Chung Seo Woon suffered the cruelest fate men can inflict on women, and kept the courage to tell her story to the whole world.
by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson
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Reprinted by permission of Dai Sil Kim-Gibson
This article first appeared in Making More Waves
the term "comfort women" is a euphemism for women who were forced to serve as sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers under the pretext that they were joining Jungshindae, literally, "Voluntary Committee Body Corps," a Japanese-coined term meaning devoting one's entire being to the cause of the emperor. The more precise term is Jungun Wianbu (military comfort women) in Korean and Jungunianfu in Japanese. Because the term itself is an indication of the complexity of this issue, I use it advisedly.
"Toward the end of the war, schools were pressured to identify and provide girls."
From the early 30s, when Japan launched a war of aggression on mainland China, the Japanese military established "comfort houses (stations)," i.e., military brothels for the Imperial Army. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the system was firmly established and the comfort women were treated as military supplies. The number of these women is disputed; estimates usually range from 100,000 to 200,000. They were drafted from Japan's prewar colonies and a wide range of Japanese-occupied territories. Korea was the single major source. It is generally agreed that 80 to 90 percent of the women came from Korea.
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Comfort women were only a fraction of the human resources Japan appropriated from Korea. Expansion of the war caused a severe domestic labor shortage, a predicament the Imperial government sought to solve by mobilizing "peninsula people" (Koreans). Since 1920, Japan sought to complete Japanization and annihilation of Korean culture and history. The concentrated wartime draft of Korean men and women was consistent with Japanese colonial policy. Comfort women were recruited under the pretext of "work" opportunities or simply coerced. Korean villages were raided to seize women. Toward the end of the war, schools were pressured to identify and provide girls.
Until recently, the issue has been confined to buried memories of a shamed past. Even since it became public, the investigation had met numerous obstacles, including Japan's initial denials and refusal to disclose relevant documents. Bit by bit, like nightmares unraveling, some facts were uncovered and Japan was forced to deal with it. According to the Washington Post (February 7, 1996), a key United Nations investigator, Radhika Coomaraswamy, in her report for the fifty-three-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission, recommended that in addition to apologies and compensation, Japan must identify and punish those responsible for this crime. However, Japan still denies its legal responsibility and refuses to disclose all the facts.
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why am I writing about Korean comfort women?
I am a Korean American woman who came to the United States as a graduate student. I was born in northern Korea while Japan ruled our country, made us change our names to Japanese, speak their language, and worship their emperor. In the spring of 1945, my chest bubbling with the happy feelings of an enthusiastic first grader, I was playing a popular game with five small stones, throwing them into the air and placing them in sets. The animated chatter and laughter of girls, as I recall, spread through the schoolyard like a symphony of spring.
"It's bad enough that Japan committed such a horrendous crime against humanity but it is even worse to avoid responsibility for the wrong you committed."
A Japanese teacher suddenly grabbed my arm and jerked me to my feet. "You are speaking Korean!" "Of course, I am!" I said, fearful but with pride. She took me to a huge teacher's room. I was ordered to stand by a window where everybody could see me, stretch my arms upward like a surrendering soldier, and repent! One by one, the teachers went home. When the evening dusk started to set in the sky, I was told to go home. On the way, I was met by my mother, who ran toward me from a distance. Only at the touch of her hand and the sound of her gentle voice did I begin to cry.
Living in America, I, like many others, decided to let my past be. The war and the colonial experience of both victims and victimizers has been largely repressed, buried with anger or sorrow. Most Americans of Asian roots whose ancestors experienced the horrendous atrocities committed by Japan do not know about that "uncomfortable past" and perhaps they don't care to learn. We were born in America, what do we have to do with that? Let's deal with the pressing issues here.
This is, however, one of the pressing issues of America and indeed of the world. The story of the Second World War is not just about problems between the European/American powers and Japan; it was not just a war between yellow and white. It was also yellow against yellow. It was about what Japan did to fellow Asians and others under the pretext of emancipating the Asian race from Western imperialism. This is a neglected story. Further, if America is truly a nation of immigrants from different roots, we Americans must attempt to understand each other's roots, each other's history.
The story of comfort women is a neglected aspect of war, of human rights violations, and of human brutality. Equally important, it is an ignored issue of gender. Further, it is a story of mostly Asian women from predominantly poor and uneducated families, a case of triple discrimination and neglect.
