House of Sharing

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.

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Cherry Blossom Fever

Cherry blossom fever has now spread to Seoul and now the entire city is sprinkled with pink blossoms. I have also joined the bandwagon of Koreans and foreigners and their obsession with the flowering trees. This weekend I caught some cherry blossom action near one of the ancient palaces in Jongro called Changdokgung and in Yeouido, which is the most famous place in Seoul for cherry blossoms.  A lot more people and a lot less cherry blossoms than Jinhae, but still very pretty. Enjoy the pictures.

Changdokgung Palace

They were much shorter way back when

Traditional Korean Tea Party

Yeouido Cherry Blossom Festival 2011

Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival 2011

Probably the most short-lived but the most quintessentially Korean event in the springtime is the blooming of the cherry blossom trees.  The cherry blossoms do not bring happy memories to the Korean people since they were brought over to Korea from Japan during Japan’s colonization here, but today most Koreans are able to celebrate the beautiful scenery they create for such a short period of time every year. The blooming begins in the south of Korea and works its way up to Seoul.  This year the blossoms were in full bloom in Jinhae from April 1st through April 10th.  They will be arriving in Seoul in the next couple weeks.  Fortunately, I had a school holiday on Friday so I decided to make the trek to Jinhae to see the infamous cherry blossom festival, which is known as the best in Korea. This was the first time for me to travel somewhere all by myself.  I was a little anxious, but mostly excited to get away from Seoul and have a couple days to relax alone. Getting there was easy besides the fact that I had to take a 5 A.M. train.  The KTX from Seoul to Jinhae takes about 3 hours.  There is one transfer stop in Changwon.  It costs almost $50 one-way.  It’s not the cheapest option, but definitely the most convenient.  As you approach Jinhae the train tracks are lined with cherry blossom trees.

View from the train

When you step out of the train station you can see the festival grounds straight ahead and you are immediately surrounded by cherry blossoms.  I arrived there bright and early so I had plenty of time to explore.  When I got there they were just setting up the tents with food and shopping.  I got acquainted with the festival grounds and after wandering around for a while I saw a cable car ride that takes you up to a tower looking over Jinhae.  I had read that this was a must-see and since it was early there were no crowds and I was able to get right on.  This was the perfect start to my day because I got to see a beautiful view of Jinhae and I had a birds’ eye view of the festival so I had a good sense of where everything was.  From the top I could see everything from the naval academy on the coastline to the mountains lined with cherry blossoms.

Panoramic View

This was where I began my quest to see how many strangers I could ask to take my picture.  One of the downfalls of traveling alone….Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it) for me I was the only foreigner for miles so the Koreans were excited to take my picture, in fact most of them wanted to take a picture of me with their own cameras.  I still find it amazing how many Koreans, young and old, have still never seen a foreigner.  I realized I wasn’t in good old Seoul anymore.

Yeojwa Chon

After the cable car ride I walked around for the next six hours and found the infamous Yeojwa Stream, some beautiful parks, and some mountains as well.  One perk about traveling alone is that you can do what you want and go where you want without making too many pit stops.  I walked around aimlessly forever, got a little lost along the way, but found some cool spots including my own English school, “Jeniffer’s English Academy: Learning English in English”  What a concept!

Mountainside

Had to take a picture of this 🙂

After spending the night at a surprisingly nice motel, I used the last bit of my time in Jinhae to check out the Naval Academy and to walk around the town one last time.  I was definitely sad to leave because it was such a beautiful weekend all around, but I was looking forward to getting back to Seoul to see some familiar faces again.  This is definitely a must-see if you are in Korea during April.

Turtle Ship

 

At the Naval Academy with my new boyfriend 😉