by Leslie Patrick
She smiles brightly as she pushes her walker past me on the garden path. Though her eyes have turned milky with cataracts and age, her gaze is bright. She is tired of fighting. I am about an hour south of Seoul, South Korea in a place called The House of Sharing. Created in 1992, the house is a safe refuge for former Korean sex slaves to live in relative peace, away from the scrutiny of those who would judge them for circumstances they endured as young girls during the Japanese occupation of Korea and World War II.
The diminutive woman in the garden is Kim Gun-ja. Born in Pyeongchang City in 1926, her family – like so many at the time – was stricken by poverty. By 1939, when Kim was a mere 13 years old, both her parents had died, leaving her with the responsibility of caring for her two younger sisters. Unable to bear the burden under such abject circumstances, the three girls were split up and taken into various neighborhood families.
For Kim, separated from her sisters, the nightmare was still just beginning. When she was 17, her adopted father sold her to the Japanese army. This was when the horrors of her life as a comfort woman in the war-ravaged area of Manchuria (now China) began. For three years, Japanese soldiers raped her over 20 times a day. She was finally released when the Japanese government surrendered to the Allied Forces. Although her life was spared, the physical and emotional toll was too much to bear, and she, along with thousands of other former comfort women, retreated into solitary, forsaken lives.
Kim Gun-ja’s story whirls inside my head as I watch her tiny steps, gnarled hands grasping the bars of her walker. She has endured so much; I hardly know what to say. Anyong haseyo. Hello. I exhaust my basic Korean quickly, so we simply gaze at each other. I feel ashamed as I stare back at her, a tourist gawking at a spectacle. What was she like before she was forced into sexual slavery? Did she dream of a career? Of a husband and children? Surely she never imagined a life sequestered in misery and despair. My mind spins with questions I could never ask, even without the language barrier. Then she smiles at me, and in that smile is the assurance that I am welcome. She is glad I have come. She is relieved that people care about her, that people have not forgotten her plight.
I had never heard of the term “comfort women” until I came to South Korea last year. While teaching English as a Second Language, one of my students wrote an essay about the enduring impact of the Japanese occupation on the Korean people. Realizing that my education was devoid of details about that time in Asian history, I did a quick Google search. As I scanned names, dates, and places from 1910 to 1945 – Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea – the phrase “comfort women” kept appearing. The more research I did, the more appalled I became at the sexual war crimes committed by the Japanese.
A euphemism for prostitutes, more than 200,000 comfort women were used as sexual slaves by the Japanese army. Although approximately 80 percent of these women were Korean, the Japanese also conscripted Chinese, Filipinos, and a handful of other ethnicities to work at their comfort stations throughout East and Southeast Asia. Lured by promises of a job as a nurse or secretary, or even kidnapped from their families, the women were collected and corralled into comfort stations to ensure the Japanese soldiers were sexually satisfied during their time away from home.
Sometimes raped up to 40 times a day, the women were constantly under threat of sexually transmitted diseases and were forced to have abortions in the most abominable conditions if they became pregnant. If they did not comply with an act a Japanese soldier requested, they could be tortured or even killed. While thousands of comfort women died during their internment, tens of thousands more went on to face what many consider a fate worse than death: alienation, discrimination and a lifetime of serious medical conditions.
Now, nearly 70 years later, only a handful of comfort women – or halmoni, the Korean term for grandmother, as they prefer to be called – remain alive. They are fighting a fierce war of their own, claiming that the Japanese government has never taken full responsibility for its crimes against them, never officially apologized, or even recognized their wrongdoings. Though a handful of Japanese government officials have made statements expressing remorse over what happened to comfort women, they maintain that it was private contractors, not the government, that sanctioned the comfort stations. Therefore, they claim, there is no need for an official apology from the Japanese parliament. Monetary retribution has never been offered through the government directly, a sore point among many of the remaining comfort women. In 1995, Japan established The Asian Women’s Fund, a compensation fund on behalf of the halmoni. Since the fund was engineered by private donors, the halmoni maintain that it is not official.
Over the past 20 years, as stories have tumbled from the halmoni’s anguished memories, many attempts have been made by Korean and Japanese women’s groups alike to petition the Japanese government for an official apology. It has yet to arrive. The remaining halmoni feel that the Japanese government still owes them, and that the money, accompanied by an official apology, will prove that the Japanese finally take responsibility for their crimes so many years ago.
But more than the financial relief that monetary compensation would bring, a public recognition of Japan’s immoral acts will release the halmoni from the terrible stigma that has been attached to them for decades. Many politicians, including U.S. Representative Mike Honda, himself a Japanese-American, have pushed Japan to acknowledge their past wrongdoings. But the Japanese sense of honor runs deep and many Japanese people feel that the former actions of the empire were committed during a time of war, and are therefore not reprehensible, but necessary.
Japan’s apparent lack of remorse has led to a surprising weekly occurrence on the streets of Seoul. Every Wednesday at noon for the past 20 years, a handful of determined, nonagenarian halmoni stage a protest in front of the Japanese embassy, demanding that their voices be heard. Watching this noble uprising sends a shudder of empathy down one’s spine. To endure the atrocities they have is unfathomable. Yet here they stand, strong despite their physical weaknesses, resolute to fight for justice despite their advancing age. Together they cry, voices trembling with stalwart resolution, though each passing week their numbers are lessened by illness and death.
I imagine Kim Gun-ja, fists raised in outrage, voice rising in protest in the hope that the Japanese will finally listen. The vision seems so unlikely as I watch this stooped, silver-haired woman amble serenely among the flowers in the late afternoon sun. She is old and frail, but as long as the last halmoni lives, the spirits and voices of an entire generation of Korean women will ring out through her presence.
She smiles at me, and I am honored to be in the company of this determined halmoni, fighting an entire nation in order to redeem her past. It seems only a matter of time before the Japanese government sees what I see. Maybe then these courageous women can finally rest in the peace of forgiveness, their spirits free and untarnished by the painful memories of long ago.
About the Author: Leslie Patrick is a San Francisco based freelance journalist specializing in travel, culture and women’s issues. Her work has appeared in Monocle, Hemispheres and GT Weekly Newspaper, among others. While living in South Korea, Leslie became deeply interested in the history and experiences of the Korean comfort women, and is currently writing a novel about the subject. Visit her website at www.lesliepatrick.com.