What really happened to these women caught amidst the backdrop of war and invasion?
It’s no secret that history is filled with stories that have never been solved or that have found some form of justice. Even today there are some countries that have failed in this matter, since they haven't accepted or apologized for crimes they’ve committed. Some of them have done it some time after the events. However, there are cases in which a random, insincere apology isn't enough. That's the case of South Korea’s “comfort women,” a term that, by the way, isn’t only a euphemism but a terrible way of concealing a dark history of abuse and inhumanity.
In South Korea’s countryside, there’s a building that could even be considered a living museum called the “House of Sharing.” Here, a few older women live together, representing the last living survivors of these despicable practices that took place during the Second World War. Each one of them lives in a private room with their own kitchen and bathroom. As they've explained, they know how to look after themselves without trusting anyone, not even those who went through the same hardships. Outside the main building, there’s a garden with a few statues that represent and remind people of the horrors they experienced. This residency, built in the early nineties by a Buddhist foundation, became not only a peaceful place where survivors could spend the rest of their lives, but also a memorial of what they endured, as well as the headquarters for many protesters who claim for justice and acknowledgment.
The Japanese Empire got absolute control over Korea in 1910, and when the Second World War started, the army was sent to all their territories, including the invaded countries. Many young girls in the Japanese occupied nations (China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Korea) were abducted and taken to Japanese military bases to become a “comfort” for the soldiers. In other words, they were kidnapped to become sex slaves. There aren’t many records of this, at least available to the public, since the Japanese government has retained several documents of the war. The number of girls and women who were enslaved varies from 80,000 to 200,000, but the most gruesome evidence is provided by the survivors of these humanitarian crimes, the women who live in the House of Sharing. Through art therapy, they have been able to recover their confidence and courage to protest for their right to be acknowledged.
It was in the eighties when the stories of these women became public. It wasn’t until 1993 when the Japanese government accepted their role in this crime and voiced an apology. However, these women continued to ask for true justice. For many years, this issue has become the center of an anti-Japanese movement in South Korea, in which people joined the suffering and claims of the survivors and have protested in many spots. The relation between these countries has been tense, especially due to the many terrible stories of colonization. But in recent times, they both have tried to settle their differences, make peace, and join together against the dangers that North Korea represents for their nations. Still, South Koreans believe that, no matter the importance of being together, there are still some issues that have to be solved first, being the matter of the “comfort women” one of the most important.
In 2015, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed a diplomatic agreement with the South Korean government to put the matter on the table. The Japanese government accepted their responsibility in the subject and offered around 8.3 million USD for reparations. But South Korea still thinks this isn’t enough. They claim that the situation can't be solved only with a mere apology and money. They want this event to be taught at schools and be known around the world.
Throughout the years there have been many protests, specially at different Japanese embassies in the world, showing that the subject is a very relevant issue for the South Korean society. In 2013 a Japanese and literature professor at the Sejong University in Seoul, Park Yu-ha, published the book Comfort Women of the Empire which caused a huge stir. She claimed that after making a thorough research, there’s evidence that not all the “comfort” women were actually slaves or abducted from their countries, but there are records proving that some of them were paid to work in these brothels. More importantly, she states that, in the case of abducted women, there’s evidence showing that many Korean men helped trafficking these women. Naturally, many were offended by her book and claimed that she is just a traitor supporting the actions of the Japanese. Even some of the survivors sued the author for defamation, a case that the latter won because she showed the necessary evidence.
Park has stated that from the moment the story was known, many started depicting innocent and young women being ripped from their honor by the invading country, an image that helps portray them as victims of these horrors, but also leaves aside the fact that everything wasn't as black and white as they’d wish to be. In her book she never says these survivors didn't endure these events, but that the story is one that's constantly repeated. At the end of the day, objectivity is crucial when dealing with these subjects, but I also think we should listen to the survivor's claims and talk about these events so that we don’t repeat them.
Pictures from the 2016 film Spirits' Homecoming.