Every Wednesday at noon, for the past decade, seven geriatric Korean women gather outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
They are the last of the Korean “위안부/Wianbu”or “Comfort Women”, who were forced to work in state-organised brothels servicing Japanese soldiers in World War II. In the 70 years since the first brothels or “Comfort Stations” were organised, no perpetrators have ever been arrested, nor has any compensation been awarded to the women.
In 2007, the Comfort Women held their first protest. Since then, they have held more than 1000 protests at the Japanese embassy in Seoul, in which they, together with their supporters, present their demands for justice and recognition.
When not protesting, the halmonis (grandmothers), as they are respectfully referred to, all live in the House of Sharing, a safehouse built in 1992 to serve as a home for the remaining Korean Comfort Women. The house is open to the public, and tours include a meeting with the halmonis, as well as a visit to their museum. It is here that the Comfort Women’s stories are validated and their history documented.
While many of the Comfort Women were Korean, up to 200, 000 women from all over Asia were forcibly recruited to work in the brothels. Some were lured under false promises of work, while others were abducted from their homes. The picture below shows a young Chinese Comfort Woman in Burma, 1945, interviewed by an Allied officer.
The first Comfort Stations were set up in 1932 in response to reports that Japanese soldiers were raping civilians in Shanghai. As a proposed solution, the military ordered that Comfort Women be provided as an alternative means to satisfy the soldiers. Since the prostitution was forced, it was simply another kind of rape – and so it is clear they only attempted to stop the circumstance of the rape, not the rape itself.
South Korea plans to raise the issue at the UN General Assembly, but in the mean time, the women are growing older. Of the 234 Korean Comfort Women that identified themselves publicly, only seven remain.
They have been protesting so long that their weekly protests are listed as a tourist attraction in the Lonely Planet guide.
Their demands are clear:
- Acknowledge the war crime.
- Make an official apology.
- Reveal the truth in its entirety about the crimes of military sexual slavery
- Erect a memorial for the victims of the military sexual slavery and establish a historical museum
- Make legal reparations
- Accurately record the crime in history textbooks
- Punish those responsible for the war crime
– Quoted from a statement by The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
Most recently, the halmonis have spoken out in a different way by inviting members of the Japanese government to visit the House of Sharing in the hopes that some resolution can be found. The letter reads: “We know that you are busy, but will you visit us some time? We hope that you will visit us so that you can learn the real truth about history and meet with the survivors, the victims, share our table and talk with us”.
I suspect that, like their protests, their letter will be ignored. For now, the halmonis will continue to gather at the embassy each Wednesday and, as per usual, the Japanese officials will close their blinds.
Read more about Comfort Women:
The article above was originally published in Worldette. Below I have added some commentary on the latest political activity involving the Comfort Women.
Comfort Women were originally enslaved because it was more politically convenient for the Japanese if their soldiers rapedWianbu rather than local civilians. This would not be the last time that Comfort Women were used as pawns in a political power-play, as it seems the Japanese government is resorting to the same tactics in contemporary times. Despite an admittance of Japan’s organisation of Comfort Stations by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1994, and another by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007, this August, the Japanese government made two statements arguing that “the government could find no documents proving the military or other government authorities forcibly recruited comfort women”.
These most recent statements come amidst a spat between the two countries about the ownership of a group of islets in the East Sea known as Dokdo or the Takeshima islands. While the statements made by the Japanese regarding Korean Comfort Women are supposedly unrelated, it is clear that the statements are part of a series of stabs against the Korean government. Apart from the Japanese government’s dismissal of two previous official statements, what is most surprising is their disregard for the women’s testimony. Korea holds firm that the “victims are evidence”, and President Lee Myung-bak has demanded that Japan take responsibility for the war crimes. So it seems that, once again, the Comfort Women are being used as a political tool.
 This strikes me as yet another form of exploitation, as the halmonis are treated as curios by tourists. It is also telling that the protests are legitimate enough to be included in a travel guide, but not worthy of acknowledgment by the current Japanese government.
 Following the Prime Minister’s apology, the Asian Women’s Fund was established in 1995, the running costs of which were paid by the Japanese government but all money paid to Korean Comfort Women was funded by donations from the public. Many women refused this money, saying that the acts of individual politicians is not enough, as they demand a national acknowledgment, apology and legal reparations from the Japanese. The Asian Woman’s Fund was closed in 2007. It now operates solely as a digital museum.
The Culture Muncher by Deva Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.