Life and Its Contents, Part II

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Asia » South Korea
May 23rd 2011
Published: May 25th 2011
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House of SharingHouse of SharingHouse of Sharing

Most of the photos here are from the House of Sharing. I apologize for not labeling them all, and again blame computer/internet issues.

Again, I apologize for the delay. It’s been harder to get on a reliable internet connection here than I thought it’d be, and then in (mostly) finishing up my research projects, I was spending much more time doing than processing, the latter of which is one of the reasons why I write, of course. Then again, it’s also for communication, so I apologize to my friends and loved ones for being AWOL lately.

But, on to talk about other things, as promised. I’d like to spend this entry talking about one thing that’s very important to me—the issue of the Korean “comfort women,” who were victims of a complex system of sexual enslavement during the Japanese colonial period in Korea and, particularly, during World War II. My research in this area has come from a couple main sources (NGOs, mostly) here, namely the Korean Council and the House of Sharing. I will talk about my experiences with both of them here, and what this journey has been like not only learning of the horrors that were enacted upon a population of enslaved women (most of whom were from Korea and trafficked elsewhere, but a number of whom were also from Japanese colonial territories as well as from Japan itself).

Brief History
There’s more to the history of this issue than I could ever encompass in this small space, but the history I’ve learned is important, so I’ll give it a try. In a nutshell, during World War II (and potentially beginning in the colonial period), the Japanese military systematically enslaved women (mostly Koreans, but also those from other colonial territories and even Japan itself) through a variety of tactics, forcing them to work at “comfort stations,” as they were called, at which Japanese soldiers would have sex with the “comfort women.” Many of the women were trafficked through trickery (a promise of a job at a factory, etc.), while others were kidnapped by force. Women at these stations were brutalized in any number of ways, imprisoned there, essentially, and forced to “service” as many as 50 men a day. The program was systematic in a lot of respects and was originally formulated to reduce STIs (by controlling the women the men slept with) while giving the men an outlet for their sexual urges (to avoid things like the so-called Rape of Nanjing).

The program continued for many years of the war, and after the war was over, the realities of the “comfort station” system were largely ignored, elided, or left unspoken. Yet, the young women who were forced to work at those stations, most of whom were 13 to 30 years old, had to try to pull their lives together after such brutality—a difficult thing, of course. Many stayed in the countries to which they were trafficked, to afraid, poor, or ashamed to go home. Others returned but remained silent. A large number of them, in fact, were killed or left to die by the Japanese forces once invading forces entered the territories in which they were held. Others were captured by the Allies and, for a time, forced to be imprisoned alongside their rapists/captors.

In 1991, after a call from the Korean Council, the first “comfort woman” went public in the Korean media. After that brave move, about 200 others “came out,” to to speak, and of those, 74 are still living today. This is important for several reasons, but most importantly, because this is not just a thing of the past. These women are still alive, still seeking justice, and have traveled the world to talk about this issue in hopes of preventing it from happening again (and bringing attention to places in which it is occurring). Rape as a weapon—or side effect—of war is unacceptable, and many of these women are spending their remaining days making sure the world knows it.

Weekly Wednesday Protests
While I had some knowledge of this issue before, I’ve certainly learned a lot more about it here—and have made some good connections to discover more as I might need to in future research. Upon my arrival here, my connection to this issue (as it stands as a real-life, contemporary situation) began with the weekly Wednesday protests that the halmoni (“grandmother” in Korean, and a respectful term used for the survivors of this injustice) hold in front of the Japanese Embassy. I went to three in total, and though they were mostly in Korean (with some Japanese, English, and French, if I recall, as visitors stood up front to address the halmoni), the spirit of them served to translate the feelings of all, and the protests were rich with a feeling of solidarity as people from all different nationalities (Japanese included) and of all different ages and backgrounds, from middle school students to Buddhist monks to Catholic nuns to tourists from Europe, all gathered to support the halmoni in this important issue. Each protest was different, and I learned later they are each hosted by a different, invited group as organized by the Korean Council. Some featured middle/high school kids singing and dancing, making it a rather joyful affair; another had a number of Japanese singers, speakers, and artists who railed against war and its effects, spoke of their compassion for and solidarity with the halmoni, which made for a very somber and gut-wrenching afternoon. Each had two or three of the halmoni in attendance (with their rising age and sometimes failing health, fewer come now than they did before). And at each, a list of demands was read to the Japanese Embassy—usually quite loudly. These demands include seven things, such as an official apology, reparations, and programs to help prevent these sorts of things from happening in the future.

