A morning with comfort women in South Korea
A morning with comfort women in South Korea
By Katie Shevlin
Pictures credits: Katie Shevlin (womenandtravelfirst.com)
Prior to visiting Seoul in 2002, I was aware of the brutal history of Japan’s comfort women. The term comfort women is a euphemism for the tens of thousands of girls and women, mostly Korean but also from other occupied countries, who were forced into sexual slavery in front line brothels –comfort stations- run by the Japanese military before and during World War II. Since the first Korean survivor Kim Hak-Sun came forward with her story in 1991, hundreds of other women have slowly started speaking out about the atrocities committed by the Japanese military. This developed into peaceful weekly demonstrations held outside the Japanese Embassy. The Japanese government has never made an official apology to the women nor offered them any type of compensation. The weekly demonstration has become a reminder of the demands that should be recognised in an attempt at justice for these women. I therefore decided to go along to meet the women and show my support when I visited Seoul.
When I arrived that Thursday morning, people looked surprised when I showed up. A young woman with a sheet of long, black, glossy hair, who spoke perfect English, rushed over to me with a curious look and smiled.
“Hi I’m Eun-Ae welcome! What brings you to Seoul and how did you find out about this meeting?”.
I explained I was visiting my friend Carmen and that I had previously read books about the women’s experiences. She was delighted I’d joined the group and asked.
“Would you like to meet some of the women?”
“I’d love to, if it’s ok?”, I replied.
“Oh”, she said. “Some of the women who usually come along are sick, so they couldn’t make it today”“I hope they are ok”, I said.
As we approached the 10 elderly women, I couldn’t help notice how incredibly weary they all looked. They sat in a single row, propped up and hunched over in their chairs. Some of them sat with their eyes gazing downwards, heads bent slightly forward, behind the banner in front of them. They wore oversized yellow tabards that displayed their charities’ logo – The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance (KCJR). I looked at Eun-Ae, the concern obviously showing on my face and she explained.
“You know, even though it happened 60, or for some 70 and 80 years ago, they still feel shame. Their lives have been dominated and destroyed completely, by their history. But still, every week they come here to try and get recognition for what they suffered through”.
What she said rang true. Because when looking at the women, it almost felt like they had been at a comfort station the day before. However, as I was about to find out, the passing of time on its own did not lessen the impact of such personal loss or even ease the complex trauma to which they had been exposed. Eun-Ae took me over to the women, all of whom she knew well. Up close, I could see the map of wrinkles on their faces which told of sorrows past and present. She introduced me to the group and explained that I was a supporter of their cause from Scotland. It was then when their expressions changed. The misery slowly lifted from their faces as they looked up and as their eyes met mine, their mouths carved into a grin. Tired eyes and blank eyes, that creased into a smile and tears appeared in their corners.
Next, I was taken to talk with each woman individually. One by one, they grabbed both my hands, squeezed them gently and humbly bowed their heads. We couldn’t communicate verbally but I knew they appreciated my presence. I felt so touched and privileged to meet these strong women. Eun-Ae told me that many women who returned from the comfort stations had either kept it a secret their whole lives or hadn’t revealed the truth, the latter weren heavily ostracised by their families and communities. Having had sex outside marriage and even worse, being prostitutes, was seen as having brought shame not only on themselves but to their whole family. This led to some of the women deciding to live together in shelters that were dotted all over South Korea.
I noticed one woman who was tiny with whitehair like fresh snow, shyly glance over at me occasionally. It was almost as if she was contemplating speaking to me, because the next thing I was beckoned over, along with Eun-Ae to translate. She invited us to sit beside her so we could hear her voice, which she reduced to a whisper. She told me that many Korean girls were tricked into being comfort women. She was a 15-year-old child when she was offered a job as a cook by a Japanese soldier, who appeared to be showing her kindness. Given the levels of poverty at the time in the occupied territories, she agreed, so she could help her family financially. However, not long after she was driven off, she was raped. This deception started her painful ordeal at a military brothel that lasted months before being transferred to another city far from her home, where the horrors began again.
