Streams

Korean Sharing House

Transcript

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

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Cecilia Heejong Kim: I found myself interested in this issue – probably the most important issue that happened in Korean women’s history.

Kampfner: An instrumental elegy recently had its world premiere in the main concert hall in Seoul. The young South Korean composer Cecilia Heejong Kim, dedicated her piece to the wartime comfort women who died in the Japanese military camps and to those who survived the tragedy and to those who testified.

Cecilia Heejong Kim: The theme was taken from one of the songs sung by the comfort women I found. It’s not exactly like this I modified it and it’s a bit different, more melancholy. I attached some sadness and grief into the melody. (She sings it.)

Kampfner: At a key moment in the music, the orchestra stops and we hear tape of a Comfort Woman singing.

It’s not only women of Korean heritage who want to find out more about this episode in their history. A Princeton professor, Chang Rae Lee, wrote a 1999 novel called "A Gesture Life". He avoids voyeuristic sensationalism.

Korean Comfort Women, who were forced to act as sex slaves when the country was a Japanese colony.
Chang Rae Lee: I didn’t want this to be a sexy story. Most soldiers who came across these women didn’t think of them as such… these women were there for a specific purpose. they were objects for the most part. I learned about the Comfort Women by accident I was looking through a newspaper and I saw a small article about surviving comfort women who were asking the Japanese government for recognition and reparations. I didn’t know anything about it and I went right to the library to look for things about it. I just came across another kind of academic article about it. It wasn’t so much about the Comfort Women as the sex trade in Asia and mentioned the Comfort Women back in the 40’s during the war. I was so impressed by the horror of it and the magnitude of what went on, and also shocked by my own ignorance. I couldn’t believe this had happened… that someone like me, a Korean American, had not heard about it. For me it was sort of like finding out about the holocaust for the first time.

Kampfner: After reading Chang Rae Lee’s novel I wanted to meet the real women who had helped with his research. So I went to South Korea to "The Sharing House", in the remote hills outside Seoul. Ten survivors of the Japanese Military Comfort Women system live here. It’s a simple modern home with traditional features like sliding doors and under floor heating. The residents aged between 75 and 85 were brought here in 1992. A year after one woman came out with public testimony of her experience in a comfort station and broke the news to the world. The Sharing House was then set up by a Buddhist charity to bring women home who had been stranded since the war. Women who had been too poor to get back from places like China and the Philippines. Lee Yong Su, tall in a red dress, with heavy bags under her eyes, is the group’s unofficial spokeswoman.

Lee Yong Su: That phrase "comfort women" - it was born in Japan. If you interpret that, that means we went there spontaneously, followed Japanese soldiers, comforted them and entertained them. They made up that phrase to erase their own crime. If they must use the phrase, they should attach "forcibly." If they say, "forcibly taken military comfort women," then Japanese guilt shows.

Kampfner: The United Nations term "sexual slaves" is also offensive to Lee Yong Su. The women prefer above all to be called simply "Halmonie" the Korean word for grandmothers. When I visit, the blossom is out, but the ground is still muddy from winter rains. By the front door, there’s a modern sculpture. A hunched torso with drooping breasts and a sad hollow face - rising from the earth. The women have their own bedrooms and a garden with benches. In the evening they gather round the kitchen table with the people who care for them. Though they were each in a different Japanese camp, they got support from other girls who were with them.

Comfort Woman: When we got time together, if one cried we all cried. Sometimes we wanted to die but we couldn’t even do that. Many of us wanted to kill ourselves but that was forbidden.

Kampfner: "Sharing your sorrows cuts them in half" is a Korean proverb.

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson: The most amusement these women got was to get together by themselves and tell their stories of pain from their heart and weep together and cry together and in some cases sing whatever Korean songs or national songs that they had. longing for home wanting to go back.

Kampfner: Dai Sil Kim- Gibson, Korean - American author and independent film maker, made a documentary about the comfort women which aired on public TV. Though few Koreans visit the sharing house international visitors come and sometimes stay - Josh Pilzer an American ethnomusicologist.

Josh Pilzer: I spent one year with these ladies living with them talking with them. There was one woman who was in her late seventies and she just moved into the House of Sharing. Before that she had been afflicted every night in her dreams. She dreams that she was in the rape camp over and over again every night. Eventually she just had to call someone up and say can you bring me into your world and maybe I’ll stop having this dream.