In August 1995, I went to the NGO Forum on Women in China held in conjunction with the Fourth World Conference on Women to help place the issue of Japanese military sexual slavery before the eyes of the world. On the fourth of September, I attended the International Symposium on Violence Against Women in War and Armed Conflicts and was honored to translate the testimony of a former comfort woman from South Korea, Chung Seo Woon.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dai Sil Kim-Gibson is an independent filmmaker and writer. In 1993 she directed Sa-i-ku: From Korean Women's Perspectives, a documentary video about Korean immigrant women and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Her latest project was a 60-minute documentary about the Coreans taken to Sakhalin by the Japanese as forced laborers during World War II and abandoned in the Soviet Union. Her forthcoming book is tentatively entitled Broken Memories of Comfort: Korean Comfort Women. That book is the basis of a documentary which Kim-Gibson is currently producing. Upon completion it will be broadcast nationally by PBS. Kim-Gibson was born in Korea. She lives and works in the Hudson Valley region of New York State.
At age seventy-five, with lines of age on her face, she still exuded dignity and beauty. As she went to the podium, I disappeared into a translation booth.
"I was born an only daughter with no sons in a family of a well-to-do landowner in southern Korea," she started. Her voice flew out like a quiet stream. I listened to her every word and put them into English with my heart's devotion. "Half a century has passed since the time when every day was a dreadful nightmare for me, but Japan still tells lies and avoids responsibility. How can they do that in the presence of myself and many others like me, victims who are alive and kicking? The seed the Japanese planted, the evil seed, they must harvest no matter how dreadful if they wish to be part of the human race. Don't you believe so?" Loud applause. "Then they say, 'For all those poor Asians, we will raise private funds and help.' I have a message for you. I might be poor, but not that poor. I demand the compensation that is rightly due to me, even if I would burn the money after it's in my hand. It is not a matter of money but of principle. The Japanese defiled my body but not my spirit. My spirit is strong, rich, and proud." With the thunderous applause, I took off my headphones and stepped out of the booth. She stood by the podium with her head lifted high in front of the people who honored her with a standing ovation. With my arms around her, we came down together and sat in the front row of seats.
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"One day the police came and took my father away."
The next day, I went to her hotel in Beijing at her invitation. When I knocked at her door, she was still in her pajamas, frantically trying to communicate with a Chinese cleaning woman. Her face, exhaustion hovering, brightened up at seeing me. "Oh, I am so glad to see you. I was so tired that I stayed in bed until a while ago but I had to get up because my stomach grumbled for food. I was trying to tell that woman to get me some food. Everyone is out; no one is around." "Not to worry anymore. I will go and grab some food. Go back to bed and rest. You don't need to change, either." We sat by the window, she still in her pajamas, looking out at the ancient city of Beijing with food and Coke bottles between us. "You saved me. It is a kind of sickness. I can't function unless I put some food in my stomach when I feel this hungry." Slowly, color came back to her face, accompanied by a smile. "Thanks for inviting me to come. Yesterday your testimony was painful but moving. I felt as if my chest was choked with sadness even while I was so intensely translating," I said. "Thank you. In the evening, I had to go see a Japanese government official. That's why I am in this shape. It was awfully intense." I chewed my food and waited. "Last night, I asked him how he felt to see all these women from around the world demanding justice from Japan, many of them from countries which Japan had victimized; if they felt ashamed about what Japan did to us. I took off my glasses and showed the scars on my face and said, 'If you were a woman, I would take off my clothes and show the numerous scars all over my body, but I can't do that. I was taught not even to roll up my sleeves in front of a strange man. So you can imagine how I felt when the Japanese officers and soldiers tore apart my clothes and humiliated me, doing the most unthinkable things to my naked body. It is bad enough that Japan committed such a horrendous crime against humanity but it is even worse to avoid responsibility for the wrong you committed. When is Japan going to face up and render justice to us, not that you can ever bring my life back to age fifteen.'
He said, 'I feel sorry,' but his voice was hardly audible." Her hand holding a Coke bottle to her mouth shook a little. "It must be hard on you to talk about such a painful past all the time, especially at the public meetings." "Oh, but I have lived for these opportunities. In any case, my past is never over whether I talk about it or not. I am still in the battle every day. So often my dreams are battlefields in which I am desperately fighting the Japanese soldiers. In the darkness of the night, I scream and yell. Then, my husband wakes me up and gently wipes away the cold sweat pouring over my body." I did not have to ask her to tell me her story. In fact, there was no stopping. We talked until the sun set in the sky of that ancient city and shared dinner at a hotel restaurant. Alas, space does not allow me to present her full story, but this is her story in the first person.
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Former "comfort woman" Chung Seo Woon (left) told her story to writer Dai Sil Kim-Gibson at the 1995 NGO Forum on Women held in Beijing.
