It’s taken some time to put together this third post about Japanese military sexual slavery and the survivors at the House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province. A Korean friend helped me gather information for it, and I also got assistance from a bilingual personal assistant service.
Ji Geunook, the friend who helped me, is knowledgeable about Korean politics and current events, having studied East Asian history and completed the coursework for a PhD in political philosophy with a focus on East Asia. (He’s now working on his dissertation.) Of course I wanted to hear his thoughts on the controversy that emerged last year, when an MBC TV program called “PD Notebook” (“Producer’s Notebook”) came out with shocking revelations about the House of Sharing.
At that time, seven staff members blew the whistle and accused the charity’s management of embezzling donations. The care of the grandmothers was called into question too. Since then the situation has been widely reported in the Korean media, and the CEO and the general manager have been replaced.1
The program made Geunook angry, especially one scene that featured leaked footage of a House of Sharing board meeting. In it the board members — many wearing monks’ robes, reflecting their affiliation with the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, which oversees the charity — callously discuss plans to turn the residence into a for-profit, “hotel-style” nursing home after the grandmothers die.
A lot of donations are coming in, one board member points out, saying the money should be used to purchase real estate and expand the business.
“Many of the grandmothers have already died,” another says, “and there will be no more. So we need to legally change the House of Sharing into a nursing home.”
A third board member suggests building a nursing home in three years’ time with room for 100 people. About 10 billion won (almost $9 million) is needed to do this, he says, but if the House of Sharing puts its money in an ordinary bank account it won’t earn much interest.
Then another board member asks if he can stay in the new nursing home someday. The answer: “Anyone will be able to stay there.”
The Jogye Order, Geunook said, was established in 1941 as part of imperial Japan’s religious policy. That, in his view, should have excluded it from any role in the House of Sharing. Its first head monk urged temples throughout Korea to pray for Japan’s victory in the Pacific War and collected donations for that purpose.
As he sees it, the problems at the House of Sharing stem from the Jogye Order’s colonialist roots combined with the “dark side of Korean capitalism.”
“The grandmothers are just a moneymaker,” he said.
Democratizing the House of Sharing
One of the whistleblowers was Yajima Tsukasa, the leader of the international outreach team at the House of Sharing, who goes by Mario. He appeared on “PD Notebook” with the other whistleblowers. Lee Ok-Seon Halmeoni, one of the survivors who lives there, was part of the program too.
Lee Ok-Seon Halmeoni told the show’s producers the same thing she told me during our Zoom interview earlier this year: When all the grandmothers have passed on, the House of Sharing should be a place to remember them and their fight for justice. To avoid causing emotional distress, I didn’t ask her about the other matters that “PD Notebook” brought to the public’s attention. But Mario spoke candidly about what he called a democratization movement at the House of Sharing.
How it started
Beginning in 2015, when the Korean and Japanese governments signed a flawed agreement that was supposed to have resolved the sex slavery issue permanently2, public awareness increased and more people began donating to the House of Sharing, according to Mario. The charity asked the public for donations to help the grandmothers, he said, but didn’t use the funds for the intended purpose.
Only a small percentage was spent on the grandmothers, he said, and that was mostly for things like electricity and water. The rest the management held onto as part of its future plan. The whistleblowers objected, he told me, since those donations came from the public, not just in Korea but all over the world, from supporters in Japan, Canada, the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
When I asked Mario for details he wasn’t sure where to start, saying it was long and complicated. The whistleblowers started an “internal investigation” in March 2019 and there was an upsetting incident in June of that year.
One of the grandmothers — Mario didn’t say which one — fell out of bed one night and he found her in the morning. She was bleeding a little above her eye.
Mario was staying in the next room, and it was the nurse’s day off. He went to the general manager, a person who no longer works at the House of Sharing, and suggested bringing the injured woman to the hospital.
“But she said no,” he said, referring to the general manager. “I don’t know why. Just that she said no.”
