Saturday, May 21, 2016

The House of Sharing: Lost Hope, Harsh Reality

Of the 238 (among arguably 200,000) Korean euphemistically-called "comfort women" who revealed their pasts, only 42 remain alive, still wanting apologies from Japan. Like the earth that was plundered for its fruit, the women's bodies were owned, possessed, raped and stripped of their resources. Since 1992 every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy they have demanded an apology. 1231 times they have demanded apologies. Wednesday they will demand again ... Two more grandmothers passed away last week, waiting.

This statue of a young innocent girl "The Unblossomed Flower" adapted from a drawing made by Kim Soon-deok is the iconic symbol of the House of Sharing. The girl is based on one of the paintings of Kim Soon-deok (1921-2004), one of the grandmothers who painted to express herself. A complimentary and very sad poem "A Place of Requiem" has been written to pair with the statue.
In the back garden hidden between buildings is a statue of the harsh reality of the former 'comfort women'. The statue "Woman of Earth" is very symbolic of the reality of the women who served Japanese soldiers during World War II. According to yin-yang cosmology, men are yang and women are yin, and among the multiple dualities of yin and yang, men are sky and women are earth. As earth women represent fertility, nurturing, bearing of fruit, and so in this representative statue a woman is situated in earth.

Though this is the depiction of the harsh reality of the women who were plundered like the earth in colonialism, the statue also conveys that women are strong and they do still rise up. The grandmothers are trying to rise ... they are fighting back. 
However, this is a statue of harsh reality, a statue of what became but what should not have been. Under colonialism, when times were also patriarchal and women were less valued than men and could be sold much like possessions, animals and the land which they worked, the Japanese not only exploited the lands of the colonial society but the bodies of colonial women. Much like the land, young fertile, usually nubile virgins of the poorest socioeconomic peasants and therefore those less empowered to financially, intellectually or physically fight back were forcibly taken or tricked into working as sex machines for the Japanese soldiers. Both the land and the girls were plundered of their natural resources, their fertility was possessed, their nurturing futures were ravished.

Seen behind the "Woman of Earth" is a round rock balanced on another rock, and the duo symbolize the continuity of life in Buddhism. Buddhist monks donated this land to the grandmothers so they could move away from the city, and be surrounded by nature and a less censorious atmosphere. When the small grounds were built, just as in Buddhist temple grounds, a small strip of land is dedicated to the stupas of the great monks of the temple so that they can be forever remembered and venerated. The same applies here, the stupas of the former "comfort women" are lined up. While many do not have children or family to venerate them, other people will come to venerate them ... and by their stupas they will be remembered. Currently there are eight stupas and no more room for more. The patch of land is too small and a more spacious consecrated ground will soon be located in front of the greeting hall.

The story of the former 'comfort woman' Pak Ok-nyeon /Park Ok-ryeon (1919-2011) who lived her final years at the House of Sharing is a representative story of the large numbers of girls taken into the Japanese Military brothel system, exploited and who then 'disappeared' undocumented. Pak Ok-nyeon capsules her story in basic events. The pain of estrangement from her family and loss of friends and then the lost connection with her last friend and fellow survivor of shared experiences is felt in her abbreviated sentences. The girls lives were smashed before they had hardly begun.
Pak Ok-nyeon was taken to Japan first and fathered with about 35 other girls. All of them were taken on a ship heading for Papua New Guinea. According to Pak, after crossing the ocean, only half of them survived the journey (so about 17). She spent 3 to 4 years on Papua New Guinea in the city of Labaul working as a "comfort woman." Only half of these girls survived; some killed themselves and some died due to harsh working conditions (about 8 or 9 of them). Before the end of the war, Pak was put on a ship heading back to Japan with the 8 or 9 girls who had survived, but only 2 girls survived the trip. Pak spent her later years searching for this other girl, the only other one to have survived, but she never found her before she, Pak Ok-nyeon, passed away.
[Click to enlarge] Places where comfort stations were located. Don't be deceived by the map, however, as a single red dot doesn't mean there was only one military brothel but could in fact be several brothels densely packed.
red circles - 'comfort station' locations confirmed by 'comfort women' themselves
blue circles - areas confirmed by testimony of Japanese soldiers via diaries or verbally
yellow squares - areas confirmed by official documents and military materials
green triangles - areas confirmed by witnesses, local people, etc (3rd party sources)
The House of Sharing Grandmothers Who Have Passed Away

