A lone attempt at redemption

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A lone attempt at redemption

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The sweltering heat last Wednesday didn’t stop the weekly demonstration of women outside the Japanese Embassy. Nor did it stop Ippei Murayama, a 26-year-old Japanese man, from joining them, as he usually does.
“How come the Japanese Embassy hasn’t reacted to the demonstration, even though it’s been done over 720 times now?” Mr. Murayama said angrily in an interview with the JoongAng Daily.
Used by the Japanese military as sex slaves during World War II, the women protesters had enough to be angry about, even if Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi hadn’t visited the Yasukuni Shrine the day before, on Korea’s Liberation Day and the anniversary of the end of the war. The shrine honors the kami, or deified spirits, of Japanese soldiers, including Class A war criminals.
Mr. Murayama was referring to the protests conducted by the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, the host of the weekly demonstration, who with the help of a number of civic groups have gathered in front of the Japanese Embassy every Wednesday at noon since Jan. 8, 1992. Last Wednesday was the group’s 722nd protest.
“Koizumi, apologize for your visit to the Yasukuni Shrine!” shouted a member of Seoul Young Korean Academy, a non-governmental organization, in front of the Japanese Embassy. The crowd echoed back: “Apologize! Apologize! Apologize!”
Mr. Murayama lives with nine former comfort women in the House of Sharing in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi province. He guides Japanese visitors to the house’s Historical Museum of Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Military, plans new exhibitions for the museum, interprets the testimony of former comfort women and coordinates the Peace Road Workshop, a six-day program for 20 Koreans and 20 Japanese.
“I understand that the Japanese Embassy can’t pay restitution to the victims without the Japanese government’s permission. But it can at least show a little heart, such as offer cold water to the elderly demonstrators in this hot weather, or let them protest inside of the building,” he added. “It’s very disappointing that they haven’t done anything for such a long period of time.”
Indeed, during the protest on Wednesday, no one from the embassy came out of the building to try to talk with the protesters. No one even looked out the window.
An official at the Japanese Embassy said it was their policy not to react to protests of any kind.
“I don’t think the Japanese and Korean governments are determined to resolve the [comfort women] issue, because of economic and political relations,” Mr. Murayama said. “The Korean government doesn’t strongly demand compensation for the comfort women from the Japanese government, because it needs a good relationship with Japan for the economy,” he said. “In Japan as well, there were voices against Koizumi’s visit to the shrine, but it’s not because they reflected on or exercised any discipline on the past, but because they were too conscious of economic relations with Korea and China.”
Mr. Murayama started working for the House of Sharing in April, but his ties with the house go back to early 2004. When he attended Yonsei University as an exchange student, he had a chance to visit the place with other Korean and Japanese students for an overnight program. But when he went back to Seoul, he regretted not having had an in-depth discussion on the issues of the comfort women, the war or contemporary Korea-Japan relations; he said at night the group retired to their room and drank.
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So after two weeks, he came back to the House of Sharing to spend more time with the “grandmothers” (as all the former comfort women in the house are called) and to ponder those issues. That turned into weekly visits which carried on until he left for Japan in July, 2004. He came back to the house when Tsukasa Yajima, who worked for the House of Sharing for three years and left for Germany, asked Mr. Murayama to replace him early this year.
“I worried a lot about what and how to say to the grandmothers, because of my identity as a Japanese man,” Mr. Murayama said. “The men who raped the grandmothers in the comfort stations [of the Japanese military] were supposedly my age. I thought my being there could be another source of pain to them.”
The old women living in the House of Sharing, however, didn’t seem to mind. They ate dinner with him, talked and laughed with him and sometimes made him massage their shoulders.
“I don’t mind at all living with [Mr. Murayama] under the same roof. His room is just across from mine,” said Kang Il-chul, 78, who was sent to a comfort station in China by the Japanese military when she was 15. “He has a good heart. He is Japanese, but not all Japanese are bad. I began to thaw by seeing him working and living here, being separated from his family at a young age,” she said.
She hastened to add, though, that “Koizumi must apologize for the visit to Yasukuni.”
When asked if he knew about the comfort women issue before coming to Korea, Mr. Murayama said, “The phrase, ‘comfort women,’ was written in the textbook when I went to middle and high school, although I don’t think it’s there now.” As his parents are social activists ― his father runs the Kanagawa City Union, a civic group for foreign laborers in Japan, Mr. Murayama has been interested in social issues since he was very young. “I went to the library to read more on what Japan did to Joseon during the colonial period. I was shocked by the testimony of a former comfort woman in one of the books. It was dreadful to know that it was the Japanese who did such inhumane deeds.”
During World War II, the Empire of Japan forcefully mobilized women as military sex slaves from colonial Joseon, as well as from other occupied nations, including China, the Philippines and Indonesia. The number of women taken to the comfort stations is estimated at between 50,000 and 300,000 ― no specific figure is known because the Japanese military burned all related documents after the war. Imperial Japan specifically targeted Korean women, because it had secured a clause in the “International Treaty of Prohibition of Sales of Women and Children,” exempting citizens in its colonies from the treaty’s protections. Most of the women were in their teens; many were told that they were going to work in a factory.
According to the testimonies of former comfort women, they served army privates from the morning to early evening, petty officers from early evening to 7 to 8 p.m. and officers at night, having sex with 10 to 30 men a day, and more during weekends. They were tested for sexually transmitted diseases every seven to 10 days, and syphilis was treated with 606 injections (usually salvarsan) or sometimes mercury, which was thought to cure the disease.
“Japanese in general don’t consider themselves as victimizers,” said Mr. Murayama. “Look, we have here these grandmothers who claim to be victims. But have you seen anyone who claims himself to be a victimizer? There must have been managers, builders and users of comfort stations, but we hear nothing from them. They didn’t feel guilty for what they did to these women, and just went back to Japan to make an ordinary family.”
There were chances for Japan to educate its people about its cruelty and the facts of the war, but it didn’t, he said, adding that it calls Aug. 15 “the day World War II ended,” hoping to obscure the historical truth. “It’s not the day the war ended, it’s the day Japan was defeated,” he said.
“I think the next five to six years are the most important period for the comfort women issue, [considering the grandmothers’ ages]” Mr. Murayama said. Last year, 17 Korean comfort women passed away, and those who are still alive are in poor health.
“The most important thing is to make records on their lives of the past and the present, because there’s only a few at the moment,” he said. “I’d like to record their lives staying here and make Japanese society aware of this so that such terrible incidents don’t happen again.”


by Park Sung-ha

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