On Wednesday as snow fell thickly across South Korea’s capital city and temperatures dipped below -16, a group of elderly women made their two-hour weekly journey to the Japanese embassy in Seoul. There to meet them was a mixed crowd of almost 200 people, ranging from young girls to middle-aged men, and everything in between. This gathering came with placards and simple demands, braving the freezing conditions to deliver a message that came with less anger than peace, one which was conveyed through singing and smiles. But this protest was no laughing matter. The gathering were here to argue against the sex slavery enforced by the Japanese military during their rule in Korea during WW2, an atrocity that still hasn’t been accounted for by the Japanese government.
The elderly women who attended this protest now call themselves halmoni (grandmother’s) but they were once known as “comfort women” – women forced into prostitution by the Japanese when Korea was its colony. During the second world war, in an attempt to eliminate publicly noticeable rape and sexual disease, the Japanese created a number of sex-camps for their soldiers. Women at these sex camps could be bought for money, or more often than not were bought with coupons given for commendable behavior in the army. The sex camps were made up of a small number of Japanese prostitutes, but as they grew in size, women were taken in from many of the Japanese colonies including several countries in South East Asia, as well as Korea. By the end of the war, Koreans made up the majority of the women in the sex camps (known as “comfort stations”) and totaled almost 80% of the “comfort women.” These women were often abducted from their homes, or were lured in with promises of factory work, with no knowledge that they were actually being recruited into the sex trade.
Many of the comfort women cease to exist today as poor conditions, sexual disease, abuse, murder, and suicide wiped out a lot of their numbers. However some of them were put back into Korean society where they remained silent for many years, afraid to tell their stories for fear of being ostracized from the community, or not believed. Some of them who had been transported to other colonies remained stranded and penniless, unable to get home. The Japanese military also repeatedly warned these women that if they said anything about what had happened that their families would be killed.
In the 90s, however, the first “comfort woman” came forward in Korea and shared her story, and suddenly the horrible secret was out in the open. Following this, “comfort women” all over the country began to gather together and form a protest, asking for an official apology from the Japanese government. Nowadays the women are all in their 80s and 90s, but they still gather every Wednesday outside of the Japanese embassy, campaigning for women’s rights. Whilst Japan did officially admit to having “comfort stations” they claim that these women offered their services voluntarily, and still haven’t offered anything by way of acceptance or apology for their system of enforced sex slavery. Last year the halmoni celebrated their 1000th protest, marking it with a golden statue of a women in traditional Korean clothing, which was observed coldly by the Japanese government who argued that it should be taken down.
Some of the former “comfort women” now live together at a place called the House of Sharing, which acts as both a women’s rights museum and refuge for those once enslaved. Their aim is to create a better future for the women of tomorrow, and get the word out about this terrible part of history in hope that it will not be repeated again.
I attended one of the women’s weekly protests yesterday with my Korean friend, a strong women’s rights supporter herself who did an excellent job of translating for me. As we stood waiting in the snow, we marveled at the strength of these women to come out on such a cold day to argue for something that they so clearly deserve. The protest started with a dance by some Korean students, and then a song about peace and happiness, which the audience all joined in on. After this a number of speeches were made, stating the protesters wishes. Amongst the most interesting of these was a cry out to the Korean government who apparently, much like the Japanese government, have let these women down by not acknowledging this part of their history. “The comfort women are marked by just one line in our history textbooks!” cried out one younger supporter, “our government needs to protect its women and push for women’s rights in this country. We need to be strong and work together to not let this crime go unnoticed. If they think that this will end when the comfort women die out, they are wrong. We will still come.”
One young schoolgirl came up to make a speech close to the end. She said she had traveled all the way from Jeju (a small island off the South coast of Korea) to come to the protest. “I learned about comfort women just last year,” she said “but everyone should know about this.” When she finished she knelt down in the snow and gave a full bow to the halmoni, placing her forehead right to the ground in a sign of deep respect.
The girl’s comments hit a nerve with me, as I too only learned about comfort women last year. Prior to arriving in Korea I had no knowledge of Japanese enforced sex-slavery. The halmoni want their struggle to be heard globally, and I think it is very noteworthy that apart from a spattering of western journalists armed with expensive cameras and unaffected expressions, I was the only foreigner there. Just because this terrible thing happened in Asia, it doesn’t mean that things like this do not happen all over the world, unvoiced and unheard. People around the world need to hear about these war crimes and fight against them if we have any hope for a brighter future. Korean, foreigner, men, women, it does not matter; we are all affected by these atrocities. As I stood in the crowd and pondered this I was reminded of the words of the anti-Nazi theologian Martin Neimoller:
“First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I was Protestant.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
We need to get this message out to the public that sex-slavery is NOT acceptable, and will not go unpunished. The protests of Korea may not be enough to make the Japanese government listen, but as a global force we can do it. The first step is simply being informed:
Did you know about comfort women before you read this article? How does it make you feel? Will you be spreading the word of this atrocity now that you know?
For more information on Japanese military sex slavery please visit: http://nanum.org/eng/index.html. And if you are living in Korea please attend one of the protests and make your voice heard.