An hour’s combined bus and taxi ride south of Seoul, in bucolic countryside, is the House of Sharing, a very special retirement home. Here live eight witnesses to the systematic establishment and running of Japanese military brothels across Asia before and during WWII. Comfort women is the euphemism coined by the Japanese military for those forced to work in these brothels and is a term I first became familiar with while living in Japan in the early 1990s. At that time, this issue – long buried away through a combination of national shame and official myopia – came to public attention through the courageous testimonies of the victims – 70% of whom were Korean – and their demand for official recognition and compensation from the Japanese government.
“Violence, starvation, rape, disease, torture and death – these were the common experiences of the so-called ‘comfort women’,” says Heather Evans, one of the volunteer guides leading the monthly English-language tour around the House of Sharing’s museum. There was nothing in the least bit comfortable about the lives of the poor girls – and most of them were girls, aged between 13 and 16 – forced to service between 30 and 40 soldiers a day. At the House of Sharing they prefer the respectful term halmoni, which means grandmother in Korean. A study by the UN has put the number of women involved at around 210,000 (the Japanese government claims the figure was only 50,000) but the irony is that because of what happened to these women, very few are actually grandmothers. Furthermore, because of the stigma attached to having been a sexual slave , some of the women who “came out” about their horrific past have been disowned by the families they do have.
The halmoni – who are all in their 80s or early 90s – are described as activists and quite rightly so, since they continue to mount a weekly protest outside Seoul’s Japanese embassy to press for their demands. The strain of having to do this, however, has taken its toll and so now the old women do not regularly meet visitors to the House of Sharing to share their stories. Instead, video documentaries about them are screened and discussions are held about their plight and the ongoing sexual trafficing of women around the world. The videos, and anecdotes from the guides, paint these frail, sometimes crotchety women as pillars of strength who after a lifetime of shame and sorrow have chosen to spend their twilight years as campaigners for social justice. Sadly, it is not a role they are always thanked for in Korea – Heather tells us about how, even out here in the countryside, some local people have called the women liars and have even thrown pebbles at them.
“We must record these things that were forced upon us.” These words by Kim Hak Soon, one of the first Korean halmoni to testify about her experiences, introduce the museum exhibition which includes a replica of the stark rooms the sex slaves occupied in the brothels, and display of the artworks created by the halmoni that reflect their feelings and experiences. Overall it’s a heavy-going experience but one not without a sense of hope – both at the amazing resilience of the human spirit and the prospect for reconciliation. It’s heartening to hear that the greatest number of visitors to the House of Sharing come from Japan and that every year a Peace Road Program brings Korean and Japanese students together to help further understanding of their countries’ painfully entwined history and how they might work together rather than against each other in the future.
A new single level home is being constructed for the halmoni. This will include accommodation for people who would like to spend more time out here – a room will be W10,000, full-board W10,000 extra.