Monday, December 12, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: 1000th Wednesday Protest, and a Comfort Woman's Story

First, a little bit of background. As many of the readers know, although the Japanese government recognized its responsibility for Imperial Japan's hand in forcibly recruiting Comfort Women, the Japanese government has not yet made any compensation out of government funds.

Some of the surviving Comfort Women in Korea -- there are only 63 of them, who are in their 80s and 90s -- protest in front of the Japanese embassy for the inadequacy of Japan's response every Wednesday. The "Wednesday Protest" to be held on this Wednesday, December 14, 2011 will be the 1000th one, after nearly 20 years of weekly gatherings since January 1992.

Dong-A Ilbo featured a story told by Ms. Kim Bok-Dong, who was recruited as a Comfort Woman at age 14. She is now 87 years old, and is the longest participant of the Wednesday Protests. The translation is below.

*                 *                 *

"Mom, how old am I this year?"

She said it has been eight years. I was 14 when I was taken, so I was 22. All my friends were married and left the town.

As I was being dragged around by the Japanese military and tortured, I completely forgot how many years have passed. One day, there was a commotion about liberation. I was in Bangkok, Thailand at the time, my last stop as a Comfort Woman. I took a boat with other women. We had almost nothing to eat on the boat, and it took us several months for me to come back home [which was Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.] It must have been around October when I got home -- the rice field was golden and people were harvesting.

I got home, and my mother was cooking in the kitchen. She was shocked, because I turned so dark. For so long, I was raped by hundreds and thousands again and again -- how could a 14-year-old child be right? My mother was in shock also because instead of crying my eyes out, the first thing I asked was: how old was I? I didn't really forget -- I blocked out the time when I had to deal with the Japanese soldiers.

(More after the jump)

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When I was 14, someone from the local government office was in town, saying there was not enough people to make the soldiers' uniform. He told me, "you should go too." I said, "How could I? I never learned to sew." Then he said, "you can learn there. Don't worry, they will send you back by the time you got old enough to get married." I said, "I might go if I go with my mom, but I don't want to go." Then he scared me: "It's what the Japanese government wants to do. If you don't go, your family will be in trouble." I was scared, so I went along.

So I was dragged all over Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand and went through hell. At first, I had hope that I would get back home they promised that they would send me back when I'm older. So I barely hung on, counting days, but they would only take me to different countries. It's not like I could speak with them. I would tell them, "please send me home. I think I'm going to die," but the damn Japanese only laughed. Nobody listened to me, so I was practically a mute. After molesting a young child like that, I thought they would say, "sorry, you can go home now" -- but no one did. Two years passed.

Afterward, I lived without counting days. I gave up trying to figure out what day was today, what year was today. I think the pain would have broken me if I was counting the days. You have no idea when the pain would end, so you just hang on one day at a time. When the sun rises, I would think: "I'm awake." When the sun sets, "I'm still alive. It would be great if I died after I fall asleep." And then I would wake up the next morning again. The pain was unspeakable. I couldn't even imagine that it would take so long.

Ms. Kim Bok-Dong (second from the left) attends a memorial of Ms. Noh Su-Bok,
a former Comfort Women. The memorial was held at the 998th Wednesday Protest,
held in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

I hear the 1000th Wednesday Protest is coming up. I am 87 years old. All my protest buddies died off, and now there are barely 60 some odd people. I was 68 when I first joined the protest. I was a young grandmother at that time -- I could at least stand up straight. Other grandmothers had a lot of energy too, saying "we should fight." I heard that in that January cold, women's groups were getting together to protest every week to help the old Comfort Women grandmothers. I couldn't sit still, so I was took the train up from Busan, where I was living. They already had seven protests or so. I really thought, "Alright, I'm doing this. They wouldn't just sit around if a grandmother comes out like this."

I thought I had a strong resolution, but I just burst into tears in front of the Japanese embassy. I was trembling all over. All I could do was yell. I knew I had to protest, item by item, but all I could do was scream. For the crime of being a Comfort Woman, I lived in hiding outside of my hometown for 40 years, running a tiny restaurant. I have no child who calls me mother. All I could do was yell -- just come out and look at me, look at this old grandmother, after you made me unable to live like any other woman, unable to wear a wedding garb. I had no other way. I thought these bastards would come out and say, "we're sorry grandmother, we are sorry."

But the police came and put the grandmothers' on a bus. We were crying and yelling, but they just carried us out and put us down at the City Hall square. So what? We would come back. I took the train back to Busan. I even thought in the train back, "I should see this one through. If I keep showing up, wouldn't they at least say they were sorry?" I had hope. It's not about the money. If they are human, they had to apologize.

I came up for every protest. At the 50th protest, we went to the Blue House instead. We yelled at the front gate, "Mr. President, please come out, we need to get this resolved." The police took us again to the City Hall square. At first, I really thought it would be resolved soon, as long as I kept it up. I yelled at the protest, rain or snow. Yell, taken away and let go at the City Hall and go back to Busan -- and the time passed like that.