Currently 10 grandmothers live at the House of Sharing and one was on trial to see if she could adapt; it was her first day and she was wandering like a lost spirit, not really understanding why the foreign crowd was there on "tour" and not really knowing why two grandmothers spoke and briefly sang songs of memory. Another grandmother was to arrive the next day. The grandmothers average age is 90, and one of the reasons they now come to the House of Sharing is because they can get physical and medical assistance there. Their bodies are old and badly damaged from what they suffered, and they need care. Of the 10 grandmothers, only two are mobile; the others are bedridden. Yi Ok-seon (born 1927) is one of the mobile ones and had just come back from speaking in the United States for three weeks (NY, Texas, and three other states). She was still very tired, but was quite the talker ... and proved to be quite the singer as well.

Five grandmothers amidst the "Unblossomed Flower" statue:
Back left to right: moon, Pil-gi; Park, Doo-ri
Front left to right: Kim Seon-deok; Kang Deok-kyung; Kim Hak-soon
All of the grandmothers who lived and died at the House of Sharing are commemorated also in a bust. Kim Hak-soon also has a bust commemorated to her although she never lived at the House of Sharing, but the House would not be in existence if Kim Hak-soon had not been the first former comfort woman to go public.

Yi Yong-Nyeo (1926-2013)
Born in Yeoju, Gyeonggi-do. Forced to work as a sexual slave by the Japanese military in Taiwan, Singapore and Burma. After the end of WWII, she came back to Busan in 1946 through POW camp in Rangoon. She gave testimony at The Women's International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo, 2000.

Park, Ok-ryeon (1919-2011)
Born in Muju, Jeonbuk-do and taken to Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. She was especially serious about participating in the Wednesday Demonstration and was almost never absent from it after coming forward to the public as a former Japanese Military sexual slave.

Ji, Dol-ee (1923-2008)
Born in Kyoungju, Kyeongbuk-do and taken to "Seokmoonja comfort station" in the Jilin province of China. She never stopped missing her husband who had been forcibly conscripted into the Japanese military leaving word that she should wait for him as he would come back alive.

Kim Hwa-sun (1926-2012)
Born in Pyeongyang, North Pyeongan-do. She suffered from poverty and so, by the prospect of having tasty food, she was lured to work at a 'comfort station' in Singapore where she was cruelly raped by Japanese soldiers. After Singapore, she was taken to a 'comfort station' near Mudanjan, China. In 1947 she finally returned to Korea by a Korean ship. After living in Incheon or Seoul, she tried to make her way to Pyeongyang in the north but wasn't able to. During the Korean War, she moved around the country. She settled down in Jochiwon, Chungnam and helped poor students study. She also donated all of her property to bore wells in Cambodia and to help the building of the International Peace and Human Rights Center. She acted very passionately to solve the problems afflicting Japanese military 'comfort women' victims. Before moving to the House of Sharing in November 2008, she had been living along in Chungcheongnam-do.

Moon, Myoung-geum (1919-2000)
Born in Busan and taken to the Heilongjiang province in China. She donated her whole fortune, 43million won to the Truth Commission on the Slaughter of Civilians during the Vietnam War, saying, "I've heard there are many people who suffer war wounds in Vietnam."

Kim Hak-soon (1924-1997)
Born in Gilim-song, China. Victimized as a 'Sexual Slavery for the Japanese Military' in Beijing, China. Kim Hak-soon halmoni, who was the first to testify as a 'Sexual Slave for the Japanese Military' in 1991 said that, "We must record these things that were forced upon us."

Kang, Deok-Kyung (1929-1997)
Born in Jinju, Gyeongnam-do. Degraded from a member of the group of 'Japanese Female Labor Corps' into a 'Sexual Slave for the Japanese Military'. Well-known for her paintings drawn during her stay at the House of Sharing, such as "The Stolen Chastity", "Punish the Responsible" and others.

Some of these paintings were Kang Deok-kyung's.
Kim, Soon-deok (1921-2004)
Born in Ueeryung, Gyeongnam-do. Victimized as a 'Sexual Slave for the Japanese Military' in Shanghai, China. Drew the 'Unblossomed Flower', which now becomes symbolic of the 'Sexual Slavery for the Japanese Military'.

