by Nancy Werking Poling, author of Out of the Pumpkin Shell
Revised from my Korea journal, May, 2008
In front of the Japanese embassy, twelve Seoul police officers stood at attention, their black shields situated upright in front of them. For sixteen years, at noon every Wednesday, a group, mostly women, has demonstrated there.
The Japanese embassy in Seoul is a stark brick building. Like the American embassy, it is surrounded by a high wall topped with a fence of barbed wire. All blinds at the embassy were closed the days I attended the demonstrations. No one entered or left the premises except for an occasional delivery man on a motor scooter.
On the opposite side of the street six former Comfort Women, identified by bright yellow smocks, sat in a row facing the embassy. Each held on to the top of a large white banner stretched from one end of the row to the other. Around them about a hundred supporters waved yellow paper flags and called out for justice.
In 1910 Japan annexed Korea, harshly ruling the country until the Pacific war ended in 1945. To satisfy the occupying soldiers’ needs, young Korean women were coerced into becoming sex slaves, euphemistically called “Comfort Women.” Maybe they should have been called Comfort Girls, as many were as young as fourteen when they were kidnapped or tricked into leaving their homes. Poverty and colonial rule had already made life harsh for them and their families. In the brothels they lived in constant terror and degradation. Many were raped by twenty to thirty men a day.
Estimates of the number of women range from 100,000 to 400,000. Only around one hundred known survivors are alive today. Most Comfort Women are believed to have been killed by murder, starvation, or disease. Not until the late 1980s and early 1990s did the few survivors begin to speak publicly of their trauma.
Accounts of Japan’s response differ. I’ve read online that Japan officially apologized and offered reparation money. According to Koreans I spoke with, the apology was vague and many of the Comfort Women rejected the money, saying it had to be accompanied by an admission of responsibility. Koreans have also been pressuring Japan to include this atrocity and others in Japanese history textbooks.
An American stereotype of Korean women is that they are shy and demure. Not so. Within their own culture they can be aggressive, as demonstrated by the raucous crowd gathered in front of the Japanese embassy. During my first visit seven women had organized a “Farmer’s Band,” that is a group playing drums, a gong, and an instrument that when struck sounds like a metal pie pan. Women used a microphone to remind the public of grievances and evoke noisy responses. Every now and then the friend who accompanied me translated the gist of what was happening. Once she told me that four Comfort Women had died during the previous week.
On the second Wednesday I attended, a group of preschoolers in blue school uniforms formed an orderly line to the side. Each carried a corsage or a handmade card in the shape of a heart. When the designated time came, they filed in front of the six women and sang to them with such earnestness that tears welled in everyone’s eyes. The press, with their monstrous lenses and intrusive ways, were there in full force. Who could blame them for wanting to capture the sweetness of the children as they handed over the cards and flowers, the Comfort Women’s eagerness to engage them?
The gathering ended with everyone fervently singing “Arirang,” a traditional folk song. Though it has a peppy tune, it’s a sad love song that expresses “han,” a deep sorrow. During Japanese colonization Koreans—forced to abandon their culture, even to the point of taking Japanese names—sang it as a means of protest. It evokes emotions similar to those felt when “We Shall Overcome” is sung on King’s birthday.
Being present with the six survivors, witnessing the dignity with which they sat on their stools, watching them lean forward to speak with the young children, hearing the heart-felt strains of a song whose words I didn’t understand—the memory makes me cry even now.
Of course I could not help but think of those who were not there, the thousands who died in captivity. The women who survived until liberation but whose lives were shortened by malnourishment and sexually transmitted diseases. The women who lived but were too traumatized to ever find pleasure in existence. And there are those who week after week stand alongside the Comfort Women. By their presence they denounce the great evil that was done.
I am reminded of women throughout the world who suffer from violence. Many will not survive the trauma. Most who survive will be so wounded that they will never be able to experience peace or joy.
Who will stand with them, shout out for justice, offer a flower or a card in the shape of a heart?