“Comfort women” is a euphemism for the women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. They were kept in numerous locations throughout Japan, Korea, China, and other South Asian countries. Many of the women survived and in old age still suffer from the trauma.
Up to 200,000 women are estimated to have worked as comfort women in Japan’s military brothels, most of them Korean. Until the end of WWII, Korea was under Japanese occupation, and its people forced to learn Japanese, which meant Korean women were easier to subjugate than women of other Asian nationalities.
Many died during their ordeal, and many others died later. Since the issue came to light in 1981, 234 former comfort women have come forward in South Korea. But now there are just 59 known survivors – nine live in the House of Sharing in Gwangju city, Gyeonggi province.
On a winding country road overlooked by mountains, there is a strange building, with an arched portico that reveals glimpses of statues and memorials within. There is a gravel car park bigger than the building’s nine elderly residents need and there are leaflets at the door in English, Japanese and Korean.
The building is a museum called the House of Sharing and its statues and memorials tell the story of a bitter episode in its residents’ lives. During the Second World War they were “comfort women” for the Japanese military, which used trickery and abduction to trap young girls and older women. Once at the comfort stations, women were subjected to daily rape and torture at the hands of soldiers, doctors, and other officials.
To raise public awareness and debate about this issue, the House of Sharing has built a museum at the site, housing official documents, old photographs and testimonies from several survivors. There are vivid paintings, too – part of the therapy offered to residents. In the garden outside there is a haunting statue of a naked women rising up from the earth, her face crumpled, her shoulders hunched. Opposite, in the centre of the courtyard, there is a growing collection of memorials to residents who have already passed away.
In the capital city Seoul, a group of former comfort women, now grandmothers, and their supporters have protested in front of the Japanese Embassy every week since 1995. In December 2011, they marked their 1,000th protest by unveiling the statue of a young girl in traditional Korean dress, who sits facing the Embassy with an empty chair beside her. The statue silently admonishes anyone entering or leaving the building.
The Japanese government has reluctantly admitted that its wartime military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations, and it has extended “its sincere apologies and remorse to all those who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” Yet, even today, there are highly placed Japanese politicians who deny responsibility for what happened and others who believe that acknowledging these atrocities is to lose face.
The surviving Korean comfort women – affectionately called halmonie, which means “grandmother” – have seven very reasonable demands: (1) Admit the abduction of the Japanese military’s “comfort women”; (2) Apologize officially; (3) Reveal truths about the war crimes; (4) Erect memorial tablets for the victims; (5) Pay restitution to the victims or their families directly from the government; (6) Teach the truth in public schools, so the events are never again repeated; (7) Punish the surviving war criminals. But soon it will be too late.