Moon, Pil-gi (1925-2008)
Born in Jinyang, Gyeongnam-do. Victimized as a 'Sexual Slave for the Japanese Military' in Jangchun, China. Received a Civil Rights Award from the International Covenants on Human Rights in 2000.

Park, Doo-ri (1924-2006)
Born in Milyang, Gyeongnam-do. Victimized as a 'Sexual Slave for the Japanese Military' in Taiwan. Requesting an official apology and reparation from the Japanese Government, Park Doo-ri halmoni was one of the plaintiffs in the court at the Shimonoseki courthouse, Yamaguchi, in 2000.

The Living (maybe) Grandmothers at the House of Sharon

Bae, Chun-hui (1923 - present)

Born in Seongju, Gyeongsanbuk-do. One day when she was 19, she went to her friend's house and heard of recruitment for the Women's Voluntary Labor Corps. Not knowing that it was really for 'comfort women' she volunteered with her friend because she was told she could earn money. She was taken to Manchuria and forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. After liberation, she was unable to return directly to Korea and drifted from one area to another in China. She crossed to Japan in 1951 and finally returned to Korea around 1981. In 1997 she came to the House of Sharing. She sings like a professional, and the House of Sharing she is considered like an artist. She does not open her heart easily to others, but she falls quickly and deeply for animals and children.

Yi, Ok-seon (1927 - present)

Born in Busan to a poor family, she was unable to go to school. In 1940 someone offered her "an opportunity to gather money and go to school", and so she began working in an inn in Ulsan. In 1942 a Korean and a Japanese forcibly took her to Yanji, currently in the Jilin province of northwest China, where she was forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military for three years. After liberation, she married a Korean man and settled in Baodaozhen, China. However, they were separated because her husband enlisted in the military when war broke out in China. She remarried and live in Yanji with her son and daughter-in-law. Finally in 2000 she returned to Korea and moved to the House of Sharing. Her regret is that she didn't get a chance to go to school as a child and so she reads with great ardor anything she can get her hands on--particularly books and declarations from weekly Wednesday demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy. She has become a fervent and fiery human rights activist. 
Yi, Yongnyeo (1926 - present)
Born in Yeoju, Gyeonggi-do, she had been working as a maid since the age of eight when in 1942 she was lured into a job offer by an owner of a tavern at the age of 16. From there she was forced into sexual slavery to the Japanese military in Taiwan, Singapore and Burma. When WWII was over, she returned to Busan in 1946 from a refugee camp in Yangon. In 1995 she moved to the House of Sharing but twice left to live with her sons. In 2010 she returned and says she will remain in the House until she dies. She is very energetic and bright and has a great relationship with the villagers. 

Pak, Ok-seon (1924 - present)
Born in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do, when she was 18 in 1941 a friend told her there was money to be made in factory work in China and proposed they go together to work at a textile manufacturing plant. Knowing her family wouldn't allow her to go, she sneaked out of the house at night and caught a train with her friend. She was taken with 20 other girls of her age to a 'comfort station' in the Muling area of Heilongjang, Manchuria and forced into sexual slavery to the Japanese military for four years. Her base was bombed and she was wandering in the mountains when the war ended. She married an ethnic Korean and settled in Heilongjang, and in 2001 finally returned to Korea. She currently lives at the House of Sharing. She is typically shy and quiet, except when it comes time to sing. Then she grabs a microphone and lets loose her pure, smooth voice while dancing and swaying to the music. [She now suffers from dementia but she came and sat with her foreign visitors, and after a little encouragement sang ... and quite well too.] 

Kim, Soon-ok (1922 - present)
Born in Pyeongyang, Pyeongannam-do, her family was very poor and so she worked as a maid from the age of seven as she had to earn money to support her hungry younger siblings. From these harsh conditions, she was forced into the Shimenzi 'comfort station' in Heilongjiang, China, for forced to work as a sexual slave to the Japanese military for five years. After liberation, she could not think about going back to her hometown, so she stayed in the area where the 'comfort station' had been. Kim Soon-ok returned to Korea in 2005 and is currently living at the House of Sharing. She is a very optimistic person, enjoys people and smiles a lot. 

