This past Sunday I had the humbling and amazing opportunity to visit the House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do province, about 45 minutes from Seoul. The House of Sharing is both a museum and home to former “Comfort Women” – survivors of sexual slavery at the hands of the Japanese military during the Asia-Pacific War (1932-1945). It is the world’s first human rights museum centered on the theme of sexual slavery.
Eight of these women live in the house today. They are called the halmonis (할머니), or grandmothers. During World War Two, they were what many called wee-an-bu (위안부) or “comfort women”, 200,000 of the girls and young women from all across Asia who were taken by the Japanese to work as sex slaves.
The term “comfort women” is obviously a euphemism used by the perpetrators in order to lessen the horrific reality of the situation. The official name for these women is “Women drafted for military sexual slavery by Japan” or Cheong Sin Dae 정신대.A bronze statue that represents what these women would have wanted from their life at the time – she wears a traditional marriage crown, on her right is a suitor and on her left is a family. The waves symbolize prosperity in childbirth. Across from the first bronze statue, a second one reflects the juxtaposition of their reality – bayonets rise from a Chrysanthemum flower (the official flower of Japan) and pierce her, ripping through the traditional Korean hanbok, falling doves reflect fallen hope while her right hand drops the rose of sharon (the official flower of Korea).
Location of the Japanese Military “Comfort Stations”
The First One
In 1990, amid rumors of sexual slavery by the Armed Forces before and during World War II, a Japanese official spoke at a session of the Japanese Diet. He denied any governmental involvement with the recruitment of comfort women. He denied the forced abduction of these women, claiming they were never forced against their will. The outright denial of what had happened finally provoked one woman to speak out, Kim Hak Soon 김학순.
She was born in old Manchuria, but grew up in Pyongyang. After her father passed away, she was adopted. When Hak Soon was 14 years old, her stepfather enrolled her at The Gisaeng School (an all-girls performing arts school ). It was here that she was sold to a Japanese platoon in Northern China. Eventually she married, and emotionally abused by her husband who repeatedly insulted her for the life she had had. His death and the 1990’s denial by Japan pushed her to submit an official testimony. She protested until her death in December of 1997.
“I was born as a woman but never lived as a woman….I suffer from a bitterness I do not know how to overcome. I only want to ask the Japanese government not to go to war again. I feel sick when I am close to a man. Not just Japanese men but all men–even my own husband, who saved me from the brothel–have made me feel this way. I shiver when I see the Japanese flag. Because it carried that flag, I hated the airplane I took to come to Japan. I’ve kept trying to disclose the facts….Why should I feel ashamed? I don’t have to feel ashamed.”
The last painting Kim Hak Soon vowed to make before her death, “Punish Those Responsible”.
The Japanese government set up the Asia Women’s Fund in 1995 to compensate some comfort women, but it established the fund with private donations, not public money. Many of the survivors refused the “unofficial” offering. The following is a list of their demands:
7 Demands to the Japanese Government
- Admit the drafting of Japanese military comfort women
- Make an official apology
- Reveal the truth about the crime and reveal all official documents
- Erect memorial tablets for the victims
- Pay restitution to the victims or their families
- Teach the truth in schools so that the same crime is not repeated
- Punish the war criminals
The Netherlands prosecuted some of the soldiers who had captured 35 Dutch women during World War II when the Japanese Army overran Dutch colonies in Asia. Those responsible were sentenced to prison. The Japanese government officially apologized for these women only.
The Korean Government ignored the sex-slavery issue in 1965 when it negotiated a treaty with Japan which settled other grievances due to war damage and colonialism. Interestingly enough, it was also mentioned during the tour that perhaps a reason the Korean government has not done more for these women is because they themselves have crossed that line – comfort stations were a reality during the Korean War.
Shortly after the war, the U.S. Government appears to have had knowledge of various Japanese war atrocities. They were aware that the Unit 731 biological warfare lab conducted experiments on human beings and “against entire populations and was responsible for anywhere from 3,000 to 200,000 deaths.” 7 The unit’s commanders were given amnesty in return for access to their research records. [Source]
Specifically, following WWII, the primary interest of the United States was to rebuild Japan into a strong ecopower to help in the Cold War fight against communism. Even as late as 2001, Washington actively opposed a class-action lawsuit filed in the U.S. by former comfort women demanding redress from Japan. [Source]
It was a lot to take in as I walked through the dark displays and cringed every time my boots clicked agains the purposely placed wooden floor. The questions that came to mind were:
- What were the responses of US and United Nations both at the time and presently?
- Has this issue become a platform for other groups to open the door of discussion to the current issues of sex slavery in Korea?