There are an estimated 29 million women in modern slavery, including some form of sex trafficking and forced marriage, today. To understand why so many girls and women have suffered as victims of sex trafficking in Asia, Sylvia Yu Friedman wants more people to look back at history.

“Experts estimate that the Japanese Imperial military took up to 400,000 girls and women from nations they had occupied to more than 1,000 rape stations in China and hundreds of other military brothels across the Asia Pacific wherever soldiers were stationed,” she says. “UN experts have called this the largest human rights abuse against girls and women in the 20th century. However, the Japanese government has been unwilling to bear full legal and moral responsibility for conceiving and implementing this form of wartime sex slavery and has not issued a truly sincere apology that has satisfied the demands of the surviving victims and their families.”

Though the government has not fully taken responsibility, separately Japanese Christians have personally apologized to elderly survivors of Japanese wartime sex slavery in China.

“Their sincere apologies to these survivors and other Chinese and Koreans have brought a level of healing to generational pain that arose from the wounds of war that were never closed,” says Friedman.

An author, filmmaker, and philanthropy professional, Friedman has interviewed women across Asia who have survived both historical forced prostitution during World War II and current-day sex trafficking.

“I realized that a cycle of sex trafficking continues across Asia and that the enslavement that began with the Japanese Imperial military never went away due to gender discrimination and a lack of outcry and closure of historical wartime sex slavery,” she says.

Friedman’s passion for ending sex trafficking has led her to investigate its underworld for two decades. Through her work in philanthropy, she has been able to direct funds to some of the earliest anti-trafficking projects in Asia.

Friedman has also organized workshops educating others about the issue through the 852 Freedom Campaign. She is a pioneer in exposing different forms of human trafficking from her base in Hong Kong and won an award for her three-part documentary series on human trafficking in China, Hong Kong, and Thailand. She is also the author of A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines in Asia and is currently developing a TV series based on this book with a Singapore-based film company.

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Friedman recently spoke with global books editor Geethanjali Tupps about her investigation into the trafficking underworld in Asia, and how through this pilgrimage, she has come to terms with her Korean identity and witnessed the potential that Asian professional women have in changing the current sex trafficking scene, and has seen the impact of prayer.

How did you first become interested in fighting sex trafficking?

My dedication to human rights had its genesis in my experience with the searing humiliation of racism as the only Korean kid in an all-white school in Canada in the 1980s. Strangers on the street called me a chink, and classmates said “chink you” instead of “thank you.” My friends said insensitive things about my appearance or asked if the kimchi jar in my house held a dead animal.

All of this deeply sensitized me to injustice. As a teenager, my mother relayed a story from a Korean newspaper about Kim Hak-soon, a survivor of forced prostitution for the Japanese military before and during WWII. Kim testified to the international media about her experiences as a wianbu or a “comfort woman,” forced into prostitution as a teenager for the Japanese army. Kim shared her story publicly because the Japanese government denied they had any involvement in wartime sexual servitude and called the women “voluntary willing prostitutes.”

I was troubled that I had not learned this history in my school textbooks. I couldn’t shake off the fact that what she went through could have happened to me had I been born into her family at that time period.

What have you since learned about wartime sexual servitude?

Sexual violence in war currently exists in Ukraine and Nigeria through the Boko Haram. The cycle of sex trafficking continues with 6.3 million girls and women suffering around the world.

I believe this cycle of sex trafficking is continuing from the wartime sex slavery by the Japanese military. After the war, some Korean and Chinese victim-survivors were left behind in countries like Thailand, and in order to survive, they had to sell their bodies near military bases. What if governments, including the Japanese, had taken a stronger stance against the horrors of wartime sex slavery and “comfort women” after WWII and if they had declared, “Never again!”? A stance like this could have led to international agreements to stop the trafficking of women.

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How have you been transformed after investigating the trafficking underworld for two decades?

In 2013, while I was researching my documentary on sex trafficking in Hong Kong, I first entered the red-light districts with a missionary to look for victims to interview. I was so scared, I was tempted to reach for the hand of the missionary if it were acceptable for me as a grown professional woman to do so!

While we were out, we met a young, traumatized mother who was forced to walk all night in search of “johns.” While she didn’t have physical chains to keep her tied to her traffickers, they had another more wicked grip on her: they knew her daughter lived with her grandmother in Africa and would threaten to harm her. We tried to think of ways to get this victim out and even brought her to a church service once, but her phone got cut off and she was moved to another location.

I’ve been in many frightening situations. I’ve been confronted by huge thugs in brothels while interviewing sex trafficking victims. I’ve had to walk by armed soldiers at a border area.

Living through these moments has given me a steadfast belief in the power of prayer. I have witnessed the tangible impact of my mother's fervent prayers and those of my friends when I walked away unharmed from a dangerous encounter in a notorious red-light district.

While filming in one of the most notorious red-light districts near the Myanmar border, I had a near-death experience. We were surrounded by thugs and mamasans who accused me of posting a video of their brothel on social media when I had not done so. My life flashed before my eyes. Then one of them said, “The police are coming,” and they scattered like cockroaches. But this was a very remote area. I believe this was a miracle; a friend had been praying for me at this exact time.

How has your faith played a role in your work?

My faith motivates my commitment to advocating through my writing, philanthropy, and films for the downtrodden and enslaved and in raising awareness about the abhorrent realities of modern-day slavery.