Pushing for answers
Mario and his colleagues checked the bed and it was too old. It wasn’t completely flat, but tilted. They suggested replacing it right away, but again the general manager said no.
Then Mario and his colleagues started checking to see how much the charity had collected in donations for the grandmothers, and they asked the grandmothers what they’d received from the House of Sharing.
“They said, ‘Nothing. We bought our clothes for our own money. We bought our shoes too.’” They’d even bought their own furniture, “except the TV set, which was also donated from the people outside the House of Sharing.”
The staff tried to negotiate with the management — Mario mentioned two people who don’t work there anymore — but they got no answer. Months went by, and the management never addressed their concerns, so they went to Seoul to meet the chairman of the House of Sharing.
The chairman refused to meet them.
Next they contacted Gwangju City Hall and the Gyeonggi Provincial Office, since the House of Sharing receives financial support from both the city and the province.
Mario and his colleagues asked them to come to the House of Sharing and investigate.
“But their answer was, ‘No problem.’”
That answer didn’t make any sense, Mario said. One of the caregivers even abused the grandmothers, he said, by calling her names like “stupid” and “idiot,” and threatening to have her thrown out of the residence.3
“If the halmeoni had a bad temper, and when she didn’t listen to the caregivers, well, the caregiver told her, hey, we need to drop you or … to kick you out of the House of Sharing, something like that.”
Mario never witnessed the abuse, but said other staff members had. I asked if anyone from Gwangju City Hall or the Gyeonggi Provincial Office had acted on their complaints.
“Not at all,” he said.
Ants vs. elephant
“We call our movement democratization because when we started this movement, we found out less democracy here than expected. For example, power harassment.”
The management, Mario said, was bullying and harassing the whistleblowers with false accusations and SLAPP actions — strategic litigation against public participation.
I asked Mario about the legal action facing the whistleblowers, and he called it a typical SLAPP situation. Some of the cases were civil, he said, and others were criminal. Some were initiated by the old management, some by the new management, and some by the Jogye Order. There were more than 40 cases altogether.
“Over 40 cases. Can you believe it?”
One of the whistleblowers, a nurse, was accused of using a government-issued bank card that belonged to one of the grandmothers. Mario was accused of pushing a member of a grandmother’s family and hitting him on the head with a banner. “I didn’t do that,” he said. “But they sued me and other two more staffs for the direct use of the violence against halmeonis’ families, or family members.”
It was just the opposite, he said. Later, an article in a Korean newspaper detailed how a member of a survivor’s family had harassed Mario with an insulting banner that took issue with his Japanese nationality. Gyeonggi Province found that the man had violated Mario’s human rights and the House of Sharing hadn’t done enough to stop it.4
“But we have here CCTV, like video camera surveillance. And anyway, so we didn’t do it. And we could prove that we didn’t do it. That’s why the police didn’t prosecute us and transfer our cases to the prosecution.”
I asked Mario if he was worried about getting fired and he said it was a possibility. The whistleblowers are like ants fighting a big elephant, he said.
When Mario spoke with me in March, the charity’s new board of directors was getting ready to hold its first meeting. Though we spoke again after the meeting and the whistleblowers were still employed, he said he didn’t know what would happen at the next meeting or the one after it.
A change of management
As director of the international outreach team, Mario is the one who updates the charity’s Facebook page with pictures of the grandmothers. Supporters can see them going to teahouses, enjoying nature, or spending time with staff and volunteers.
Even after blowing the whistle, Mario said he and his colleagues could meet the grandmothers freely. They could visit the grandmothers in their rooms or play games together in the living room. But after the change of management, restrictions were imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That was just an excuse, he said.
“It has nothing to do with the corona,” he said. As soon as the new management started, he explained, the first thing they tried to do was cut off the relationships between the whistleblowers and the grandmothers.
“Because halmeonis love us, and we love halmeonis. Our relationship is very good.” They often go out together for lunch, for dinner or for picnics, he said, and the whistleblowers love organizing fun activities for the grandmothers. The management wanted to put a stop to that.
