The House of Sharing and The Atrocities They Shared
Though I’ve heard about the Korean comfort women many times since coming to Korea almost five years ago I hadn’t heard about this organization set up to try and get their message out to a wider international population yet. A friend said she was headed to visit some of the comfort women since she’ll be headed back to her mother land soon and I tagged along for a day filled with blunt testimonies, tears and stories of empowerment through an ordeal that would leave anyone crying on the side of the road ready to give up.
The House of Sharing volunteers met a group of eager foreigners, generally unprepared for what they were about to experience in my opinion, at 10AM at Gangbyeon bus station. We loaded onto a red bus for a 40 minute ride out to Gwangju City, not to be confused with the Gwangju that is about 3 hours south of Seoul. The House of Sharing was set up in 1992 funded privately by some Koreans and a Buddhist organization. Originally housing 12 of the surviving grandmothers, it currently houses 9. These women have become activists, giving testimonies of the atrocities they endured, protesting and traveling abroad to spread awareness of a system that is still happening today around the world.
From 1932 the Japanese military forcefully abducted and tricked an estimated 200,000 women and girls from all over Asia with 80-90% coming from Korea into the sexual slavery system. Aged anywhere from 12 to 30 some were literally girls who hadn’t even had their period yet. These women have been referred to in history as comfort women and this euphemism is used for women all over the world conscripted into sexual slavery however these women prefer to be called upon by using the respectful Korean term of grandmother. They say there was nothing comfortable about their situation and therefore don’t accept the aforementioned term.
At this time in history Korea was a territory of Japan and though forcing women into sexual slavery was illegal under the laws of Japan, these same laws made no mention of the territories of Japan and thus the military brazenly tricked women with promises of money for their families and jobs abroad. These women were loaded onto boats and shipped to ‘service stations’ all over Asia in such countries, as China, Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Manchuria, Burma, and many more. The women were raped, abused, starved and tortured and then generally killed. It is estimated that only 25% of these women survived. At the end of the war these women were either killed to cover up the system or abandoned. In an unknown land not knowing the language many of these women never came back or upon returning found that they had been deemed dead and, in one woman’s case, could take up to 6 years to to be deemed alive again.
The service stations themselves looked common enough although inside they were akin to a Japanese restaurant with plaques hanging outside with the ‘dishes’ on the ‘menu’ or the women available to service the men. There may have been a bed in the room or none at all. There was a basin on hand for the women to wash themselves, the man’s penis, and the condom before the next man came in. The women could see anywhere from 20 to 40 men a day and their testimonies make many mention of how the women shuddered upon hearing that a ‘boatload’ of men had just arrived or would be arriving shortly. We heard testimonies that the women have made over time of different atrocities they themselves witnessed. One story tells of a woman who tried to escape and was subsequently caught. To make an example of her the officers rolled her on a bed of nails until her skin was falling off and there was blood everywhere. To teach the women a lesson he said, they were to cook the skin of the woman and the others were to eat it. Another tells of a woman who was caught trying to commit suicide, she was stopped and tortured with a sword so that the other women could see it would never be their choice to leave. At the end her head was chopped off. Trying to commit suicide, becoming pregnant, or trying to escape were all reasons to be brutally killed as a comfort woman. The Japanese not wanting to spread sexually transmitted diseases also made the women take doses of mercury, thought at the time to clean out the system, as we know now it did none of that except chemically alter these women so that after the war many of them could no longer have the ability to have children.
In South Korea 220 former ‘comfort women’ have come forward. In 2010, only 89 of them were still alive.
Up until the 90’s the Japanese government officially stated that they had no involvement in these brothels and that they were run by private contractors. However, in 1991 Yoshiaki Yoshimi discovered documents in the archives of the Japanese Defense Ministry that incriminated the Japanese government and indicated their direct involvement in running these brothels. In 1993 the Japanese government made a statement that admitted an unspecified role in the brothels and rejected any legal responsibility for that role. They have also stated that the brothels were not a part of a ‘system’ and was therefore not a war crime or crime against humanity. This statement did little to ease the tensions these grandmothers have been feeling almost their entire lives. Japanese leaders have apologized but it has not been officially recorded in their history books and that is one big thing these women are fighting for. They want children to learn of this now so that in the future similar things don’t happen again. This is something the Japanese government is very unwilling to do. Though these women have gotten some compensation, it wasn’t the money they were after, and this money didn’t come from the Japanese government it came by private donations from Japanese people. Again, this is not what the women want. They want it from the government so that it has to be officially recorded in their books.
With only a small number of these women still alive to tell their story it’s clearly a race against time for them, and the governments are just waiting until the last one is gone. Every Wednesday these women, weather rain, cold, or shine, from 12 to 1 hold a demonstration outside of the Japanese embassy. And every Wednesday from 12 to 1 all of the windows in the embassy are shut and have the shutters drawn to keep the women out. This is the only protest that has been grandfathered in and is accepted every week without question by the Korean government. These women are honestly not asking for much. They are asking for people to remember, to know what happened and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. But it is happening. It’s happening all around the world and governments and people turn a blind eye. What are you going to do?
Visit The House Of Sharing Facebook Page for more information on visiting these brave women.
Also check out their website for information on the work they hope to accomplish and information on their cause.