Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Sharing House

"We must record these things that were forced upon us"
Kim Hak Soon Halmoni

8:30 am Saturday morning, I was walking out the door with two other teachers to visit the Sharing House. The Sharing House is a place where the surviving "Comfort Women" from WWII can come together and live together. Prostitution in Japan has a long and complicated history. In 1932 the Japanese military army set up a system of sexual slavery, otherwise known as "comfort women." In theory, they were hiring prostitutes to regulate the spread of STD's, and to prevent the soldiers from raping women in occupied territories and prevent further tensions. On paper, regulating with whom your soldiers consort is a logical idea considering the rampant deaths caused by STD's , especially in wars. However, with the start of the Pacific War, and the expanding need, the Japanese were not able to find enough willing prostitutes to serve the entire military. Because of this increasing demand, they enlisted help by any means necessary including abduction, kidnapping and trickery. Korea at this time was a colony of Japan. They were poor, extremely poor . So when Japanese military came enticing Korean women with factory work, women jumped at the opportunity to make money. But they weren't taken to factories, they were taken to rooms that were more like cubbies and rapped by as many as 30 soldiers in one day, every day seven days a week. Koreans were seen by the Japanese as nothing more than animals, and Korean women were even less respected.

In our tour of the small museum set up by volunteers and charitable organizations, we were shown a map of Asia and of how wide spread these comfort houses were. These houses were situated across all of Asia from China to the Philippines and remained there until the end of the second World War. Conservative estimates of the multitudes of comfort women are as few as 200,000 and as high as 400,000 women, 80% coming from Korea.

We were then shown an example room in which the women were given to live and serve. The room was a basically a hovel with a hard wooden, sometimes concrete bed. The military issued one condom that was to be re-used by all of the men. Doctors came in for health inspections and when STD's were found, the women were given a shot of Mercury basically killing anything in their body.

When the war ended, however instead of the women being able to return home, they were abandoned in foreign countries with no money, no ability to speak the language and no means of returning to their home. Because of this many were displaced permanently, never returning home.

The first woman to come out publicly wasn't until 1991. Kim Hak-Soon's testimony soon led to many more women coming out publicly about the atrocities commited by the Japanese military forty years earlier. Most of the women have died by now, and there are only 234 comfort women who have identified themselves as comfort women to the Korean government since 1992. Of these, many women have since died, and the comfort women who are still alive, including ones that are not included in the government’s statistics, total about 106 as of December, 2007. Seven of the women, who are now referred to as "Halmoni" which means Grandmother in Korean, currently live in the House of Sharing waiting for the day the Japanese government issues a formal apology. (

We were fortunate enough to be able to hear one Halmoni's story, but unfortunately it was her last telling of her tale. She is old and frail, and for her health, it has been decided by she and the house that she should no longer stress her body and mind any more with the re-telling. She began by apologizing to the Korean audience for her strange dialect. After the war, she was stranded in China and only returned to Korea a few years ago to join the sharing house and to become active in spreading the truth. We sat in a circular room on the wooden floor as she sat on the couch next to our translator sipping her tea between breaks in her story. She was a young girl, ( I cannot remember now but between 12-15 years of age) walking home from the store, when two Japanese soldiers grabbed her, bound her and threw her in the back of a truck with 5 other girls. At first the girls were forced to do manual labor clearing an airway lane with little food or drink in an encapture surrounded by an electric fence. After a while, the girls decided to protest because they wanted to go home and were tired of the poor treatment. At first they thought their protest was successful because they were taken away from the camp, however they weren't taken home as they had hoped but rather to a comfort home. They were given clothing and told that they needed to pay back the military for their gifts of food and clothing. Those who refused were beaten to near death or death. She talked of how she ran away one evening but was discovered and was beaten and left for dead. The officers were the cruelest of the customers and she described how one general took his knife stabbed it into her arm and twisted. When the war ended she was left in China and wasn't able to return to Korea, eventually making her home in China in one of the many Korea towns. She was a spunky old lady who chose to leave her home in China to become active in the Sharing House. The purpose of the sharing house is to educate the world and record the truth of the atrocities committed by the Japanese military. They also wish for an official apology and restitution for their horrible acts which have changed these women's lives for ever. However, the Japanese have thus far refused to admit that it was government sanctioned and have offered only a general apology that these women were abused but have taken no responsibility for their actions.

It was hard hearing her story and the story of others like her. Many of the comfort women have not come forward because the women carry much shame. One thing the volunteers said in the beginning was one reason they felt this fight was important because the Japanese were not the first to have sex slaves and they are certainly not the last. This is something that happens all over the world and the sharing house is fighting not only their own fight but for all women around the world who may share tragedies such as theirs.
(Titled: Justice)
(Paintings by the Halmoni's expressing their feelings)
(The top picture represents what happened, guns, knives, and violence while the bottom picture represents what life ideally would have been like, marriage, children, family)
You can click here if you wish to learn more about comfort women and their fight. After hearing stories such as these I sometimes feel guilty for my daily blessings. Blessings that I take for granted. But because of these moments in my life when I am taken out of my bubble and out of my comfort zone to remember those who may not have had my fortune, I am able to gain a greater perspective. There is much sadness in the world and although we can't help everyone, every little thing helps, even if it just giving a small donation or spreading awareness.Protesting outside the Japanese Embassy like they do every Wednesday

The Halmoni who shared her story


Belle (from Life of a...) said...

Oh my goodness...I've never heard of the "comfort women" before.

Stephanie said...

I had never heard of comfort women before either!! I am amazed!! Thank you for sharing!!

Karen said...

This is fascinating, Vanessa! Thanks for telling us about it and your amazing experiences!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing such a strong and researched account of the story of 'comfort women' and your visit to the House of Sharing Vanessa.
All that we can ever hope is that those who visit share this story and their own experiences. Spreading awareness of the atrocities which continue takes us closer to ending them I hope.

Peter and Leslie said...

Wow, that's very brave to come forward like that.