They Defiled My Body,
Not My Spirit
As told by Chung Seo Woon
I was born as the only daughter without sons in the family of a wealthy landowner in southern Korea. I know that the majority of the women who suffered my fate came from poor and uneducated families but I was a protected child of a well-to-do family. Like many of my friends, I wanted to go to school but my father would not let me. He said, "What's the use of learning Japanese language and history before you know your own?" He kept me at home and taught me Chinese characters, written Korean, and calligraphy. My father was adamantly opposed to changing our names into Japanese. So we never did. In those days, the Japanese took all of our brassware to use for the war, for weapons, etc. My father dug a deep hole in our rice field and buried all of our brassware. He said that it wasn't because we had such an attachment to them but he was opposed in principle to contributing to the Japanese war effort. One day police came and took my father away. I learned that the police took my father to the hiding place and made him dig it up. When they found all that brassware, they kicked and beat my father. I don't know how they found out about it. My father was put into a prison. We asked to see my father every day but each time we were refused. One day, however, a Japanese official came and asked if I wanted to visit my father in the prison.
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"There is a factory in Japan where you could go and work for two years. If you go there, I will see to it that your father is released from prison."
When my father saw me coming to his cell, he almost fainted. Gathering himself, he said, "You should never have come here. This is not a place for a girl like you. Please don't come back at all and, whatever you do, please don't let your mother know what you saw today." I stood there with tears streaming down my cheeks. My father looked so frail; he looked as if I could blow him away. Going closer to him, I grabbed his hands but he groaned. Frightened, I pulled my hands away, and saw his hands covered with bandages. "I didn't realize... What happened to your hands?" I saw blood marks around his fingernails. I demanded to know what happened to him. He told me, "They pulled all my fingernails. They did the same thing to my toes." "Do they torture you every day like this? What else did they do to you?" "You don't want to know and you should not trouble yourself anymore. I wish you hadn't come but don't tell your mother." "Is it because of the brassware that they torture you?" I asked. "It's more than that but I can't tell you. Please go back and take good care of your mother." My feet would not move but I had to leave him there in that horrible prison cell. Then the Japanese official who took me to my father's cell came to our house. "There is a factory in Japan where you could go and work for two years. If you go there, I will see to it that your father is released from prison. Immediately after you leave, he will be released." After seeing my father, I didn't think I had a choice; I was only glad that I could do something for my father.
My mother was horrified. She said I couldn't go. She pleaded and begged. "You are the only one I have left. How do you expect that I can live if you also leave me? Besides, you are only fifteen and you have never been anywhere. Two years in a Japanese factory! It's unthinkable." Of course, she didn't know the true state of my father. It was bad enough to leave, but to persuade my mother was something else. Finally, resigned to the situation, my mother quietly packed clothes made of fine materials, occasionally stopping to wipe her tears and pointing to some as special items she had prepared for my wedding someday. I can't tell you how I felt when I followed the Japanese man, leaving my mother behind. Every step away from home was prompted by the image of my father, especially the bandaged hands and feet. His pain was mine; we were so close. Even if I was a girl, I was the only child. I was my father's baby. This stubborn man whose facade was stern as rock had unlimited love for me. Do you know what my name, Seo Woon, means? It means 'feel empty/sorry' [no English equivalent]. My parents were sorry that I wasn't a boy but I didn't care. You know why? My father loved me to death, I knew that.
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On a ship headed to Japan, there were many girls and women, some even bubbling with hope that they would earn lots of money for their poverty-stricken families. A Japanese woman introduced herself as the person responsible for taking us to a factory. I closed my eyes and blocked my fear, thinking only about my father who by then would be home under the tender care of my mother.
Upon arrival in Japan, we were made to wait for a few days. Finally, one day, my number was called out. They didn't bother to use our names; we were numbers. I thought we were going to a factory but again they ordered us to get on a huge ship. I still thought we were traveling within Japan. When the ship pulled in some place, I didn't know then but later learned that it was Taiwan. After leaving some girls there, we moved on to Bangkok, Saigon, Singapore, and Jakarta, at each place leaving girls. When we arrived in Bangkok, I felt a strange sensation, knowing that we were not going to a factory in Japan. You understand all these names became clear to me much later. At the time, I didn't know what was happening. I was a prisoner on a ship that kept going. By then, I was devoid of any sense of time--time just felt endless.