To me, the best part of these protests were, in fact, their ability to create this solidarity. These halmoni were very brave to “come out,” as they’ve called it, as “comfort women.” In a society that has for so long prized chastity, I read that many had been afraid of doing so—and they only really started doing so in the very early ‘90s. Add to that the complications of potentially having families and then the added psychological and sociological stressors and difficulties that simply come from being a survivor of any sexual crime/assault/etc., I truly admire these women’s courage. And then to stand every week in public, on camera, in pictures, claiming that history as one’s own in order not only to achieve justice for oneself but, as I’ve learned, to prevent this sort of thing in the future... Well, if you can’t tell, I admire them and am proud to have been able to stand with them.

So, we were able to unite with them, but also with others, across barriers of race, class, gender, etc. I remember at the last protest, last Wednesday, I got a high five from an elderly Japanese lady who was there with a bunch of elderly Japanese ladies who were holding up signs and had spoken in front of the group. I didn’t get much more than that—and a smile, and a “Hello. American?” earlier on in the afternoon—but it was as if being there was enough. And this was the case all around.

And people came—rain or shine. One of the days it had rained all morning and just barely cleared up for the one hour we held the protest. And yet, a crowd had still gathered, though the rain clouds roiled overhead.

When I was visiting the House of Sharing, someone asked if it was really effective to be this group of individuals protesting the Japanese government—and wouldn’t it be more effective to protest at the Korean government’s buildings, to pressure them to do something to Japan. And, evidently, when the protests started, they began at the Japanese government and then would march down to the Blue House. The halmoni are too aged and ill to do so now. But... while I see the questioner’s point, the protests have been effective in raising awareness and bringing change before (see this site for some of the history), and they are also to change people’s thinking, to create this solidarity, and to bring the halmonis’ plight to public awareness. All of which I think it is accomplishing.

Unfortunately, the halmoni are becoming quite elderly, so the matter is pressing. Will they receive justice,
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Japanese military-issue condom and payment slip
recognition within their lifetimes? Certainly, they’ve received more in the last 20 years than they ever had before then. But there’s still a long way to go.

House of Sharing
In order to add to my understanding of this issue, I not only went to the protests and visited with the Korean Council, who stage the protests and also take on these issues of war and trafficking on a broader level, but I also went to the House of Sharing a couple Sundays ago, where they have a museum about the issue of the sexual enslavement of Korean women during WWII as well as a shelter for the living women to stay in themselves. The house is about 45 minutes outside of Seoul in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do (not to be confused with Gwangju, Jeollanam-do). The urgency of this issue became quite real on the bus ride to the House as one of our guides received a call that one of the halmoni had passed away that morning. They allowed us to come to the House anyway, but needless to say, it was an even more somber event than usual.

At the House, we got to see a DVD about
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Images of "comfort stations"
one of the most active halmonis, who passed away several years ago. This was followed by a sombering tour of the museum, a discussion about the issues at hand, and some time spent relaxing with some of the halmoni in their group home. Despite all of their suffering over the years, some of the halmoni still have a sense of joy, and one of the ones we met introduced herself to us as “the jokester” and asked one of the gentlemen with us “Am I pretty? Really?” and so on. I enjoyed laughing with her. Another told some of her story to one of our group members, but because it was in Korean and I only got bits translated, I wasn’t able to hear it all. But I was grateful for the time we could spend with them and the way they opened their house up to a bunch of oegukin.