"Halmoni," the Comfort Women are affectionately called.
In October the ginkgo nuts are ripe and they fall off the trees and we had collected a bunch of them together, so we were cracking these ginkgo nuts with hammers and rocks - she was using a hammer and I was using a rock and she started to sing a song which was a popular song from the colonial period .Which means life in a foreign land. I should like to see the Japanese government take steps to care for these women in their advanced age. I would like to see this be resolved without treating it as an isolated historical issue.

Kampfner: At the bottom of the garden of the House is a little museum. It houses a replica of a comfort station dormitory style room. And some odd relics in glass cases. The guide is a gentle Japanese volunteer His conscience was prodded because his grandfather was in the army.

Museum guide: This is a condom from Okinawa.... some soldiers used condoms – many refused.

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson: Cleaning the condoms - that was part of their hygiene. And one woman I interviewed told me the saddest moment in this time was when she was washing the condoms.

Museum guide: (Interpreter) This bowl is not for cleaning your face. It is for cleaning yourself – you know the secret part of the woman. The chemical things for the clean up. It is not for your face. Or washing your hands

Kampfner: The highly organized trafficking system to procure comfort women began around 1937. The Japanese had colonized Korea in 1905. It was a poor country. Fathers sold off their daughters to bounty hunters for the Japanese army. Or young girls were lured by false promises of good jobs. Or they were kidnapped. They were sent all over the Japanese empire. Some girls were even tricked by their teachers. Bruce Cumings an expert in Korean history is a professor at the University of Chicago.

Bruce Cumings: The girls chosen for this – and I use the word girls in the literal sense – 12, 13, 14 year old girls were told they were going to serve the Emperor in some capacity – often the best student in the class was told she was going to serve the Emperor in some way and the next thing you know she was being raped by 40 or 50 soldiers a day.

Comfort Woman: So they put me in the car and drove away so I protested why are you doing this? But he couldn’t understand what I was saying and I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He spoke in Japanese and I spoke in Korea. I couldn’t understand what was going on.

Museum guide This is the advertisement published during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula can you see it? It is the advertisement in the newspaper to collect the comfort women. Like kidnapping But at the time these young girls couldn’t read.

Comfort Woman: One day they measured my feet and height. It was cold. They captured 5 of us. The Japanese man went out and came back with 5 small bags. He brought us shoes and dresses. I asked how can we wear such thin dresses in such cold weather? He said there was a place far away where we could wear the dresses.

Comfort Woman: I was dragged away when I was playing with my friends in the field. I was sixteen. They told me they would get me a good paying job in a factory. At first I went in a ship to Taiwan and then I went to Manila.

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson: They were treated like piece of military supplies whose only existence was justified to so –called “comfort” fighting Japanese soldiers. They were sent to the front before these soldiers and when they were shipped in a ship on a truck they were never called by their names but they had numbers. Predominant number were virgins. They were fresh they were young, they were mostly very pretty people and when they arrived like that. They were offered to the officers first.

Comfort Woman: Our hair was braided that was the hairstyle for unmarried girls. They didn’t capture old women. All of us were virgins - 15, 16, 17, 18.We were all virgins.

Dai Sil: The culture from which they came was “Chastity is more precious than Life itself You are not supposed to sleep with a man until your wedding day. Even on their wedding night - they don’t become naked. Korean bride come wrapped in layers and layers of bridal gowns and clothing and she has her eyes looking down to the floor, not even looking at her husband. So - If you can put that picture with 40 soldiers standing in line screaming hurry up hurry up, while you are being raped – you can imagine what it was like for these women.

Comfort Woman: Simply put the most difficult thing was to receive the soldiers. It was worse on Sundays. When they came to us they stood in line. Standing in a long line and when one was finished the other came in and on and on. That was the hardest thing to endure.

Museum guide: This picture? This is the picture of the soldiers waiting for their turn in front of the comfort station in China – he is smiling and they are the Korean ladies the Korean females

"Woman of Earth," on the grounds of the House of Sharing.
Museum guide: Two fabrics would hang like this.
Kampfner: You mean divide it into three?
Guide: Uh huh.
Kampfner: So there would be three beds in here?
Guide: Uh huh.
Kampfner: So you could hear everything?
Guide: That’s right, the screaming, fighting everything.

Comfort Woman: They tortured me. Because I did not obey them .They gave me electric shocks. And used a sword like this. I was practically dead for several days. In that deathlike state, a soldier asked me to go into the room. And I wouldn’t. So he dragged me and here and here around the waist and here I had to be operated on. After sixty years I still have these scars. Here I was kicked by the foot and here they burnt me. And here they did this. They hit my soul and my palm. Both of which swelled like this and I could not run. I believe they did this so I could not run away. Because my soles were so swollen I could not put on my shoes. Why should I obey the Japanese? Why should I listen to them? Look here. Feel these holes. They were caused by the beating. And when they gave me electric shocks, they did this and then they sat me down and wrapped me up with an electric cord. so I screamed "mama" I still do it sometimes. That "umah" scream.

