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In the spring of 2003, I visited a communal home in Korea, seeking personal stories and a sense of a unique community. It wasn’t an experiment in new age living or a group of separatists. The inhabitants were a group of stalwart survivors. They were ten so-called "Comfort Women" who had been enslaved in "comfort stations" by the Japanese in World War Two. Sixty one years later, I found them living in a specially built house which they calledThe Sharing House, or sometimes more poetically The House of Sharing. Now aged between 75 and 85, they were the victims of a system of mass rape. Captured by Japanese soldiers when they were young girls, they were imprisoned in army barracks and forced to have sex with soldiers and officers. Although women from other parts of Asia were also coerced as comfort women, the Korean women numbered over 100, 00 over half the total number.
In the years since Japan’s defeat in 1945, these women have struggled to cope with disease, debilitating injuries, sterility and psychological trauma. And for fifty years, they kept silent. They were ashamed. They had no political clout. Their government did not want to rock fragile relations with the Japanese. And then in 1991 a group of academics encouraged one woman and then several others to tell their stories, and more and more former comfort women came forward.
The "Sharing House," created the following year by a Buddhist charity, was established for former Korean comfort women who had been stranded overseas since the war. They were too poor to return from the areas where the Japanese had taken them. Duk -Kyung Kang was its first resident. As a result of her time as a comfort woman, she had endometriosis, fallopian tube disorder and bladder infections. She had not married and had always lived alone and been in fact destitute.
The Sharing House has enabled the women to have a political platform and an organizational base. Over the last decade, they have given testimony to many experts in the hope of getting an official apology and reparations from the Japanese government. Kang, who became a leading member of the sharing house and a stoic activist, collapsed during a demonstration outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in 1997 and died soon after. To this day, the weekly demonstrations continue and most members of the House of Sharing make the two hour journey down to Seoul to march and chant with groups of supporters. They are still hoping that they will get a moral apology in their lifetime.
The House of Sharing was up a hillside out of Seoul – it took me an interminable time on three crowded buses to get there. Modern and simple with a cottage garden, it nevertheless had some imposing sculptures. The women were awaiting my arrival in their small living room, some sitting on mats, others jammed together on sofas. There was an air of some confusion and excitability.The male director of the house tried to keep them in order.
Without prompting, they told me that they do not like to be called "Comfort Women" because that was the euphemism used by the Japanese. And they find the official UN term, "Military Sex Slaves," offensive. When they told me they like to be called "halmonies" or grandmothers which is simply the name given to all older ladies in Korea, this seemed altogether too modest. They would prefer that the world knew them by the" grandmother" name –poignant since most of them could not bear children.
This announcement of how they reject other peoples’ titles and have chosen their own, though important, was the standard way they began any testimony.
To encourage them to reveal their own stories and to avoid embarrassment, I kicked into a kind of drama game, There seemed a certain amount of competition to get my attention, and I wanted to keep the seven women (out of ten) who lived in the house actively involved. So I thought best to start with questions that would elicit quick responses. “Who was a virgin when they were taken to the camps?” was the first bald question. I was enormously relieved to find that far from causing any offence the reaction was an enthusiastic unanimous show of hands.
In their different ways, they told me similar stories of their camp experiences. They were forced to have sex with interminable lines of Japanese soldiers every day. New girls were given to officers and, when they became sick and exhausted, they were handed to soldiers. They were beaten often. Sometimes just because the soldiers were aggressive, sometimes because they struggled, sometimes because the soldiers resented how worn out these girls had become. They showed me long scars on arms and stomachs. I felt one woman’s wiry head for holes where she had been electrocuted. When they were not with the soldiers, there was still physical work – cleaning out the latrines or digging ditches.
One woman said that after the war she had to stay in China and was married off to a communal farmer. As soon as the opportunity came to get to the Sharing House, she left him, her children and her grandchildren. Most of this group did not get married, either because they were considered soiled or more often because they had an aversion to men. The Sharing Home offers them a safe haven because they have been disowned by or lost contact with their extended families.
In the fourteen years since the house was established, many have received some education for the first time. Many arrived not being able to write their own names, so they have learnt Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Because writing isn’t an option for self-expression, they receive art therapy. The museum on the property houses an exhibition of their work, disturbing and unsettling paintings with titles like “The Unblossomed-Flower” and “Purity Lost Forever”.
Occasionally the women are visited by international experts and some of them stay on the premises. I interviewed an ethnomusicologist, Josh Pilzer from the University of Chicago who had stayed a year. He had been recording and collecting songs which had been important for the women during their captivity and afterwards. He learnt that they had in fact encoded words into popular songs in order to vent their experiences – a form of music therapy. One woman, Lee Yong Su, has a song that is linked to a romantic episode - she fell in love with a Japanese soldier.
Music appeared to be a common bond between the comfort women, who would sing to each other. In one story (that does not appear in my half-hour documentary), the comfort women sang along with an American officer’s ukulele. The song is a recollection of Grant Hirabayashi, an interpreter for American army intelligence during the war. When he went into Burma in 1944 after the Japanese army fled, he found a group of 20 women huddled in a barbed wire enclosure and interrogated them about the Japanese. In his official photographs, the women are very young, wearing makeshift dresses; many have their heads bowed while others have glazed stares. They spoke very little but that night around the campfire, they did sing.
My original purpose for visiting Korea in fact had been to gather contemporary music from an international conference of women composers. It proved to be invaluable for informing my selections of music – most of them new compositions -- for the radio documentary. I also was able to use four of the women’s songs - music with clapping and laughter which really illustrates a communal spirit. One song talks about missing home and another about traveling to a far away place.
"Women who had to behave like whores are now saints" is a paraphrase of a comment from Bruce Cumings, the historian I interviewed. To me the women at the sharing house were not unapproachable or sanctified. They hissed and burped and one fell asleep and landed with a thud on the floor. Another who had been sleeping in a side-room stumbled in halfway through our meeting looking as if she had had a nightmare.
These women affected me deeply. From the moment I walked into the Sharing House, I felt an affinity with them. I instantly knew why. I had been brought up in Singapore by an elderly Chinese ”amah” who had come from China as a young girl. She was part of group of women, dressed in a uniform of black pants and white tunic, who never seemed to associate with men. In their meager time off they gathered together, squatting on the ground to burn incense and chat in soft voices. The collective noun for a group of amahs was a “konksi” which meant a close-knit gathering. This solidarity must have counted for a lot because they were far from home, had no education and were often mistreated.
The living room of Korean Comfort women was a ”konksi” of sorts: a group of nurturing, wise, long suffering women who had secrets. They were palpably dignified and seemed to have a special spiritual quality. I felt oddly blessed (and that’s a deliberately extreme word) to have been lucky enough to have spent precious time in their company.
This piece is a co-production of Soundprint and WNYC. Distribution through Radio Netherlands was made possible, in part, through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Korean Sharing House is the first half of an hour-long program called War and Forgiveness.
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