Comfort women, in their own words

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Comfort women, in their own words

One woman sits on a sofa. Another in a padded coat is shown by her hometown where she was abducted at the age of 12.
Yet another stands, quietly dignified, in front of the shadows of a tunnel through which a truck whisked her away from the life she had known.
And one woman stands inside a church, a crucifix on a blurred background contrasting with the sharpness of the white veil over her head. One wonders what she prays about, this 78-year-old woman whose foster father sent her to a “comfort station” in Hunchun, Manchuria, when she was 16. While most teenagers her age were getting married off to local boys, she was forced to have sex with soldiers in the Japanese military.
At first glance, the 15 portraits of former comfort women in “Lineages of Separation,” at Gallery Fish in Insa-dong, seem ordinary. They’re old women, just like the ones you pass on the street, often hunched over or maybe standing tall, talking with their friends, or lecturing wayward relatives, perhaps even neighbors.
But through a pair of headphones, the exhibition invites visitors to get to know these women, to listen to them as they talk and sing.
Josh Pilzer, an American, recorded them in a conversational setting. Some women lament in voices that Mr. Pilzer has likened to Janis Joplin, while others joke around.
Some people who have seen the exhibition say, “All I hear is the sound of crying. All I see are the faces of victims.” But the two organizers, Mr. Pilzer, 33, and photojournalist Tsukasa Yajima, 33, want viewers to get something more out of it. They didn’t set up the display to elicit pity; instead, they want visitors to be amazed at the courage of those who have survived the experience of being a sex slave of the Japanese military.
In 1991, Kim Hak-sun became the first woman in South Korea to testify about having been a Japanese military sex slave. In the 13 years that have passed, it’s been an ongoing struggle to be recognized by the Japanese government.
For a long time, the Japanese government denied that it had ever forced women into sexual slavery, but in 1992, a Japanese historian found National Defense Agency documents that showed the military was involved in running brothels.
Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa apologized during a state visit to Korea in January 1992, but the Japanese government has refused to take any legal responsibility or compensate the former sex slaves.
An estimated 160,000 women were forced to work in Japanese military brothels. About 80 percent of them were Korean, the rest from the Philippines, Indonesia and China.
According to “Comfort Women Speak: Testimony of Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military,” edited by Sangmie Choi Schellstede, about a quarter of these women are believed to have survived the rapes and beatings. Of the ones who have survived, many have committed suicide, while others returned to Korea, only to live in isolation and emotional torment.
In 1992, the House of Sharing was built for these women in Seoul’s Mapo district. The house has since moved to Gwangju in Gyeonggi province. There, 11 women have built a community and are able to share their experiences with each other. They also share their stories with visitors, so that their tales will be heard and remembered.
Mr. Pilzer was a graduate student of music at the University of Chicago when he read “True Stories of Former Korean Comfort Women,” an English translation edited by Keith Howard. In the process of remembering the war, the women sang many different songs, some traditional Korean songs, some Japanese military songs.
“When people remember times, they remember songs,” he says. “I thought it would be a good idea to make a collection of songs.”
He came to Korea two years ago to study these women’s songs. Knowing not even one activist, he went to the weekly demonstrations at noon in front of the Japanese Embassy. There, he met Park Du-ri, who pointed a finger at him and said, “Miguknom, waewatni? Gara!” (“American, why did you come? Be gone!”)
Instead of leaving, he followed her and a few others to the House of Sharing. On another visit, as he prepared to leave, Ms. Park again pointed a finger at him, and said, “Miguknom, waegano? Yeogiseojara!” (American, why did you leave? Sleep here!). He ended up living at the House of Sharing for a year.
For a few months, he just hung out with these women, talking about the present and future. And when he finally got around to asking them to sing for him, they had become friends to him.
“Each of these recordings is like a gift,” he says. “There’s a lot of blues in Korean singing. A lot of joy that comes out of a dark place.”
He now has 400 recordings, such as a rosary sung by Kim Gun-ja; “Dance Song of Youth,” a Chinese folk tune sung by Bae Chun-hui; a Buddhist mantra by Shim Dal-yeon; Yi Ok-seon singing “On my fingers I count the years of living in a foreign land. In the more than 10 years since I left home, only the spring of my youth’s grown old,” in “Tahyang Sali.”
“It’s grainy, rough, bell-like,” he says about the style of singing. “It has the smell of the earth in it. It seemed true to me. They adjust the songs to the audience and themselves.”
Also at the House of Sharing, he met Mr. Yajima, who goes by the name Mario. Mario was a photojournalist for the Asahi Shimbun, but he quit to devote himself to photographing the effects of Japanese imperialism. “Mario intends to stay there until all these ladies pass away,” Mr. Pilzer says.
Mr. Yajima had an idea to take pictures of the women as people, rather than as political symbols. Another friend suggested they work together, and so the exhibition was born.
At Gallery Fish this week, a young man with a white shirt that says, “Peace Now Korea Japan” stands in front of a photograph. Takashi Shiozawa came to Korea in July and visited the House of Sharing, where he heard about the exhibition. He supports Peace Now Korea Japan, a nongovernmental organization, and hopes to learn more about Korean-Japanese relations.
Halfway through his visit to Gallery Fish, he says, “I don’t know how I feel.”
“These women are survivors,” Mr. Pilzer says. “Some are lucky, optimistic or plain smart. They survived when so many people committed suicide or were killed by bombings, soldiers, or the cleanup after war.”
In his research, he found that the Japanese Army wasn’t solely to blame for the sex slaves’ woes. At some rape camps, after the Japanese left, the women continued to work there as prostitutes “for U.S. soldiers who thought it was a brothel,” Mr. Pilzer says.
“I realized as an American, it’s not just a matter of Korea versus Japan, but conquerors and conquered, imperialism, about war, the basic relationship between man and woman. It’s not an isolated example, but an extreme example of the victimization of women in wartimes and in the sex industry,” he says, pointing to the prostitution in present-day Korea.
Now that he has finished his research, Mr. Pilzer plans to return to the United States this year to hand in his dissertation. He is currently working on getting his exhibition to the United States and Japan.
“One of my goals is that people can meet these women not just as people, but sense their strength, hopefulness and joyfulness that helped them to survive,” Mr. Pilzer says. “That is an important lesson of life I learned.”

by Joe Yong-hee

The exhibition runs through Sunday. For more information, visit the Gallery Fish’s site at, or call (02) 730-3280. Visit the House of Sharing Web site at
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