Kim, Gun-ja (1926 - present)

Born in Pyeongchang, Gangwon-do, she was the first-born of three daughters. Her father died when she was nine and her mother left the world as well four years later. She and her little sisters were scattered among relatives. She lived as the foster daughter of a policeman. In 1942 at the age of 17, thinking she was running an errand for the policeman, she actually went to a 'comfort station' in Hunchun, Manchuria. There she was forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military until liberation, whereupon she returned to Korea and did hard work such as selling clothes and working as a domestic servant. She has lived in the House of Sharing since 1998. Because she is in constant pain because of pain in her leg and from other operations, she is still determined to take a walk for exercise everyday. 

Kang, Il-chul (1928 - present)

Born in Sangju, Gyeongsangnam-do, in 1943 when she was 16 a military police officer came to her house and abducted her, saying that she was being conscripted for the National Guard. She was taken to Manchuria, and after stopping in Shenyang, forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military at Changchun 'comfort station', and later at one in Mudanjiang. At the end of the war, she was stricken with severe typhoid fever. Thinking that she would die, military personnel transferred her outside of the military base to be cremated alive with corpses. However, she was rescued by the Korean army for national independence. After the Korean War she served as a military nurse to Korean communist liberation forces, and upon her discharge she moved to Jilin City, also in Northwestern China, and served as a nurse there. She married a Chinese man in Jilin and remained there. She finally returned to Korea in 2000 and is currently living at the House of Sharing. She is the youngest among the House of Sharing grandmothers and is always overflowing with energy. She works feverishly, whether it comes to farming, to the Wednesday demonstrations, or to giving testimony.

The places around South Korea where monuments and memorials have been built
to commemorate the former 'comfort women'.

Symbols of Failed Hopes and Harsh Reality

Two metalwork symbols face each other from opposite walls as the visitors come into the amphitheater, into the House of Sharing compound. The one on the left, by the exit to the museum, which I am sure symbolizes the hopes that have exited, is the metalwork of youthful hopes. The background is circular, a Buddhist symbol for completeness. The woman within the circle wears a wedding crown, the hope of getting married. The bridegroom riding on a horse is the approach of a husband who would come in formality to take his bride through tradition and ceremony to his home. Over the woman's left shoulder is a picture of a family, the hope of procreation and fulfilling one's ancestral duties as well as wifely duties, that of giving offspring and being a complete woman. Her womb is full of laughing water, gurgling with fullness, exploding with life. Her hands are opened and outstretched showing the welcome of life, and hope, and the fulfillment of her dreams.

On the opposite wall is the metalwork of harsh reality. The background is triangular, the bottom of the triangle radiates from the Japanese sun, which radiates aggression, bayonets on guns penetrating the hanbok and the girl, and their penetration is phallic-like, unwanted. The phallic aggression raises the perpetual tear which can never fall. Her right hand drops the national flower, the Rose of Sharon, which symbolizes the hope of her nation or being repatriated to her nation. Her left hand no longer cradles the dove. The dove, the symbol of national and even personal peace, has died and her hope cannot fly.

The 'time capsule' with its seven demands.
However, between these two images in the floor the grandmothers buried a 'time capsule', a statement with seven demands. And when these seven demands have been met, the women will exhume the time capsule an give it proper burial. The grandmothers see hope in getting an apology foremost. They want to be recognized for who they were before they were raped of their hopes, dreams, and lives. For more on issues and a clear look at the seven demands of the grandmothers, visit The War and Women's Human Rights Museum.

Final Words

The House of Sharing started 'tours' in 2009 to raise awareness of the issue since neither the current government nor the Japanese government are proactively trying to resolve the demands. In fact, both governments give little (South Korea) to no regard (Japan) to the perpetual demands of the grandmothers. The grandmothers live in the museum compound; the House of Sharon is a living museum. They allow their lives to be on display in order to activate public awareness, to cry out for justice, and to request that others cry out also so that these war atrocities are never, ever repeated again.

On average 1,000 international foreigners visit the House of Sharing each year. This number does not include Japanese who visit, and not for ethnocentric reasons. Among all the foreigners who visit Korea, it is the Japanese who seem to flock to the House. In fact, about 5,000 Japanese visit the House of Sharon each year. They do not come supported by their government but rather for personal reasons. 

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