Tuesday 31 January 2012

Comfort Women: Survival is History.

We must record these things which were forced upon us
Hak-Soon Kim Halmoni

I recently joined a tour in Seoul of the House of Sharing. This is a museum and home to the former Korean "Comfort Women". Comfort women is a euphemism translated from Korean to describe the women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War Two. They are not the only women to have been used for soldiers sexual gratification during wartime and probably won't be the last but their bravery and determination is unrivalled. They are referred to as the 'Halmoni' a Korean term of respect that means grandmother.

During the second world war, Japan invaded and occupied many countries in Asia-Pacific. One of their worst atrocities was the massacre in Nanjing (The Rape of Nanking) which saw the Japanese forces commit mass-murder, genocide and war rape during a six week period in December 1937. The troops literally went mad. There is controversy over the true number of casualties. Japanese war records were destroyed, and  accusations of fabrication for propaganda purposes abound, but regardless, thousands of people were killed. Men, women and children were raped, tortured and their bodies brutally mutilated. This one horror from war still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the Chinese whose Anti-Japanese sentiment is stronger than anywhere in this region.

The Chinese Government has some responsibility to bear in this incident. With the advance of the Japanese army, the Nanjing government leaders fled, closing all but one of the gates surrounding the city. They issued a statement: 
“All of those who have blood and breath in them, must feel that they wish to be broken as jade rather than remain whole as a tile.”

Hundreds of people were trapped and trampled to death trying to escape out of the only gate left open, before the Japanese had even reached the city. The brutalities of the rapes committed, on children as well as adults, and the mutilations performed on the bodies of the victims afterwards was horrific.
So the Japanese government decided, in order to avoid something so brutal and bloodthirsty occurring again, they would set up 'stations' where soldiers could release their sexual energy. These 'comfort stations' would need to be 'equipped' with women. The 'workers' in these places were seen as necessary supplies, and where could Japan find these supplies? The first station was established in Shanghai and Chinese prostitutes volunteered to work there, presumably having negotiated their fees. But demand for stations grew rapidly and there were not enough women volunteering to work, so after exhausting the local neighbourhood Japan looked to Korea, its colony at the time. 80 - 90 % of the 'comfort women' were taken from Korea. These women were kidnapped, forcefully taken, told they would be working in factories or sold by their family (with little or no other choice).

Since the first of the survivors came forward, the Japanese have denied, rebuffed and changed their story on whether this even happened at all, and to what extend they are to blame. Their first line of defence, is that these women went of their own accord. They were not forced and they made their own way to countries all over South-east Asia. To be honest, this claim is ludicrous. To have the audacity to suggest girls as young as 14, living in a time when public transportation was minimal at best and foreign travel the privilege of officials or military personal going into battle, that these girls could remove themselves from everything they knew in their small local communities and travel thousands of miles is farcicle and quite frankly offensive.

These women were taken to the stations, placed in a small wooden shack or room, mostly a curtain for privacy but sometimes with nothing at all and then repeatedly raped by soldiers from between 10 and 30 times a day. Very rarely they were provided with 'pay' in the form of military coupons or Japanese colonial currency that became worthless at the end of the war. The soldiers were supposed to wear the company issued condom, to prevent the spread of disease but many refused, were in too much of a hurry, or unconcerned about catching anything as they could die any day during battle. There was no resbite for the women regardless of menstruation.

Higher ranking officers would sometimes spend the night with the women. Anybody who tried to escape would be beaten, and often all the other women being held would be beaten as a deterrent too. They were forbidden to speak Korean, forced to speak in Japanese, or face a beating. If the women caught diseases they were sometimes send to the military medical unit, of which the doctors would often rape the women as well. Penicillin was not available at the time and therefore women who did receive treatment for diseases were given an early form of the drug (serum no. 606) but rarely given enough time for the medicine to take effect and recover from the illnesses.

At the end of the war, those who'd survived the ordeal were released, some managing to find a place on boats returning to their home countries, others ignored by the liberating forces and abandoned in foreign lands. They were obviously extremely traumatised by what they'd endured, and kept their anguish a secret. Some of them felt they couldn't marry, to the distress of their families. Any that did get married didn't tell their husbands what they'd been through in the war. The personal testimonies of this issue remained a secret until 1991.

Amid accusations of sexual slavery during WWII in 1990 a Japanese official publically denied government involvement in the recruitment of women for the comfort stations. The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan was formed in the aftermath of this statement. In 1991 Kim Hak-Soon Halmoni came forward publically with her testimony. The Japanese continued to deny its involvement. In 1992 Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a Japanese history professor found documentation proving the government organised and ran the 'comfort stations'. He'd found these documents in the Defence Agency Library of Tokyo. They were not top secret or hidden by the military or government. This prompted a Japanese investigation and forced them to admit at least the widespread existence of the stations.

After the investiagtion, the Japanese had to admit coercion, deception and the official involvement in the recruitment of the comfort women. They are yet to apologise to the women. The survivors have been protesting every Wednesday outside the Japanese Embassy since 1992. Last year they held their 1000th protest, with similar protests being held in other cities around the globe to mark this landmark and open people's eyes to this issue. A statue has been erected in front of the embassy in Seoul, a young girl in traditional Korean dress (Hanbok) staring at the building. The staff at the embassy have demanded it be removed but the Korean Government have refused. The current Korean President has been notoriously quiet on the issue, but recently made it the focus of his meeting with the current Japanese Prime Minister.

There are seven surviving Halmoni living at the House of Sharing. These brave women are an inspiration. I hope they are able to hear an apology from the Japanese government before any more pass away.

