There’s a picture on my computer from 2009 that’s stayed with me: elderly women dancing in a circle, surrounded by drummers and dancers in traditional Korean garments. They were celebrating the first full moon of the Lunar New Year in an outdoor space at the House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, south of Seoul. It’s the site of a museum dedicated to the survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery, and a residence for survivors. Our English tour group is in some of the pictures and videos from that day, from the ceremony where people read out their wishes for the new year.
2009: My first visit
I think most long-term foreigners in Korea already know about the House of Sharing, which offers tours in English and Korean. In past years, there were also tours in Japanese. The organization has been in the media many times and has even inspired a novel or two.
My first tour really forced me to confront my own lack of education about this issue, even as a women’s studies major. Having attended university in Canada in the 1990s, when these crimes were just coming to light here in Korea, I’d never heard of “comfort women” or “comfort stations.” Rape during wartime, I learned in university, was a tactic to humiliate an enemy — it didn’t matter whether the soldiers were American, Canadian, Serbian or any other nationality.
But for imperial Japan, I learned from a volunteer tour guide at the House of Sharing, it was “almost the opposite.” When Japan attacked the Chinese city of Nanjing in 1937, she explained, there were mass rapes of local women by Japanese soldiers. This fueled anti-Japanese sentiment in China. To prevent the same thing from happening again in other conquered lands, and to prevent espionage and the spread of disease, the Japanese empire established a highly organized system of rape centers (aka “comfort stations” or military brothels). They brought in women and girls from distant colonies who didn’t know the local languages and couldn’t possibly escape or ask for help. A painting by one of the survivors shows a military ship full of soldiers and the women they’d tricked or forced into accompanying them.
By UN estimates, as many as 200,000 girls and women from Korea and other Asian countries were taken as sex slaves. Recently, Chinese scholars have placed the number closer to 400,000. The museum documents what the victims lived through, during the war and for many years after. It shows that the Japanese military orchestrated this system of mass rape and transported the victims across international borders. Random pimps couldn’t have done all that.
2011: The 1,000th protest
Every Wednesday since 1992, survivors and their supporters have gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul demanding an apology and formal reparations from the Japanese government. Around the time of the 1,000th Wednesday protest in 2011, there were film screenings, an art show and other events to mark the occasion. Hopes were high and awareness was growing. Supporters filled the street outside the embassy. Yet in spite of a 2011 Constitutional Court ruling in their favor, the survivors are still waiting.
2019: Taking the tour again
As of this writing, only six survivors still live at the House of Sharing. They range in age from 90 to 102, and some are seriously debilitated. Part of the residence was recently converted into an intensive care unit, I learned in April when I took the tour again. It was my fourth visit.
As in past years, visitors and volunteers met at Gangbyeon Station in eastern Seoul. This time, instead of taking public transportation together and sharing taxis, everyone paid 15,000 won and boarded a private bus that took us straight there.
The leader of the international outreach team welcomed us to the House of Sharing, calling it a “very beautiful place” but also a “very sad place.” It opened in 1992 as a refuge for survivors living in poverty, he told us, but had to move several times after neighbors complained. That’s because Korean society didn’t understand what had happened to the women at the House of Sharing and saw them as “bad women.” The organization moved to its current location in 1995 and opened the museum in 1998.
He said the 21 remaining survivors were fighting for an apology from Japan because they wanted to “restore their dignity” and for Japan to acknowledge its crimes.
Amanda Buck and Sydney Nam led the tour that day, and four other outreach guides introduced themselves before the tour began. We would see them again later in the day.
Tribute to a pioneer
As we entered the museum, Amanda showed us a picture of Kim Hak-Soon, who made history in 1991 by disclosing her experiences under her real name.
“We must record these things that were forced upon us,” she said, reading out the activist’s famous quote. That was exactly the purpose of the House of Sharing, Amanda said.
There on display are works of art created by survivors, and art they’ve inspired others to create. You can also see messages of support left by students and other visitors on small yellow pieces of paper shaped like butterflies.
We went into a room upstairs and Amanda explained why the “solutions” proposed over the years to “settle the issue” were unacceptable to the survivors and hadn’t restored their dignity. I hope any readers who wonder about this will take the tour and hear it firsthand.
“So why do you think we don’t like the term ‘comfort women?’” Amanda asked the group. “Why do you think it’s a bad term?”
Someone answered, but her answer was difficult to make out from my shaky audio file. She said something to the effect that it implied having a choice — you comfort another person because you want to, not under threat of violence.
Amanda explained why the survivors and their supporters dislike the label.
“So basically, it’s the term from the perspective of the soldiers and the oppressors. So it’s a grossly insufficient euphemism for suffering these women actually endured. Other terms include ‘jeongsindae,’ which is ‘female labor force’ or ‘volunteer female labor force,’ which was not voluntary as you will know later.
“So if the term ‘comfort women’ is so offensive, why do you think we still use it?”
This time I answered. Because it’s commonly used, I said. People use it to be understood.
“Yes,” said Amanda. “So it’s hard to get rid of the language of the oppressors, so they become commonly used terms. For example, Indians in North America — they are not from India, they are Native Americans, but we still use ‘Indians’ because that’s what we’ve called them for however many years.”
Amanda continued: “So most reports such as UN or governmental reports use terms like ‘sexual slaves,’ ‘victims of military sexual violence’ or ‘survivors.’ These terms better capture the essence of their experience.”
