Friday, August 2, 2013

About the Korean "Comfort Women"

Anyone who has been in Korea for even a short time will soon know that there is no love lost between that country and Japan. Korea was a Japanese territory from the end of the Russo-Japanese War to the end of WWII. (1905-1945). During those years Koreans were forced, among other things, to learn to speak and write Japanese and change their names to Japanese names. When I was there in 1966-1967.  I met a few of that generation who told me about it. Mrs. Baek, mother of my Korean "foster family" still remembered their Japanese name and could speak a little Japanese.

But the deepest wounds were inflicted when young, beautiful Korean girls and women were taken to be sex-slaves for Japanese soldiers, not just in Korea, but all over Asia. I was told with some bitter pride how the beauty of Korean women made them the most desirable subjects for this barbaric practice. Adding insult to injury, there has never been any admission of this ugly chapter on the part of Japan. As the NPR story below indicates, there remains widespread denial on the part of the Japanese.

In recent years, as the last surviving victims of this practice are dying, efforts have been made to insure that their stories and the treatment they received will not be forgotten. Part of the problem has been linguistic and social. Public displays of affection, much less physical sex, were socially taboo when I was in Korea and even prostitutes, if they were mentioned at all, were called pam-kot which means "night flowers." I saw a few American movies in Korean theaters (with Korean subtitles) and noticed that the kissing scenes had been delicately censored. The couples' faces would come close together for a deep, passionate kiss, but the moment their lips lightly touched the actual kiss had been cut and they pulled apart as the movie to continued. The term "comfort women" is a polite way to avoid calling them what they were -- sex slaves.

The subject came to my attention last night by this Twitter sequence. My only Korean Twitter source is The Marmot (it's a long  story) which typically links Korean sites. The Marmot editor is a photographer so I enjoy looking at the pictures and trying to figure out what the always garbled Google translation is trying to say.

A search for "Korean comfort women" now returns a lot of links. 

Here is part of an NPR story.

Statue Brings Friction Over WWII Comfort Women To California
by Aaron Schrank
July 29, 2013

For decades, Koreans have been pushing to preserve the legacy of women forced to provide sex to Japanese army soldiers during World War II. Glendale, Calif., will dedicate a statue memorializing the victims, known as "comfort women," on Tuesday. But the statue has spurred controversy in this Southern California city, where some area residents say it is a divisive reminder of the horrors of war.

The sculpture is a bronze statue of a young girl. She looks about 14 — around the same age as many comfort women when they were forced into military brothels run by Japan's imperial army.
South Korean police stand guard beside a comfort woman
statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in May.
The Southern California city of Glendale will dedicate
an identical statue on Tuesday.

Ok-seon Lee, 86, was one of them. She's in California, visiting with Korean-American activists. These activists don't say "comfort women" when she's around. Instead, they call her halmoni, Korean for "grandmother."

As she tells her story, Lee stares out at no one through her red-tinted glasses. She's back inside her darkest days, decades ago. Lee says she was taken to a facility in Yanji, China, at age 15, where she was abused for three years until the end of the war.

"The comfort station where we were taken was not a place for human beings to live," Lee says through an interpreter. "It was a slaughterhouse. I'm telling you, it was killing people."

Lee, who lives near Seoul with several other former comfort women in a facility called House of Sharing, has many disturbing stories. She tells one about being stabbed by a Japanese officer, and raises her arm to expose a scar a few inches long just below her right wrist.

"So I blocked the blade like this," she recalls. "And I was enraged, because I didn't die. You can't imagine how agonizing it was."

Historians say as many as 200,000 women from East Asia were trafficked as comfort women during the war.

"It is really necessary that we remember the rights that were violated, and the monument will be there to remind people not to repeat that history," says Won Choi, coordinator for the Korean American Forum of California, the group that raised the funds for the Glendale memorial.

The statue in Glendale is an exact replica of one in Seoul, South Korea, that sits right across from the Japanese embassy there. That "peace monument," as it is called, has become a focal point for dissent between Japanese leaders and Korean victims.

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