At first, we kept count. I figured around the 100th time they would hear us out -- but no. The Japanese embassy has twenty-some odd windows. When we go, they put the curtain down and block out all the windows. They don't even peek. No matter how much we chant -- "apologies and reparations" -- they put this thief-catching cameras on the gate and hide, just looking at what those grandmothers are doing. Now I am too old to yell, so I just look at the embassy, trying to see if they at least opened up the curtain a little. I can't even stand up straight anymore, but no one would listen. It doesn't matter how much we plead and protest.

Since then, I didn't count the numbers. I couldn't live like that. Now, I just let the week pass. I would realize it's Wednesday, then I attend the protest. I get home, and think another Wednesday passed. I hang on, one week at a time.

As I was dragged around for eight years, I began drinking at age 16. I would drink whiskey and gaoliangjiou when I had to deal with the Japanese, because I could not stand being clear headed. I would smoke after dealing with a Japanese soldier, because there was no other way to take care of the anger and sorrow in my young heart. Now, after each protest I sit in my room and chain-smoke. Every Wednesday, because they won't even draw their curtains no matter how much this grandmother yells.

After I came back, my mother said I should get married, since I was 22. She thought I was at a uniform factory. I had to tell her the truth. She could only say: "How would I meet my ancestors after I die? What would I say after turning my child this way?" She said that every day, then died only six years later. The doctor said her heart was full of anger.

There is a big commotion around this 1000th protest. I am just frustrated. My cataract surgery went wrong, so I can't see out of my left eye and the image is distorted out of my right eye too. I wonder if I could see at least those embassy bastards coming out and saying, "grandmother, please don't be angry any more. We're sorry," while I can still see. I couldn't even imagine that it would take so long. Being dragged around, not being able to say anything and not being able to receive any apology -- it's the same as before. I feel so helpless. I wonder if my mother felt this helpless also.

I miss my mom all of a sudden. This can't go over the 1000th time. We can't wait much longer. I am too old now.

‘할매, 이제 화 푸소 미안했소’ 죽기전 이 말 들어야 할낀데… [Dong-A Ilbo]

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  1. Thank you for translating and sharing this piece. My heart breaks for these women.

  2. Meeting them and talking to them is pretty heartbreaking. We traveled out to the 나눔의집 for my class and met some of the 할머니...tragic stories that are always more staggering in person, I think.

    I'll be at the Japanese Embassy tomorrow, along with most of class and lots of other people, I believe.

  3. Sad and angry.

    Financial compensation from the current Japanese govt is the least this generation can do to admit what horrible things have happened just 2 generations ago and offer a sincere and formal apology and show that you have learned to be better from the heart not just on the packaging surface, yet... just how much longer must they wait.

    Keep blogging, TK; until then. Thanks.

    할머니, 우리는 잊지 않을 게요. 힘내세요.

  4. One of the Japan blogs I follow has coverage of the new statue here. It mentions that the Japanese government paid a large reparation sum to the Korean government (which then spent the funds instead of distributing them), and that the Japanese government even set up its own agency to directly give out additional funds.

    The comfort women issue isn't really my area of expertise, so I don't know what to make of this. Can anyone comment?

    (To clarify, I absolutely don't deny that the Japanese government did horrible things. I'm asking specifically about the reparations.)

  5. Joe, there is a post coming tonight that directly addresses your question. To give a short version --

    (1) Japan's initial reparation was not large at all, and it was given to a dictator who would clearly not give the money to the people,

    (2) What Japanese government set up afterward was not its own agency, but a privately funded charity -- which is a way of denying legal responsibility.

  6. I want to first thank you for this post. I have learned so much about the Korean War from a different angle versus what was briefly discussed in school. I've always been amazed of strength these
    "Comfort Women" possess. To have one woman discuss her personal experience and the!Her whole life was altered in moment and her freedom was taken away... Thank you so much for sharing some amazing insight.

    I had pondered on this blog post for a while and reread it. I'm just in awe of this post. To have your entire life changed at age 14. I had to contemplate where my mind was at age 14. The trivial things that I was concerned with at that age was in no comparison to the fear that these women went through.

    Question: Why is it so hard to apologize when one knows what their doing or what they did was wrong?--Ah boy....

    " I had hope. It's not about the money. If they are human, they had to apologize."

    In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves."

  7. TK: Gotcha. I'm still somewhat uncertain on point 1. It seems to me as though the Japanese government gave the Korean government the full sum it demanded, and that the Korean government demanded it be allowed to distribute the funds. What would have been a better, viable action for the Japanese government to take?

    As far as point 2 goes, fair enough. The article does point out that the Japanese government funded the AWF to the tune of 4.8 billion yen (which may or may not have been all it could manage politically), so it did have some degree of legitimacy. But track II type organizations are indeed different from full government agencies.

    I'm looking forward to reading your article. Like I said, this isn't one of my areas of expertise.

  8. @Joe. I think the point is that, even if the Japanese government did give the Korean government the money it demanded, the money may not have gotten to the people who deserved it. More importantly, it's not about the money for these women. I'm not sure if any of us could even begin to understand the trauma these women went through, but when traumatic events happen, those who experience it often seek a way to find closure. The Japanese government, through their denial and neglect have taken any form of closure away from these women. These women want acknowledgement, a formal apology, and a way to show the world that 'yes this is what we went through and FINALLY someone has apologized for the horrors we endured.' Unfortunately, I'm not sure that will ever happen.


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