My book is really my testimony of how God moved in my life and in the lives of the frontline workers and the survivors of modern slavery and even the perpetrators, the traffickers, I’ve met along the way. Every step of my journey has been guided by prayer and the support of my mentors, pastors, and friends.

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How have the survivors you have interacted with impacted your understanding of sex trafficking?

I met Kim Soon-duk, a survivor of Japanese military sex slavery, when she was 83.

Kim was a gentle soul, but her experience had left her deeply traumatized even after 55 years. Despite this, she did not harbor any resentment toward the Japanese for what she had endured. Instead, she asked me to tell her story to the world and, most importantly, to convey her desire for a truly sincere apology from the Japanese government before she passed.

I went on to meet and interview dozens of other survivors of wartime sex slavery in different nations, including China. It was a sacred experience to meet these elderly survivors who defied the conservative values of their Asian cultures to speak out against sexual enslavement that took place more than a half century prior.

These women were the first #MeToo activists and have been at the forefront of one of the longest-running activist campaigns against sex trafficking and war crimes of sexual violence in armed conflict. They deserve to receive the closure and dignity they so desperately seek. But as these survivors age, time is running out. They need our support.

What have you heard about the work of Christians from survivors?

I’ve spoken with North Korean women who were trafficked as brides in forced marriages and forced into online prostitution businesses. They have told me about Korean missionaries who have risked their lives to aid them in traveling along an underground railroad where they eventually can fly directly to Seoul and receive automatic citizenship and support. During one of the interviews, I’ve heard about an elderly South Korean pastor who passed away while guiding a group of North Korean women across a swollen river several years ago.

Through the Door of Hope ministry, I’ve met some brave young mainland Christian Chinese women who were fearlessly reaching trafficked women with God’s love in the red-light districts. These women’s faith has helped them overcome their initial stigma toward prostituted women and their initially unsupportive house church. Today, they rescue trafficked women and provide both survivors and some traffickers with job and rehabilitation opportunities.

How did the men you interacted with help shape your book?

I have been deeply moved by the testimony of a former trafficker turned missionary in Southeast Asia, and his expertise on modern slavery has been invaluable in my investigation into the dark underworld of trafficking.

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Meeting elderly former Japanese soldiers helped me to understand the mindset of the perpetrators of military sex slavery. I have also had the privilege of meeting several brave Japanese Christians who felt it was their mission to share personal apologies with Chinese and Koreans that brought profound healing.

The generational war wounds inflicted by the Japanese military before and during WWII have left deep scars that continue to cause pain, trauma, and racial hatred in China, Hong Kong, Korea, and other nations.

How has covering sex trafficking affected your mental health?

I have a strong support network—my family, husband, friends support me, and I’m fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with serious mental health struggles. I also do not work on the frontlines full-time (that’s where the risk is higher) and have only swooped in to interview and document sex trafficking cases.

However, I have experienced trauma after my near-death experience in the red-light district in China. I also had secondary trauma early on while interviewing elderly survivors of Japanese military sex slavery, largely because I didn't establish sufficient boundaries in my work and I wanted to stand in their shoes to write empathetically.

How has covering sex trafficking affected your Korean identity?

One side effect of this journey has been that I’ve fully accepted my Korean heritage, a facet of my identity that I had previously dismissed due to encounters with racial prejudice during my formative years. However, living in China has helped me to embrace my cultural heritage.

Because I didn’t speak fluent Mandarin, I was asked by strangers whether I was Japanese or Korean—or they assumed I was overseas Chinese. I was often confronted by my heritage, more than I would have been had I remained in Canada. When I mentioned that I was Korean, strangers would almost always say that they loved Korean dramas and music and say how cool Koreans are. That always surprised me since I had grown up in an era when Asian culture was not considered cool.

Meeting Korean sex trafficking survivors helped me to see that no matter how hard I try to reject my Korean heritage, I am Korean in my DNA. I had a visceral reaction to learning about Japanese colonialism and the comfort women, which I attribute to generational hatred/pain—I would say it’s similar to the generational pain of children, grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and Japanese internment survivors in the US and Canada.

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What is giving you hope?

More than 100 years ago, Asian women like me would have had bound feet, been considered property, not given a name until we were married, or allowed to go to school.

We’ve come a long way since, and there are more influential Asian women than at any other time. But we still have a long way to go in improving the rights and dignity of women and girls in Asia. I’ve heard of North Korean trafficked brides given flimsy slippers working all day in the fields to prevent them from running away and spoken with a woman chained up like a dog in her own home.

Last year, photos of a trafficked woman and mother of eight children chained up in Suzhou, China, sparked a discussion across the country. From what I hear from mainland Chinese, there is a growing anti-trafficking movement afoot there, and I believe it’s due to the increasing influence of professional women who are outraged by the horrific exploitation of women.

My friend Ai Jin was reaching out to women in the sex trade through Door of Hope for months when she found out that her 14-year old cousin was trafficked into prostitution. She was heartbroken and wanted to quit.

In my book, I write, “Ai Jin helped reinforce that ordinary people can do extraordinary acts of heroism. She was the first to admit that she was weak and often wanted to quit. But her tenacious belief in God kept her going out to the world of sex trafficking and prostitution, and that challenged me.”

Through meeting people like her, I have begun to dream that if 100 million Chinese Christians were to fight modern slavery, they would be one of the greatest forces in history.

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]