people but failed."
Those who witnessed the brothels are either dead or elderly and among those still capable of reiterating their memories, none have agreed to talk, he said.
"We still believe that there are some people who clearly remember what happened before and we want to look for them," he said. "However, the elderly people they think that this is something we shouldn't be talking about."
The only evidence they have other than Oh's testimony is a photograph they found of Yokaren soldiers, who dressed in formal uniforms with seven buttons down the front.
The photo, taken May 1945, is of some 30 Yokaren soldiers of the 120th Shinyo class unit stationed in Gosan Village that was published in a Yokaren veterans association book in 1990.
Koh said Murakami Tsukio, commander of the Yokaren soldiers in Gosan, wrote in his memoir that his soldiers were worse off than many others throughout Korea, due to their poor surroundings.
"It was pitiful that the troopers, including the boat crew members, had no place to spend their leisure time," the researchers quote Murakami as having written. "However, I think that it was an opportunity for the servicemen to have a very close relationship in various aspects."
To Koh, the fact that this group of Yokaren kept in close contact decades after the war while other, similar groups' associations disintegrated, suggests the soldiers did bond, possibly over visits to the comfort women in Seongsan.
"Based on this photograph and the testimony, we presume there were comfort women houses, but some links are missing," Koh acknowledged during the press conference. "We could not discover any women who were forced to work there and we couldn't find any soldiers who used the places. But Oh's testimony is very important research material."
'She told me her story'
In the study -- published last week by Jeju National University's Tamna Culture Institute -- is an excerpt from Oh's original testimony. He says he met one of the comfort women from his village again in 1970. He was a bus driver and she sold shellfish on the street. He saw her one day while busing schoolchildren on a field trip.
"At first, she tried to avoid me," he said. "Gradually, she told me her story. She was not only visited by one soldier a day, but two or three or even five or six. Listening to her, I was shocked. She was selling conch shells on a street stall, but, considering her appearance and outfit, she didn't seem to be doing that type of work."
On Monday, asked what he said to her that day, Oh said at first she didn't remember him, but then he told her where he lived as a child and she remembered.
"I just said 'Hello' and 'How have you been?' that's all," he said, adding, "I remember she didn't look well."
Koh explained Oh is old and his memory isn't what it used to be, and they are running out of time to find others who might be able to help complete the history.
"We have one witness," he said. "But we assume there are more who can bravely give their testimony about the comfort women houses."