The house of Sharing volunteers hold an English language tour of the museum and chance to meet the surviving women every month. You can find more about them here. They also have a website (where I got some of my info for this post http://houseofsharing.org/). Other info I found on wikipedia and here and here.

Outside are statues of the survivors who have already passed away.

Women's future aspirations before the war

What the war did to these women.

All of those colourful dots are either officially recorded stations, unofficially recognised stations or stations identified by former 'comfort women'.

Models representing the weekly protests.

There were a few Dutch women who were initially drafted to the stations, but soon released. This woman came forward because she said as a European white women she would probably be taken more seriously and garner more attention than the Asian women.

The Halmoni were given lessons by an artist and painted their memories, fears and desires for revenge and apology.

Sunday 29 January 2012

What's to come

Thailand is amazing. It's lush green jungle, white sandy beaches, beautiful sunsets, stunning vistas, cocktails, coconuts and iced teas. It's going exploring, relaxing, partying, sunbathing and swimming. It's massages, cheap shopping, elephants and cats and monkeys and lizards and fish. It's friendly locals, tonnes of tourists and sand sand sand everywhere. It's absolutely no surprise to me, after my second adventure there, that people tend to keep going back over and over again. On this trip for me it was also catching up and having a blast with a great friend, bittersweet chats about home and a tearful I-don't-want-this-to-end see you in August/September. So thanks Nic for being an amazing friend and making this holiday one I'll remember for a long time!

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Across the cafe table

The Travel Belles first across the cafe table question of 2012: Where do you most want to go in 2012 but haven’t been yet? was a really easy one for me. I'm not sure if it's cheating to choose a place I already have plans to visit, but I'm going to go with this one anyway. Where do I most want to visit:

In August 2008 I took a big step away from home and moved to China. I spent my final year of university reading testimonials from the British Council China language assistants programme and getting lost in imagining myself living an exciting life in China. I left uni focused on one thing; moving to China. I completed my CELTA course and managed to land a job teaching English as a Foreign language near my home in Essex. But I was always planning to leave. I became pretty fascinated with China. I read my Lonely Planet guide over and over, I read Wild Swans, to the edge of the sky, Snow Flower and the secret fan and every book by Xinran that I could. I was hooked on China. In my interview for the assistants programme I was asked 'China is a politically sensitive country. What topics should you avoid talking about in Class?' 
 Chairman Mao, Taiwan and Tibet.
Hmm, Tibet. Is it part of China? Is it an independent region? Will the Dalai Lama ever return from Exile to Lhasa? How much cultural genocide has the PRC committed to Traditional Tibetan traditions? and so my interest in this country widened.
Once I arrived in China, talk often turned to Tibet. It's off-limits, it's impossible to get to, you need a guide, you have to take a tour, monks on Putuoshan island were begging for Alms 'For Tibet'. When we stayed in Chengdu our hostel had posters all over about tours to Tibet, the safest way in. I read about the 'rooftop of the world' taking a train through the highest railway in the world. Simply having laid train tracks so high up was a feat of engineering. Apparently electronic gadgets turn a little strange as the train climbs further and further up into the mountains, carriages are equipped with oxygen and the toilet water has to be heated so it doesn't freeze due to the altitude.
I want to see what's left of Tibet, to visit Lhasa, stand in temple courtyard surrounded by colourful prayer flags, stare in awe at the stunning blue blue skies, across the empty plains and out over the biggest and tallest mountain ranges in the world, and hopefully my travel wish will finally come true in 2012!


Monday 9 January 2012


 I'm not really one for massive shopping malls, I'm generally not bowled over by storey upon storey of shiny sleek boutiques. But today I spent about 2 hours wandering around a shopping complex having a wonderful time. D-Cube City (it houses an art centre, theater and hotel alongside the shops) is one of the newest mega malls in Seoul. That's good news for me because it's at sindorim station (where line 1 meets 2, leave via exit 2). Sindorim is a 10 minute train ride away and on the way home from school. Why did I have such a great time? Well mostly I think because I felt as though I could be at lakeside, which reminded me of home, except that we have more space so expand outwards rather than upwards. D-Cube, is a little like times square and much better than co-ex. The reason I liked it so much was the shops on offer, bar Forever 21 it's everything I go to Myeongdong for, but closer. H & M, with the most helpful and friendly shop assistants I've encountered for a long time. Uniqlo and Muji, franc franc (which is a mix between muji and daiso), Burts Bees, Accessorize, Zara and an A#, which is Korea's version of an apple store. The food courts had great stuff on offer, Taco Bell, Auntie Annes, Burger Joints and swanky Korean places. But the place I was most excited about was; Jesters! I've written about Jesters before, the best pies in Korea! There is apparently also a new outlet in Gangnam. D-Cube also houses a fantastic Foreign supermarket in the basement. They're still building in some parts of the complex, which means it's going to be even bigger, but so far, D-Cube I'm sold!

H and M

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Christmas and New Year

My Christmas weekend went thus; 

Friday night - yoga.
Saturday; morning - meditation. Afternoon - Spanish cuisine. Evening - Itaewon drinks.
Sunday; morning - slight hangover, presents galore. Afternoon - long journey to Carmen's, amazing food, Christmas games, international friends. Evening - long bus journey, Eastenders, bed.

Extremely satisfying and I wouldn't change a thing.

Sangria with lunch (well it is Christmas)



Presents from home
Books, books, books.

Always so lucky.

First off nibbles

Fried Chicken, a Korean staple.

Christmas friends

Main course
 I had to be given one of the proper china plates because I overloaded my plastic one and it snapped. The food was just so good though!

 Then onto New year. Fun and revellry all round!

Trout pout

I'm gonna miss her when she's gone :-(

Happy times! (Incase he checks, I stole this photo off Jody)
First breakfast of 2012.