Friday, May 11, 2012

Korean Comfort Women

Kim, Kung-ja is 87 years old and one of 8 women living at House of Sharing in Gwangju City, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea.  She and several of the other women sit in the chairs on front of the day windows.  She has a wizened face, wispy brown hair, swollen ankles and false teeth.  Unbelievably, she sits cross-legged in her chair wearing a yellow shirt, pink pants, and a colorful scarf.  The group of us women visiting are seated on the heated floor in front of her and the other ladies.  We are there to meet these former "comfort women"- to get to know them and their stories a little bit more.   Ms. Kim has lived at the House of Sharing for 15 years now.  Her favorite season is winter because there is no sweating.  Her volunteer interpreter explains how she is a proper lady who doesn't like to sweat.  She talks a little about how she had been a devout Buddhist but later became a devout Catholic who rises for prayer at 4 AM.  She has been searching for the Truth about her life.  Her life has been one of isolation and shame, one with no family and little chance of making friends.  She is a surviving "Comfort Woman."

What does that mean?  To be frank, it means that she is a survivor of Sexual Slavery for the Japanese Military during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945).  "From 1932 until the end of WWII, the Japanese forcefully conscripted an estimated 50,000 - 200,000 women and girls from all over Asia, mostly from Korea, to serve as sexual slaves in the military's pan-Asian brothel system.  These 'comfort women' (or more respectfully known as 'halmoni' - Korean for Grandmother) were raped, abused, starved, tortured and many were killed.   At the end of the war, many were massacred or abandoned by military personnel" (1) far from home around the Pacific.  After decades of silence and separation from home, some 220 women have come forward.  In 2010 of these only 89 were still alive.  To this day, the Japanese government still denies its involvement in the abduction of girls and women and the systemization of "comfort stations"all over Asia (1).

Now, these halmoni and their supporters continue to Protest the Japanese Embassy in Seoul each week, an effort that holds a world's record as the longest lasting Protest.  They began their efforts in 1992.

My day at the House of Sharing was eye-opening, personal and powerful.  I encourage you to learn more about the Japanese Comfort Women so that their stories do not disappear with them.  The horrors of sexual slavery are still very real in modern day warfare.  Perhaps by knowing more we can prevent current and future abuse to women and girls worldwide.

1. "House of Sharing: Become a Part of Living History." Pamphlet. 
Information for this essay comes from the pamphlet and my tour of the museum at the House of Sharing, the video they shared, and my session with Kim, Jung-ja.

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