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson: Sometimes you did not know whether you had venereal disease and many women also did not know whether they were pregnant and did not know when they had miscarried. One woman told me she found out she had miscarried only the third time that it happened it to her.

Comfort Woman: They lied to me. They gave me shots. They said it was for malaria. So I thought it was a treatment. Didn’t know what it was. It was a drug called 606. To stop venereal disease. We went to the hospital for checkups. For possible disease If we refused shots, they beat us. The women who had shots could not bear children.

Kampfner: It was not always so dehumanized. Lee Yong Su was befriended by a pilot who gave her a Japanese name – Do Shi Ko. He adapted a popular military song for her. It contained valuable information for her, because until she met him - she had had no idea where she was stationed.

Lee Yong Su: This soldier was kind to me. He taught me a song and that’s why I knew it was Taiwan and also the town of Shinju because he put that in the song. The soldier when he was about to leave to go on his death mission – you know – kamikaze pilots a re supposed to die. Before he left he taught me this song. It goes like this: The fighter plane is in the air and Taiwan is getting farther away. Kung Deuk, Kung Deuk - the sound of the clouds. No one to see me off. Only one person who will cry for me – that’s Do Shi Ko.

Universal Newsreel

Kampfner: Lee Yong Su survived when her camp was liberated by the Americans and she went to do farm work. But some women were trapped in old patterns. Historian Bruce Cumings.

Bruce Cumings: There was a relatively seamless transition in terms of the American military replacing the Japanese military and so no one had an interest in probing into stories of the more than 100,000 Korean women who were dragooned into sexual slavery by the Japanese army. Really some of the former comfort women feeling themselves completely ruined and unable to return to their families became prostitutes for the American military after world war two. It was such a degraded situation under the American occupation in the Korean war that a friend of mine who served in the Korean war said on Friday night they would bring in a half ton truck full of 150 women and they would be in a movie house having sex. These undoubtedly included women who were comfort women for the Japanese army

Josh Pilzer: Militaries which are based on this idea of soldierly manly behavior often have these massive systems of prostitution which are designed to fulfill these boys will be boys idea - natural lusts or something that has to do with violence – you have to go out and risk your life so you’ve got to be able to get your rocks off.

Lee Yong Su: When I returned, I could have married. I felt our Korean men were precious. With my body all dirtied, I didn’t want to disgrace precious Korean men. I did not want to dirty them.

Kampfner: Lee Yong Su never found her Japanese soldier though she has been to Japan to look for him. I told the women I also was seeking closure. I wanted to share my story in exchange for theirs. My father in law, an engineer, told me a secret just before he died. When he was a civilian prisoner of war under the Japanese – he was marched out one day and made to repair a burst water main. He was then given what he deemed was a prostitute in reward. I realized recently that she must have been a comfort woman. A fact that he wasn’t to have known before he died. I told the women I was sorry. They were unphased and Lee Yung Su was pragmatic.

Comfort Woman: If a man came to me and was not Japanese but a foreigner. I would not have known what was going on but I’m sure I would have told him that we were taken at a young age and we were suffering terribly.

One of the Comfort Women has died since the the House of Sharing was built.
Kampfner: Maybe someone told him that. They would not have understood each other but maybe it was some relief to tell him. Although a private fund exists which is organized by Japanese women and is collecting money for the comfort women of Korea, the sharing house women want nothing to do with it. They say that to accept would weaken their case against the government. And it is above all a moral apology that they want. In their lifetime. To this end - they go weekly to stand in front of the Japanese Embassy - to demonstrate. They’ll continue until Japan officially admits its role in the drafting of military comfort women, apologizes and pays reparations.

Bruce: I think there won’t be closure before the women die and they die as the years go by. I think closure will happen when the Japanese government does a complete and full disclosure of what happened. When it compensates the survivors and their families in some imaginative way. What can we compensate someone when they are 12 years old and are taken into a situation when they are raped 40-50 times a day and this goes on till the war ends – how can you put a monetary figure on that?

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson: Imagine these women who have to take 3 different buses on every Wednesday and come to Japanese embassy rain snow cold and heat and stand there demanding justice. the resilience of these women with all their hurt is so astounding, so awe inspiring, I can hardly talk about them– these women are courageous women.

Korean Sharing House 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 part of a one-hour documentary called War and Forgiveness


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