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“We must fight or we will be forgotten”

July 11, 2009

A friend of mine recently sent me the link to an article about a group of South Korean women who have been fighting for seventeen years to have the Japanese government acknowledge their existence.

In South Korea, they call them “halmoni,” or grandmothers, although many are so scarred mentally and physically that they have never married or had children. In Japan, they are known as “comfort women,” a hated euphemism for their forced role of providing “comfort” to marauding troops in military brothels. But around the world, another, altogether starker term will follow them to their graves: sex slaves.

These women were kidnapped from their homes when they were in their early teens, transported to Japanese military bases, and were enslaved, repeatedly raped, tortured and brutalized for years. Sexual abuse, beatings and sometimes forced abortions left many unable to have children. Some were raped 30 times a day. Many of these women remained silent after their ordeals, until the early 1990s when a small group of Korean women banded together to speak out. They built a combination museum/communal refuge about two hours out of Seoul called Sharing House. Using this place as a base, they repeatedly attempt to regain some of the honor and dignity that was taken from them so long ago. However, the Japanese government hasn’t been so willing.

Last year, Abe stunned the residents of Sharing House by claiming there is “no evidence” to prove the women were coerced “in the strict sense of the term,” reversing an official position stated in 1993. Amid a growing political storm and pressure from Japan’s U.S. allies in Washington, Abe subsequently backtracked in a series of carefully worded statements that took the heat out of the controversy. . . Although Abe is out, replaced by the less ideological Yasuo Fukuda, . . . victims fear it is only a matter of time before the denials return to haunt them, perhaps with the next prime minister.

It’s not just the Japanese government that refuses to acknowledge these women’s ordeals. The media also does its job to skew the view of these women. Kang Il Chul, one of a handful of the surviving women living out their final days in Sharing House, is highly distrustful of the Japanese media that arrives to film the women, saying, “They want to show us weak and dying! Especially the camera crews. They follow the oldest, sickest women around and film them, hoping to show everyone back home that we will all be gone soon.” Even though there is media attention to this issue, a lot of it is very negative. An editorial in Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shinbun, said there was not “one shred of evidence to substantiate” the claim that the Japanese government had systemically coerced and recruited the women.

These women have to hearten themselves with smaller victories. An example took place in 2007 when the U.S. Congress passed Resolution 121, which calls on Tokyo to “formally apologize and accept historical responsibility” for the sex-slave issue. The resolution, sponsored by Japanese-American politician Mike Honda was fought hard by Tokyo, which sent lobbyists and Diet lawmakers to squash it. Many believe that but for Abe’s bungled denial, the resolution would not have passed.

For these women, all they want is to be recognized. Their greatest fear is that once they are gone, no one will remember them. After they have passed away, it will be difficult to keep their memory alive because they won’t be here to describe their experiences. Some of their words already attached themselves to me, such as Kang’s description of her memories.

I still have blood tears in my soul when I think about what happened

The full story can be read here

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Becky permalink
    July 12, 2009 1:38 PM

    Great post, Carolyn! It’s so important to acknowledge the burdens women in bear in war time. Have you seen the artwork created by comfort women? I think I’ve seen more than what’s on this site, but they were created as a form of art therapy for these women. Here’s my favorite.

    Also, while looking for art, I found this really incredible art project by Chang-Jin Lee, which was meant to raise awareness of these women and highlight a forgotten history.

    Part of the Artist’s statement:

    The title, COMFORT WOMEN WANTED, is a reference to the actual text of advertisements which appeared in newspapers during the war. When advertising failed, young women from Korea, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Netherlands were kidnapped or deceived and forced into sexual slavery.

    Whenever there’s a war we hear about the suffering of soldiers, yet we hear almost nothing about the plight of women who are kidnaped and raped, or killed. Often it is the poorest and most marginalized elements of society who suffer most. Through out history women like this are too often invisible, forgotten and left with no place to turn.

    In the 21st century, human trafficking has surpassed drug trafficking to become the second largest business in the world after arms dealing. The “comfort women” issue illustrates the victimization which women suffer in terms of gender, ethnicity, politics, and class oppression, and how women are still perceived as a disposable commodity. This project promotes empowerment of these and all women, and seeks to establish a path toward a future where oppression is no longer tolerated.

  2. Kim permalink
    July 13, 2009 12:49 AM

    “An example took place in 2007 when the U.S. Congress passed Resolution 121, which calls on Tokyo to “formally apologize and accept historical responsibility” for the sex-slave issue.”

    You know that’s all well and good. I’d just like to see the U.S. Congress passing a resolution requiring our own military to “formally apologize and accept historical responsibility” for the systematic rape of women in every war they have ever taken part in. Vietnamese women were commonly subjected to rape. Soldiers have been convicted of gang raping and killing women and girls in other countries for decades. We hear about the U.S. military’s sexual abuse and debasement of Iraqi men, but there is little discussion about the fact that this abuse is almost always meant to de-masculinize the men in question. In essence, it’s to use and abuse them as women are used and abused, to make them feel like women. Both the abusers and the abused see nothing worse than making a man feel like a woman. So, this abuse is directly connected to misogyny.

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