Some things cannot be forgottenTOECHON, Gyeonggi
The soft rumbling sound of a sliding door is enough to cause Kim Soon-duk, 82, to flinch. Whenever a door opens, Ms. Kim pulls back her shoulder and turns her eyes to check who’s coming in. What she hears is not the ear-splitting cacophony of falling bombs, what she sees is not the frightening faces of soldiers both of which seemed endless at one point in her life.
The war ended long ago and things have changed. Ms. Kim is no longer a 16-year-old comfort woman for the Japanese army stationed in Shanghai. Instead, she receives comfort at the House of Sharing, a tidy communal living center for 10 former Korean comfort women in this small Gyeonggi province town.
There are no vestiges of bombs, and rarely any screams of pain here. But even six decades have not erased memories of those years. The memories of that era, rooted as deeply as the furrows on her face, shadow her every moment of the day even while she sleeps.
“There are things that cannot be forgotten, no matter how hard you try to forget,” says Ms. Kim, heaving a sigh.
Ms. Kim does not want the world, especially her home country and Japan, to forget her suffering. So for the past few years, Ms. Kim and her peers here have rallied in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Wednesdays, rain or shine.
Jan. 8 marked the 11th anniversary of their street demonstration; Ms. Kim insists she will continue until she breathes her final breath.
Rallying aside, life for these elderly women is rather serene and mundane in this rustic retreat of cozy two-story brick buildings and a gravel road, a two-hour drive from Seoul. Each of the 10 residents nestles down in a private, albeit small room in one of two buildings.
Three years after its establishment in 1992 in Seoul, The House of Sharing moved out here when a welfare worker donated the land. A Buddhist group has taken the initiative to gather donations and maintain the place. Ironically, more than 70 percent of those donations have come fromJapanese citizens, according to Ahn Shin-kweon, the center’s director. For them, he says, it’s a “way to apologize for what their country did decades ago.”
Five years ago, a museum focusing on the sex slaves’ experience was added to the complex. Drawings by these comfort women are on display, while the courtyard contains a bronze statue of a teenage comfort woman, modeled after Ms. Kim’s self-portrait titled “Unblossomed Flower.”
Students from Japan pass through the museum, as do Korean visitors. But you will never find the comfort women stepping into this place: The displays merely add clarity and color to recollections they wish would fade away completely.
Despite the painful memories, their urge to educate others about their lives pushes them to share their experiences with visitors.
Last Friday, the women spoke to a group of female students from Busan National University. It was 75-year-old Lee Ok-sun’s turn to share her story. The session proceeds in fits and starts. The comfort women choke up and fight back tears, and the audience is visibly moved as well. Kim A-ryung, 20, said after the session, “I feel responsible as a young person to remember what happened.” The college student decided to donate to and to volunteer at the place regularly.
As one of the few comfort women willing to discuss her past, Kim Soon-duk keeps her composure. She is determined to straighten out history to whoever is willing to listen.
She starts her story with a faint smile, remembering the time before the day came.
Brought up in the hills of Hyeopcheon county, South Gyeongsang province, Ms. Kim developed anti-Japanese attitude from her father, who refused to obey Japan’s colonial rules of the day, such as adopting a Japanese name and a short haircut. Such insubordination, however, meant a hard life of seclusion for the family.
With four siblings and a father who raised tobacco, life in hiding was never opulent. Ms. Kim and her family lived on potatoes and wild edible greens on the hill. Ms. Kim wanted to go to school, but that was only a dream; the family needed her to work.
Ms. Kim’s mother overheard that unmarried teenage Korean girls were invited to work at overseas factories.
“They say you can make an easy fortune after a few years,” she recalls her mother saying.
Meanwhile, dark rumors that the Japanese army was selling the girls into sexual slavery persisted, so Ms. Kim wanted to confirm she would be working at a factory. After meeting a Korean broker, she felt assured of her security and boarded a steamer out of Busan for Nagasaki, Japan with about 30 other Korean women.
“It was such a giant ship, with soldiers and civilians aboard together,” Ms. Kim says.
Her instincts were off. She was left at a shabby inn guarded by Japanese soldiers and told to wait.
The orders came early in the evening, as the soldiers told her to sleep with a high-ranking serviceman. She resisted, but was told: “You cannot avoid this, sooner or later. So just lie still.”
The nightmare of that first night continued for five days. Half out of her mind, Ms. Kim was then put onto another ship, which transferred her and other women to Shanghai. “What I remember after landing in that city was heavy smoke from the ceaseless bombing, and dead bodies floating in the river, a reddening river,” Ms. Kim says.
