This past weekend I had a very sobering experience visiting the House of Sharing in Gwangju City on the outskirts of Seoul. The House of Sharing is a place that is not only dedicated to the victims of sexual slavery during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945), but is also the current residence of several Korean women who are survivors of sexual slavery from that time. I had been meaning to go to this tour for a while. Most foreigners here are well-informed about this issue because many foreign volunteers are currently in charge of The House of Sharing organization. There is an English tour once a month so I finally decided to make the commitment and go.
The tour consisted of a short documentary film, a presentation of the museum, a question and answer session, and time at the end where we were able to visit with a few of the “halmoni” (a word meaning “grandmother,” which refers to the survivors). I will give you a brief background of the history of the sexual slavery that occurred during WWII, and then I want to let you know why this issue is so important even today.
Starting in 1932 until the end of the war the Japanese military invaded and colonized dozens of countries within Asia. They kidnapped as many as 200,000 women from all over Asia and forced them to serve as sexual slaves for the military soldiers. Around 90% of these women were Korean. These women were known as “comfort women.” They were raped by as many as 40 soldiers a day and most were killed. At the museum I learned about the disturbing and graphic details about the abuse to which these women were subjected. Most women were never able to come back to their home countries because they were abandoned in faraway locations all across Asia.
Sadly, this issue did not become available to public knowledge until 1991. One Korean survivor came forward at this time after the death of her husband. In a culture where sex is taboo and a display of emotions is frowned upon, it is extremely difficult for these women to come forward and discuss the details of what they have experienced. Only about 200 “halmoni” have come forward and admitted what has happened to them. 9 of these women are living at the House of Sharing.
Why does this matter today? The Japanese government played a huge role in the establishment of these “comfort stations” where the women were sexually abused. Essentially these stations were funded by the government in a really corrupt way. The Japanese government realizes that they have done this, but they refuse to acknowledge this with an official apology and they are denying these women of any compensation money. Their perspective is that since this is an issue of the past it should stay in the past. It is also important to note that this perspective is not shared by all Japanese citizens. The majority of visitors that come to the House of Sharing are actually Japanese. Most Japanese people are aware of what has happened and have shown remorse.
Every Wednesday at noon since 1992 the “halmoni” meet at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to protest the Japanese government’s denial. Even “halmoni” who are in their 80s or 90s and are severely sick make the march every Wednesday. Many also take frequent trip to Japan to protest there as well. Recently the 1,000th Wednesday protest was held. Another interesting fact is that a bronze statue of a young Korean girl was newly erected facing the Japanese Embassy. After many complaints from the Japanese government the Korean government refuses to take it down. I think that is an awesome way to send such a strong message. These women demonstrate so much courage. These women know that they will not get what they want from the Japanese government before they die, but they still fight for their rights.
Seeing these women in person was very moving. After learning about everything they have gone through the only word that comes to mind is survivor not “victim.” Most were quiet, but one in particular was very vivacious and enthusiastic. She apparently hikes a mountain twice a day and is an avid gardener. Her determination to continue to fight for her rights is apparent. She is a world traveler and shows no signs of giving up.
If you want to learn more about this issue please visit www.houseofsharing.org
If you are in Korea, here are directions to the House of Sharing:
Go to Gangbyeon Station (line 2). Go out exit 1.
Take bus 1113 or 1113-1 for about 45 minutes to Paradise Apartment bus stop.
Take a taxi to “Nanumi Jip” which is the House of Sharing.
There are English tours once a month that usually involve doing an activity with the halmoni.