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Listening to History's Survivors
'Comfort Women' forgotten in the fuss over Dokdo?
Annie Koh (anniekoh)     Print Article 
Published 2006-04-27 16:16 (KST)   
"It's disgraceful. People come from so far away to see us, and the people from the neighborhood won't even look at us." -- Granny Kim at the House of Sharing in Gwangju city, Gyeonggi Province.

Eighteen people tumble off Bus 1113-1 after a 40-minute bus ride from the eastern edge of Seoul. People whose lives encompass the earth: Ireland, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, England, Colombia, the United States, and Korea. The taxi driver who scoops up four of us points out that we got off one bus stop too late, and then comments that it's unusual for Westerners to visit the House of Sharing.

"Comfort Women"
©2006 comfort-women.org
'Mostly Japanese students come here, a lot of young women in particular,' he says.

The following day, I show a Korean classmate the booklet from the Historical Museum of Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Military that shared the donated hillside with the House of Sharing. "You know, this is more important than Dokdo, even if that's what all the headlines are. This is about human rights, not fishing rights."

Survival Is History

In my second year of college, I worked for a semester as a data entry assistant in the Manuscript and Archives department of the main library. For four hours every other day, I typed an abstract outline of the lives of Holocaust survivors.
Place of Birth: Warsaw.
Date of Birth: July 18, 1930.
Concentration Camp: Auschwitz.
Surviving Family Members: None.
The American film director Steven Spielberg had funded a project to interview as many Holocaust survivors as possible, to amass a video record of living history and history's survivors so that the individual stories of a mass tragedy would never be forgotten and would become impossible to deny. Like the fragmented phrases that sum up a book's contents, the words I entered into the library's computer catalog enclose disaster and resilience.

What responsibility do we have to survivors? I'm not talking about reparations like Germany paid to 275,000 Holocaust survivors, nor about guilt, nationality, nor political considerations. What responsibility do we have as human beings? Do we listen to history? The volunteer organizers of what hopes to be a monthly visit to the House of Sharing for English speakers in Korea offered this disclaimer: We are not experts, we are not historians, we are not tour guides. But we are here to educate ourselves together.

How to Tell 100,000 Stories

Since the late 1980s, when survivors and scholars unbolted the discussion of the systematic and coercive Japanese military brothels of World War II, only 158 "comfort women" have officially registered with the South Korean government. Since recording their status as survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery, forty have passed away, and last year alone, seventeen died.

On this past Sunday, in the round room, one of nine survivors who live at the House of Sharing, Granny Kim, tells us how she spent her eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth birthdays in a military brothel on the front lines of Japan's war in China. She is sure her stepfather, a colonial policeman, was complicit in her deception. We watch Granny Kang, 10 years earlier on camera, tell us how she ran away from a munitions factory only to be grabbed by a military policeman, raped and then put into a brothel.

Painting by Kim Soon-Duk. "Inside the boat when I was being dragged away."
©1995 KSD
These stories are leverage in the fight for legal recognition and state compensation from the Japanese government. But, just as important, these are also the last stories of an estimated 200,000 women whose days were spent as fuel for an imperial war machine, who became names on a board for soldiers to choose, who became morale boosters, "comfort women." In these women's words and pictures are disaster and resilience, stories we cannot fit into square boxes of politics or nationalism.

There are people who insist that these women must be remembering wrong, that if crimes were committed in the military prostitution system, it began with the Korean middlemen and mercenary relatives who are responsible for recruiting, tricking, selling, and sending these women. Some insist that these women are being used, or at the very least, that they are confused. People list statistics on the prevalence of prostitution in Korea today, to imply it is likely most of the "comfort women" were prostitutes by profession.

On the screen, on the Internet and on the page, words slide and shift into different configurations of plausible historical explanations, but history is also on Granny Kim's face, in Granny Kang's paintings, in the pack of cigarettes and lighter one granny left after her death this January.

Her history. She tried to kill herself seven times but can laugh about it now. She tells us: "I bought rat poison, ate it, feel stomach pangs and went to sleep assuming that I was dying. The next morning I woke up fine. I tried opium, slept for five days, but got up afterwards none the worse for wear."

She tells us that the first day at the brothel, she was beaten until her eardrum popped because she couldn't speak Japanese and didn't respond to soldiers' questions. She took radishes and cabbages from fields to feed herself. She was Buddhist and now is Christian. The boyfriend she had at age 17 found her after the war, only to kill himself less than a year after they reunited.

With support from UNESCO, Korea designates as Living Human Treasures those craftspeople whose knowledge of traditional crafts is incomparable and often dangerously rare. I think of these grannies as intangible cultural treasures. War, enslavement, these may not seem like cultural heritages "worth" preserving. But history is more than battlefields and graves -- it is voices and faces and sometimes a graceful black humor.

The day the guns stopped, the brothel owner told the 20 Korean women, including Granny Kim, that they could leave. Japan had surrendered to Allied Forces and its armies were going home. With seven other women, she walked one month and eight days to the border between China and Korea and forded the Tumeng River.

Out of the estimated 200,000 comfort women transported by military truck, ship, and plane to every outpost of the Pacific War -- Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, China, Philippines, Korea -- I had always assumed most everyone got home, like Granny Kim. I never imagined Granny Hun, who was left in Cambodia, Granny Pae, left in Okinawa, Granny Lee, left in China.

In the museum, between the newspaper clippings and the relics, there is a photo labeled "The sadness of liberation" for all the women left behind. In mass graves. Left standing in Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Manchuria, after the transports steamed off to Japan without them. I don't know what happened to them. So many records burnt, documents destroyed.

We don't know what happened to all the hundreds of thousands of women. But we know of nine women, living in a house among trees and behind a museum, a 40-minute express bus ride from Eastern Seoul. These grannies are living history. History's survivors.

- OMNI Daily Podcast (MP3) 

Contact sharinghouse@gmail.com for more information on the monthly English language tours. The next trip is scheduled for May 28. You can read more about the House of Sharing at www.nanum.org.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Annie Koh

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