Eun-Ae further translated, “Other women couldn’t make the long journey home after the war. Or it took them many years as they were stationed abroad. It was only after Kim Hak-Sun came forward that others got the courage”.The woman continued, “We were detained next to military barracks, sometimes in walled camps. Soldiers would repeatedly rape, beat and torture us, often multiple times a day”.
It was all explained in a very matter of fact manner, maybe because she had repeated the story over the years? I’m not sure. Although, this was the first opportunity she had to share her experiences with a foreigner. And although she was 82 years old, her experiences were carved deep into her memory, being unable to forget her traumatic past. I asked if she would mind telling me what the conditions were like at the camps. First, she nodded, then lowered her hooded eyes and shook her head, as if in remembrance. She told me many of those who survived wished they had died. The survivors all suffered serious physical injuries and gynecological problems. She also explained that many suffered from venereal diseases and were unable to bear children later in life. Many women were unable to marry or if they did, had to hide their ‘shameful’ past from their husband. Some women who became pregnant were killed or died in childbirth. There was no free time since the brothels were in operation 24/7. Although we were talking quietly, the woman sitting next to us overheard the topic of conversation and was keen to share. She tilted the front of her sun hat back and exposed a kind face with dark circles under her eyes. Eun-Ae translated.
“She wanted to tell you that she wasn’t deceived by a soldier, that the Japanese army had other ways to capture girls. She was at the market buying vegetables for her mother when she was abducted”
“Wow, did nobody see this?” I asked.
“Oh yes, it was a busy market and this happened in full public view, but the people could not do anything. They were frightened of the soldiers”.
At that point the woman took out an old photo she carried in her purse. Tears flowed as she showed me the picture of her mother and herself. She was an absolutely beautiful child of 13 when she was kidnapped.
“She’s telling you that she has never seen her mother again. When she returned after the war, her family was gone and she doesn’t know what happened to them. She ended up in the Philippines when the war ended. She was terrified and totally alone with a hostile group of men and she was a 13 year old innocent child who knew nobody. As the war got worse for the Japanese Army, it got worse for the women too”.
Eun-Ae added, “As the Allies continued to conquer more countries, the Japanese suffered a series of losses. The women were transported along with the military from island to island”.According to a report earlier this year, the number of sexual slavery survivors in South Korea has dwindled to just 17. Given their great ages these remaining women will gradually die, probably without justice being served. In fact, it is estimated that 90% of the women forced into prostitution, did not survive the war. Those who remain still have deep wounds that have not healed and, it appears like a true apology and reconciliation are still out of reach, nearly a century later.
These days, this would be recognised as the crime of trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. I have worked in Glasgow with trafficking survivors, women from all over the world who’ve had the most horrendous experiences. Therefore, I recognise the diverse range of support services necessary to meet the holistic psychological, emotional and physical needs that survivors need to heal. It’s a very lengthy process and one that needs various interventions to tackle the complex trauma these women have experienced – often over a period of years. Whereas, the Korean women had to keep the atrocities they experienced to themselves. I really don’t know how they survived all these years. They live in a society that has shunned them, as opposed to one that should have accepted them and supported their healing. In Asia, there is a concept called ‘saving face’. It’s about preserving one’s reputation, credibility or dignity. Therefore, people like to put on a proper image of what looks good on the outside. At that time, losing ones virginity outside marriage and involvement in prostitution would have been a prime example of ‘losing face’, which led to survivors being shunned and ostracised. The view of Korean society is, you do what you can to avoid all potential embarrassment and the bringing of shame to yourself and others.
As I finished up my conversation with the second woman, she said something I’ve never forgotten.
“In Korea women are compared to rags, once they have been ‘dropped’ and ‘dirtied’ they will never be clean again”.And Eun-Ae nodded, “Yes, that is still the attitude”, almost 100 years after the first women were forced into prostitution in 1930.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Shevlin’s passions in life include travel, writing, research, photography and contributing to the fight to eradicate violence against women. Having travelled to over 60 countries, she has been able to blend her interests, to raise awareness of women’s oppression, and its manifestations, in countries around the world. Attempting to speak to women to learn about their lived experience is crucial, especially in the developing world, since quite often it is the first time anyone has shown an interest in her life and opinions.
If you would like to read more of Katie’s blogs about women around the world and solo female travel
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