Thursday, August 26, 2021

Understanding the Story of Korea's "Comfort Women"

 by Sunhee Kim

The video clip we’ve just watched is about ‘Korean Comfort Women’. In Korean it is called ‘위안부(wui-an-bu)’. They were young girls and women who were abducted from their homes during Imperial Japanese rule and who[1] were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military.  These ‘comfort women’ experienced human rights abuses and had tragic life. 위안(wui-an) means to feel easy by comforting. ‘Comfort Women’ is a name that was used by the Japanese army in an attempt to hide their coercive activities and the sufferings of the victims. So, we use ‘Comfort Women’ in quotation marks because we, Koreans, don’t accept the meaning of comfort.

Kim Bok-dong

According to the South Korean government, there are 239 registered number of Japanese military sexual slavery victims.  However, there might be countless numbers not registered because there were people who died at that time or staying abroad, and there were people who do not want to be known in public. 

The late Kim Bok-dong in the video was born in South Gyeongsang Province, Korea in 1926.At[2] age 14, she and her mother were deceived by Japanese authorities. She was told she was to support the war efforts by working in a military clothing factory and would return in three years. Instead of working in the factory, she was forced into militarized sexual slavery in Japanese occupied territories, including Guangdong, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. She had suffered time for 8 years. After the war, she finally returned to her hometown. She did not tell her family where she was, what she did and what she had suffered, except to her mother. After she returned, she run a restaurant, and she met a man whom she fell in love with.  Despite this love, she suffered the pain of not being able to have a child and had to go through the grief of leaving her husband first.

1000th Wednesday Demonstration, Dec 14, 2011

1500th Wednesday Demonstration amidst Covid19, July 14, 2021

After her husband died, she began to speak about her traumatic experience. Her family dissuaded her from registering as a victim of Japanese military sexual slavery. Nevertheless, she did and finally began to share her experience and detail what happened to her during her time as a sex slave with the determination not to see her family again as well as not to return to her hometown. She later became a human rights activist, attended and testified at the “World Human Rights Conference” in Vienna. She traveled around the world to tell her story and urged international concern and action over the military sexual slavery issue. Kim Bok-dong[3] emphasized that people should do the right things not just for oneself but for those without a voice who have gone through similar struggles she had faced as well as for the next generation. Kim Bok-dong died in January 2019.

 The root of my memory of “Comfort Women” is not clear. I first learned about them during the  Wednesday Demonstration which I attended as a lay missionary in orientation. The Wednesday Demonstration[4] is a weekly protest which aims at obtaining justice from the Japanese government regarding the sexual slavery system. It is held in the presence of surviving ‘comfort women’ and supporters every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy since January 1992. What is unfortunate is that the situation has not changed since 11 years ago when I first attended the rally, and the Japanese embassy door is still tightly closed.  Due to Covid19, sometimes Wednesday Demonstrations are a one person only protest. However, there are also others participating in countries such as Taiwan, the United States and Japan through online live streaming. The Wednesday Demonstration known to be the world’s oldest, saddest, and proudest demonstration marked its 1,500th rally on July 14. 2021.

The large crowd that day in 2010 surprised me. I did not know anything about Wednesday Demonstration before attending the rally. People of diverse age, gender, and social positions, gather to show support to the cause of ‘comfort women’ holding pickets and banners they prepared themselves. I was impressed by one teacher who brought her students there for a field trip. Of course, not all students will be interested in this issue. Yet, I thought it was a good chance for them to know our heartbreaking history and to broaden their perspective. I was envious with the students for such an opportunity at a young age.

The most memorable moment of the day was listening to the victims’ testimony. I don’t remember now who testified that day, if it was Kim Bok-dong or someone else.  I still vividly remember how shocked and stunned I was to hear the brutality of the Japanese army through the victims’ voices. I listened intently the whole time. I could not believe what I was hearing or what this was really about. Japanese soldiers did not regard women as human beings, but merely as objects to resolve their sexual desires. Victims had to deal with about dozens of soldiers a day, like machines.  It was also quite common for the Japanese soldiers to indiscriminately abuse them verbally and physically.  Moreover, the ‘comfort women’ were forced to undergo abortion when they got pregnant and they were forced to take addictive drugs so that they will not run away. I could not imagine how the Japanese soldiers could commit such atrocities to any human being. In fact, I don’t even want to imagine. As a woman, my heart was so heavy and in pain. I cannot forget specially the victim’s words “It is like a nightmare to survive”.  Most of them want to survive the war, and many came back alive from the war.  But to many, surviving the war was more of a nightmare than a dream.  It is heart breaking! If I were born in those days, would I be safe? Would I have survived those terrible and disgraceful acts?

 I admire the courage of the victims. I know it took them so much bravery to speak out in public in a culture which considers talking about sexuality a taboo, and which considers the virginity and chastity of woman as extremely important. Thanks to their courage, the reality of the Japanese military sexual slavery system was known to the world. Likewise, I would like to express my sincere respect to those brave women who are continuously working for the human rights and justice of those who have had painful experiences like themselves.

 When Pope Francis visited Korea in 2014, the former ‘Comfort Women’ were invited to the Mass calling for Peace and Reconciliation at the Myeong-dong Cathedral in Seoul. Seven women were seated in the front row. The Pope met them prior to the Mass, which was not originally planned. The Pope approached first, greeted them, and listened to them. In-flight press conference of Pope Francis from Korea to Rome, one reporter asked a question, “How did you feel when you greeted the seven ‘Comfort Women’?  The Pope answered, “To think that in that invasion they were carried off as young girls into barracks to be used?  I’d say they have not lost their dignity.”

Lee Na-young, president of the Korean Council, said at the Wednesday Demonstration held on August 11, 2021 “this Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of Kim Hak-sun’s landmark testimony but the Japanese government still denies responsibility thereby continues to insult the victims.” It is deplorable to see that the Japanese government’s attitude hasn’t changed in the last 30 years even when the number of survivors is decreased to 14. I hope that the survivors will receive a sincere apology during their lifetime and that efforts will continue to pass on the undistorted history to the next generation, keeping in mind the victim’s words “Our greatest fear is our painful history at that time is forgotten.”

 As we celebrate Korean Liberation Day, we remember the victims who suffered during the war, and independence fighters who sacrificed their lives for the nation’s independence. Grant them rest and eternal peace. We pray for an end to all war and violence, and for the blossoming of peace in our world. We pray to the Lord.

[1] Wikipedia “Comfort Women”

[2] Wikipedia “Kim Bok-dong– Background”

[3] Wikipedia “Kim Bok-dong- Activism”

[4] Wikipedia “Wednesday Demonstration”

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