She paused to catch her breath, then finished.
“However, these are harsh terms, so at House of Sharing we use ‘halmeoni,’ which is a respectful term for grandmothers in Korean.”
Bae Chun-Hui Halmeoni
Toward the end of the tour, we looked at some outdoor exhibits I didn’t remember from previous visits. There were sculptures there, and memorial stones for some of the grandmothers who’d passed away. Some of their ashes were there too.
And I saw the name of one of the women I remembered from my previous visit in 2011: Bae Chun-Hui Halmeoni, who used to sing songs in Korean and ask foreign visitors to sing her favorite English songs for her. We spent a long time singing together that day, and I remember her love of music.
Lee Ok-Sun Halmeoni
House of Sharing tours often involve a chance to speak with one or more of the grandmothers, but only if they’re feeling well enough. In 2009 Lee Ok-Sun Halmeoni came out to speak with our tour group and the guide urged us to keep the conversation light. I remember someone asking her if she had any pets, and she said she’d had many pets in the past but couldn’t have a pet anymore because she was too old.
At subsequent tours in 2010 and 2011, I had a chance to meet a few of the grandmothers. But no matter who else was there, Lee Ok-Sun Halmeoni always came out to greet us. More than once I wondered if she was pushing herself, if she felt obligated to talk to visitors when she really didn’t want to.
Now she’s in her 90s and when we visited in April she’d just moved to new living quarters in a different building at the House of Sharing. The move had been exhausting for everyone, the leader of the outreach team told us.
Lee Ok-Sun Halmeoni didn’t seem to be up for a visit, and I think she would have preferred to rest. Someone asked her what her favorite food was, and guides suggested a few choices like chocolate, but she said she didn’t like any foods. Someone asked what her favorite color was and a guide told us all how nice she looked in her yellow hanbok, but she said she didn’t like any colors. They asked her if she’d gone to see the cherry blossoms this year and she said no, she couldn’t go this year.
She was tired, and the guides said it would be a short visit. But still, they encouraged us to say where we were from: Canada, France, Singapore, Belgium, the UK, the US, the Philippines, Korea. One of the volunteers asked Lee Ok-Sun Halmeoni what she’d like us to say when we went back to our own countries.
Katherine, one of the international outreach volunteers who had rejoined the group after the tour, facilitated communication.
Lee Ok-Sun Halmeoni was “feeling so-so,” Katherine told us, and it was hard for her to talk.
But then Lee Ok-Sun Halmeoni spoke again. Interpreting for her, Katherine said the older lady thought the current generation “needs to know about the history, and she wants to tell people about the history. However, she’s finding it a bit difficult to do that right now.”
Even so, Lee Ok-Sun Halmeoni got her message out. Katherine continued her interpretation.
“She says, ‘The Japanese have forced us into this, and they’ve taken us as a child, and they stabbed us, they pointed guns at us, they beat us and now they’re basically saying that we are lying. That this never really happened. And the Japanese government is not apologizing.’ And she says, ‘I’m not hating the Japanese people in itself. I’m hating the government for not apologizing sincerely.’”
In past years, difficult topics were avoided during visits with the grandmothers. Not this time.
“She says that, ‘Who do we trust?” Katherine continued after Lee Ok-Sun Halmeoni finished speaking. “We trust the people to make it happen. It is up to us to educate ourselves and make our countries strong so no war happens here in this country, and any country, so that things like this never happen again. She says we need to study hard and be well educated.”
After the visit
International outreach team leader Jeong Ho-cheol gave me a lift back to Seoul because there weren’t enough seats on the bus. In the car he said the House of Sharing was still fighting a 2015 agreement between the governments of Korea and Japan that didn’t reflect the perspective of the survivors. I also asked about Japanese tours, and he said they’d basically stopped in recent years because the Japanese government had so much control over the media there. Before 2014, there had been regular Japanese tours and the grandmothers had received many messages of support from Japanese allies.
But Mr. Jeong also said the House of Sharing was organizing an exhibition of the grandmothers’ paintings in Japan next year. He said Mario, the Japanese staff member who took pictures of the tour that day, was playing an important role.
During my first House of Sharing trip, another visitor from the same tour group read her wish out loud at the ceremony: She wanted 2009 to be the year the grandmothers got the apology they were seeking. It’s hard to believe how much time has passed.
To anyone spending time in Korea, whether you’re living here or just visiting, I hope you’ll take some time to visit the House of Sharing and learn about the grandmothers’ stories.
Also, the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan runs the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in the Hongdae area of Seoul. The two organizations offer different perspectives, so it’s definitely worth taking both tours.
Ok-Sun Lee, Chun-Hui Bae and Hak-Soon Kim are the romanized spellings that appear on the House of Sharing website; different spellings have also been used over the years. Also, when I visited in April, the number of victims still living was 21; at least one has died since then.
UN report (1996)
“Silenced No More: Voices of ‘Comfort Women,’” 2015 book by Sylvia S.J. Friedman
“A Long Way Around,” 2018 film by Yi Seung-hyeon
“The Apology,” 2016 film by Tiffany Hsiung
“My Heart Is Not Broken Yet,” 2009 film by Ahn Hae-ryong
“63 Years On,” 2008 film by Kim Dong-won