I was sad to leave, sad for their loss, and had a heavy heart all the way back to Seoul. These women have suffered so much, and as we discussed after the museum tour, this kind of thing continues to happen. Women are trafficked to be used in
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Recreation of a "comfort station" room
the sex industry in any number of countries, rape becomes a tactic of war in Bosnia, the DRC, and so on. Women become battlefields on which wars are fought—or the throwaway leftovers of maltreatment, the latrines of war’s effects (essentially how one “comfort woman” has described how she felt as she was used and systematically raped). And yet, on a smaller scale, homes become battlefields as well. We discussed how Koreans are much more willing to talk about and get upset about the Dokdo Issue than this issue, which still has living survivors seeking justice; and yet, in what country is it easy to talk about sexual violence? Even in the U.S., in volunteering at Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, I find that people get clammy talking about rape, abuse, and other violence—especially that which originates within the home. People don’t want to talk about this, and yet it’s important, whether it’s the systematic raping of Congolese women or the enormous frequency of domestic violence in refugee camps in India (*hat tip to Sasi, who’s been researching this*) or the issue of sexual abuse within the homes of our very own communities.

In fact, the enormity of this issue
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Recreation of a "comfort station" room
on a broader scale continues to strike me. When I don’t get that glazed-over look in talking about the work I’m doing (or the volunteer work I do in the U.S.), I tend to get a shared experience—someone either is a survivor, or knows someone who is, or knows someone who needs help/has gotten help/etc. Unfailingly, the more I talk about these issues and this work, the more I hear of others suffering from such violence—and silence. Which is sad, but also reminds me of the importance of what these halmoni are doing by raising their voices. It’s the silence that kills, that allows such crimes to be perpetuated. By speaking out, one not only finds help, a community, and sources of strength, but also can begin to make change. Or so I think.

Final Thoughts, for Now
I’ve been very blessed to be able to interact with such great people in researching this issue, not only the halmoni themselves, but also the activists who are quite busy within these two organizations, whether on a full-time or a volunteer basis. While meeting with the Korean Council staff, I also got the chance to become connected to some other concerned
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Words of encouragement and solidarity from other nations, visitors, etc.
community members who are quite knowledgeable on the subject and am grateful to them for their help and friendship. I also got a lot of great materials from the Korean Council and was lucky to see some of their activist work that goes beyond these protests, such as a weekly colloquium series they’re holding right now, with lecturers bringing light to such issues as the female victims of the war in Bosnia in the 1990’s and female genital mutilation in Africa. It’s good to see how these groups are using their positions to connect with issues worldwide, realizing that this isn’t just a one-note situation.

There’s more to catch up on, and more I’m leaving out for sure. Look for my next short story collection (or maybe even an essay collection) for the full scoop. In the meantime, the online resources might help. And, as I’ve just arrived in Yeosu this last weekend, I know I’ll have more to catch up on quite soon, both about finishing up at KWHL and my time here with my homestay family and former co-workers.

Be well, and eat lots of kimchi.

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


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House of Sharing Museum

Japanese textbooks. While older textbooks sometimes have a brief mention of the "comfort women" issue, such history has been stripped from the newest textbooks, with little hope of inclusion in the near future.
List of Seven DemandsList of Seven Demands
List of Seven Demands

See for the full translation.
Photos of the halmoniPhotos of the halmoni
Photos of the halmoni

House of Sharing Museum
House of Sharing Art GalleryHouse of Sharing Art Gallery
House of Sharing Art Gallery

Although a lot of mental health assistance is limited in South Korea, due to a kind of widespread disbelief in the veracity of mental health issues, many of the halmoni participated in art classes led by a local artist. Their works are displayed at the House of Sharing.

30th May 2011

I am proud of you
Alexis, I did not know about your blog until Bruce mentioned it last night. Fortunately, I discovered it this morning as I was looking through the FB posts. What a story! I am not surprised that you have connected with these precious women and their struggle for justice. I love you, my sister in Christ. And I miss you! Anita
26th November 2011

Thanks, Anita! I always appreciate your love and support!

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