I had been putting it off for a while, so when I saw March’s visit advertised on the Korea4Expats website, I knew I couldn’t put it off anymore. With my time left in Korea getting shorter, I knew that it would be ignorant of me not to take advantage of the wonderful opportunity to visit the House of Sharing, both to see the halmoni while the remainder of them are still in good health and to educate myself on Korea’s darker past and on a human rights violation still prevalent in the world today.
So, I woke up early last Saturday to meet the group and board a bus to Gwangju, about an hour outside of Seoul. I was surprised to see such a large number of people- over 40- attending the tour. Upon our arrival, we were given an introduction to the House of Sharing by the international outreach team, composed of Koreans and foreigners alike. The House, as it is sometimes referred to, is both a human rights museum and a safe house for former “comfort women.” These women are survivors of sexual slavery who were kidnapped by or sold to the Japanese military during the Asia Pacific War in the 1930s and 40s.
After the introduction, we watched a documentary on Kang Deokgyung. Like many young women in Korea during the time, she was eager to make money to help her family during the rough economic era. She went to Japan to work for the Women’s Volunteer Labor Corp but had difficulty keeping up with the hard labor demands. During her attempt to escape, she was captured by the Japanese and brought to a comfort station where she was forced to sustain multiple rapes under terrible living conditions. After the war, she was finally able to make it back to Korea. She spent the remaining years of her life fighting for women’s rights. She was quite the activist, participating in public talks and even making trips to Japan to demand an apology from the government. On her deathbed, her main concern was if her lost passport had been found, as she was eager to make one last trip to Japan to make her story known.
After the documentary and a short lunch, we split up into groups and were led throughout the museum. Upon entering, there is a picture of the first woman to come out publicly about her experiences as a comfort woman and a quote which translates “We must record these things that have been forced upon us.” Though small in size, the museum provides for a profound experience telling these women’s stories. Most pictures and exhibits are explained in Korean but the team leaders did a great job explaining their meaning in English.
When the war ended, many of these women were stranded in the countries where they had been brought. They had no money and no knowledge of what home was like anymore. Over 70% of the women were killed before they could return to Korea, but even for those that were able to return, they were shunned by their family. Society identified these women as prostitutes rather than victims and little was done to help them. It wasn’t until 1991 that the first halmoni came out with her story and accusations against the Japanese government. Many followed suit, but the government identified these women as ill or as liars and accused them of making up stories. Two years later, Japan somewhat admitted to their involvement in the stations but failed to make any sort of apology and even to this day, has yet to do so. They base their reasoning behind all sorts of political and legislative bull crap.
Textbooks are also on display in the museum which exhibit the fact that most Koreans aren’t even educated on the issue of sexual slavery by the Japanese. Whether it’s to maintain positive relations with Japan, or if there is a bit of shame associated with issue, Korean textbooks contain only one sentence of the history of the comfort women. Pictures are also on display of the halmonis at their weekly protests at the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Rain or shine, sick or well, these women, now in their eighties and nineties, bring banners and sing songs demanding that the Japanese make an official apology, give monetary restitution, punish the war criminals (whose names are in fact on record), and teach their people about the tragic history so the mistake will not be made again.
In addition to the museum, there is a small gallery displaying pictures that the halmonis have created over the years after being instructed to paint as a means of psychological release. These works of art depict the emotions and thoughts of the former comfort women during their time at the comfort stations and have been displayed in galleries throughout the world.