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It was in Jakarta--and I did know this name--that something totally unexpected and dreadful happened. There were twenty-three of us left and we were taken to a hospital. A doctor came in, inspected my body below there, and did something. I had never felt such piercing pain in my life; I felt as if my entire inside shrank into a small bundle and my body rolled like a ball with the whole world's pain compressed in it. I cried and bled for three days. I didn't know then but, of course, they operated on me to prevent pregnancy.
"You know, we die once, only once. It matters how we die. I was immensely proud of the way my parents died."
Now changed to abrupt and coarse manners, the Japanese took us to a city called Semarang [a coastal city of Indonesia, about 250 miles east of Jakarta and occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945]. Within the military compound, there were rows of barracks. I was ordered into one of the rooms. Night fell in a strange land, so far away from my father and mother. A Japanese officer in uniform came in, sat down, looked at me, and gestured to me to take off my clothes. Then, he started to undress himself. I crawled into a corner of the room, hid my face between my legs, and wished that I could shrink myself into nothing. The officer yelled, he jerked me to my feet, grabbed my clothes, and tore them off. I stood in my underwear, trembling like crazy. He took out his sword and used it to tear my underwear. I was sixteen, the only daughter in a family without sons.
From the next day onward, five or six soldiers a day came, and the number increased to forty and fifty. Every time I fainted, they poured water over me and did the same thing all over. Much of the time, both body and spirit felt numb but when the bodily pain became unbearable, I screamed. Then they would give me shots, sometimes several times a day. Each time the shot soothed my pain and I was again under those soldiers. I didn't know it then but they made me into an opium junkie.
Beginning at nine at night, officers came. In comparison with them, the soldiers were harmless. Because there were always lines outside the door and because they were not given much time, the soldiers had to hurry and go, but the officers--they were something else. They had more time, and those high-ranking ones, they could stay overnight. They demanded such unspeakable and weird things. When I didn't obey them, many of them took out swords, threatened me, and used them on my body. When they did, they made sure that I bled. Did you know that the Japanese believed that once the sword was out, unless it saw blood, it would not fit back into its case? Such strange people... [She asked me this question and looked out of the window, her eyes gazing far away]. To this day there are so many scars on my body from the sword wounds.
I attempted suicide. I saved, every chance I got, strong pills for malaria. When I had forty of them, I swallowed them, no longer able to endure the pain and humiliation. However, two of my friends, who also saved the pills for the same purpose, could not go through with it and discovered me. They reported it and all I remember is that water came out from every part of my body--my mouth, nostrils... They revived me. It was then that I made up my mind to survive and tell my story, what Japan did to us. It was that determination that kept me alive until the day when some Indonesian women who did our laundry informed me that Japan had lost the war. Of the twenty-three of us, only nine were alive at the war's end. When our bodies could not be used, we were killed. They cut the women's throats in front of our eyes, warning us that we would be subject to the same fate if we disobeyed. The same Indonesian women informed the Allied soldiers about us, and they came to take us to Singapore and put us in a camp. I heard that the Japanese had been ordered to kill all of us to wipe away all trace of their atrocities.
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I had to wait almost a year before I was put on a ship home. When I returned home, our house was full of dust and spiderwebs, completely deserted. The neighbors came with brooms and cleaned the house. They told me about my parents. My father was never released; he died in prison. The Japanese came to the house and tried to rape my mother. Humiliated, holding a piece of iron between her lips, she killed herself. Then, the Japanese took the house and used it to entertain important visitors from Japan.
Did I cry? No, I didn't. I held back tears with so much love and pride for my parents--my father, thinking back, who was undoubtedly involved in the independence movement, and my mother who chose death rather than be defiled by the Japanese. You know, we die once, only once. It matters how we die. I was immensely proud of the way my parents died. The Japanese took our country away but they could not take the spirit of my parents. The Japanese defiled my body through and through but not my spirit. I locked up the house and decided to get rid of the opium addiction. It was my personal battle to regain my dignity as a Korean woman, as a human being. I gnashed my teeth so much that my gums bled and I could not eat. I crawled around the room, ripping off the floor paper until only the mud underneath showed. Then, I dug the mud. I chewed off all my fingernails. It was a desperate scream to be free of the opium and to be human. It was an eight-month struggle.
I was never able to have a normal sex life, but I met a kind man who wanted a companion more than anything else. He was a medical doctor who served in the Japanese army and had a nervous breakdown. He understood me. He is the one who wakes me up when I fight the Japanese soldiers in my dreams. I never hid what happened to me in Semarang. Why should I hide? I am not the one who should feel shame; it is Japan who should carry all the shame on its shoulders. Help me tell this story to America and to the whole world.