Some days later, soldiers constructed a shack out of wooden planks littering the street. Ms. Kim later learned the place had signs like “We give both mind and body to the soldiers fighting the holy war.”
Ms. Kim, along with the other women, was secured in a jail cell whose only decent furnishing was a bed. Her daily routine started at 7 a.m.. After a half hour for breakfast, she encountered a queue of Japanese soldiers waiting to enter the comfort women’s rooms. After lunch at noon, Ms. Kim had to take officers, and after dinner, it was time for high-ranking generals, who had the right to spend a night with the comfort women. A comfort woman had to deal with 35 soldiers a day on average.
Some women, Ms. Kim included, were selected to spend their days with important men, generals. That was how Ms. Kim, who was renamed “Lan” in Japanese, met General Izumi. “He was not like the other brutes,” she says. “He taught me Japanese and treated me like a human.” The comfort women followed the route of the Japanese army, and Ms. Kim went to Nanjing, following General Izumi.
The life of a comfort woman was like a death sentence to Ms. Kim. Like many of her friends, Ms. Kim tried to commit suicide. “I hung myself on a pipe over a toilet, but it failed when the subordinates of Izumi found me,” she says.
Three years as a comfort woman left Ms. Kim badly diseased. When she would catch syphilis, she would go to the hospital for Salvarsan injections. One time, a Japanese nurse handed Ms. Kim a tiny black pill that Ms. Kim later found out was made from the ashes of the leg of a Chinese prisoner-of-war. She still has the nightmare of a severed leg bleeding and chasing her all around.
After three years, Ms. Kim was almost about to give up on her life, when General Izumi secured her liberty. “Go to Tokyo and I’ll let you go to a school. We can meet later in Japan,” he said giving her a piece of paper ordering the bearer to leave China. But to Ms. Kim, Japan was an enemy, so she went back to her hometown. “Come to think of it, I was lucky to meet Izumi,” Ms. Kim says sipping her coffee. “Compared to my friends, who were deserted after the war, at least I escaped.”
Ms. Kim later went to Seoul, where she was the day Japan surrendered. “It was the happiest day of my life,” Ms. Kim says. “I danced about the streets like crazy.”
Although she considered herself to be too “tainted” by her experience to ever get married, she did live with a man who fled the North during the Korean war. Together, they had three sons and one daughter.
“I could live in my children’s house,” she says. “But I just cannot bury all these facts. That’s why I joined the House of Sharing.” With a bitter smile she adds that after telling all these stories, she’s not going to be able to sleep this night.
But at dinner later, Ms. Kim lights up when she sees who is coming in. A group of volunteers from nearby marches in to have a modest yet nourishing dinner. There are three volunteers from other countries: Joshua D. Pilzer from Nashville, Tennessee; Amy Chun Kim, a Korean-American from New York, and Tsukasa Yajima, a former photojournalist at the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s leading newspaper. Mr. Pilzer and Amy Kim are on a Fulbright Korean-American Educational Commission scholarship, while Mr. Yajima left his home country to volunteer here.
It is Mr. Pilzer’s turn to wash the dishes and he does it with a look of pleasure. The three work on their Korean to communicate better with the “old ladies” at the community center. Mr. Pilzer says that the life with the comfort women gives him a lot of happiness. “I’m amazed at the depth of their characters,” he says. A music major, Mr. Pilzer collects and records the traditional folk songs of the comfort women. Mr. Pilzer and Mr. Yajima plan to combine their music and photos some day.
“Frankly speaking,” Mr. Yajima says, “my purpose of being here was to take pictures of the comfort women at first. But as time went by, I grew more personally attached to these ladies.” While Mr. Yajima resides at the center these days, Mr. Pilzer and Ms. Kim stay on weekends.
Amy Kim, as a young woman with Korean blood, especially feels empathy for the old women. “Instead of pitying these ladies, we should do something for them, take some action,” she says as she joins the group of “grannies” to watch television.
If anything is to be done, it must be done quickly. Out of an estimated 160,000 Korean women who served as comfort women in World War II, there are only 131 survivors today, according to Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality. That’s down from 153 women in 1999. The biggest threat to the House of Sharing is time.
“What we ask for is simple ― an acknowledgement of the past sins from the Japanese government,” says Mr. Ahn, the director. “But that seems to be so difficult.”
“In about 10 years, we old grannies will perish from earth,” Ms. Kim says. “I just hope that it does not mean that we fade away from history.”
by Chun Su-jin