“Now, of course we are against that,” he continued. The grandmothers always wanted to see the whistleblowers, so the whistleblowers kept on meeting them and organizing activities as usual. “We are just ignoring the order of the new management,” he said.
After Mario and his colleagues blew the whistle, the House of Sharing replaced the general manager and the CEO. I thought that sounded like good news, but Mario said things weren’t changing.
The general manager and CEO were replaced “because they could not control us,” he said.
As of this writing in June, Mario and the other staff members were still in photos on the House of Sharing Facebook page. One of the grandmothers, nicknamed Sokrisan Halmeoni, had recently attended a staff member’s wedding after working hard to build up her strength.
My friend Geunook helped me put together an email message for the House of Sharing, Gwangju City Hall and the Gyeonggi Provincial Office, politely seeking a response to the whistleblowers’ concerns. The grandmothers’ international supporters would like some assurance that they’re getting proper care, we explained. We also asked what steps had been taken since the “PD Notebook” program came out. Geunook helped me follow up by phone when the email went unanswered, and so did a member of the Wonderful staff.
Initially only Gwangju City Hall replied in writing, urging us to follow up by phone with the House of Sharing. The Gyeonggi Provincial Office never responded in writing, but gave the same answer when contacted by phone.
We tried an alternative contact person at Gwangju City Hall, but they were no longer reachable. Still, we obtained an email address for the division in charge of overseeing the city’s eldercare facilities.
A public official representing that division responded to our email, in Korean, with what appeared to be a form letter. It provided basic information about the House of Sharing, its purpose, when it was established, how many women live there now and how many of its residents have died over the past two decades. (I already knew most of this from my previous research and from talking to Mario.)
“The House of Sharing is not just a nursing home,” the message continued, “but a place where people with historical meaning and significance live, and it should be a place where they can spend their old age confidently and comfortably without any cares. In our city, we will do our best to ensure that these elders can maintain a comfortable and stable life.”
Geunook observed that the letter hadn’t really answered our questions.
Reply from Jogye Order
The general affairs office of the Jogye Order, the Buddhist organization that oversees the House of Sharing, replied to us on its bulletin board.
“Thank you for your interest in Korean Buddhism and the House of Sharing,” began the first part of the message. “The House of Sharing is a space where the Buddhist community has taken the initiative in taking care of survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery since 1992, when other religions and civil society had no interest in doing so.”
For more than 30 years, the message continued, the Buddhist community has served the comfort women through the House of Sharing, which has also served as a place to right the wrongs of history.
“Recently there has been some criticism due to operational shortfalls, but we know that the House of Sharing did not use the grandmothers or neglect them out of self-interest or for the benefit of the organization.”
The prosecution had cleared Buddhist board members of wrongdoing, it added.
“The House of Sharing is operated by a separate corporation and is not under the control of the Jogye Order’s general affairs office,” read part two of the message. “The House of Sharing is operated by a temporary board of directors appointed by the city of Gwangju. For more information, please contact the House of Sharing management.”
The message concluded with a response to another one of our questions: “We would appreciate it if you could ask the management of the House of Sharing about the relationship between the current board of directors, the management, and the whistleblowers.”
Attempts to contact the management at the House of Sharing by phone were unsuccessful. There was no response to the email.
- For example, please see the following reports from the JoongAng Daily and Yonhap News Agency (in English); and parts 1 and 2 of the “PD Notebook” program from MBC (in Korean).
- For more information, see this report from the Diplomat.
- Abuse allegations were also mentioned in the Yonhap report cited above.
- Please see this report from the Seoul Shinmun. The banner targeting Mario was also shown on “PD Notebook.”
The author is grateful to Ji Geunook and to the bilingual personal assistant company Wonderful for their essential contributions to this series of blog posts. To learn more please see parts 1 and 2, and my earlier post from 2019.