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Cover story

‘I cannot die without an apology’

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Seoul, South Korea

Waiting for apology, 12 elderly Korean women sit on mats outside the Japanese embassy, just as they and others have done every Wednesday in rain, sun or snow for more than six years.

These “grandmothers,” as the women are called even though some never bore children, and the thousands they represent, are the silent victims of World War II.

Forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers more than 50 years ago, the women have come forth to get what they say is their due: compensation and, above all, apology for the physical pain, the humiliation and the psychological isolation they have suffered.

Only apology, they say, will ease their torment and allow them to die in peace.

On Wednesday, Aug. 26, the scene was a bit incongruous. The women of Lion’s Club #354D Region 20 in Korea, decked out in their shimmering purple sequined vests, had not only joined the picket line outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, they had sponsored it.

The protest the Lion’s Club women hosted was the 327th consecutive week that Korean women’s groups have confronted the Japanese government with chants, declarations, leafleting, shouts and raised fists.

“In Korea, no group would not support this [demonstration],” explained one of the protesters, Maryknoll Sr. Christine Ortis, an American who has lived in Korea 30 years.

All this for the 12 grandmotherly women who sat on mats on the curb.

They -- and others similarly victimized -- have pledged to keep sitting there every Wednesday until the Japanese government apologizes.

The demonstration on Aug. 26 had special significance, because the grandmothers read aloud letters they had written to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Kim was to visit Japan Oct. 9, his first visit to that country since being elected president in December 1997. According to Korean press reports, Kim has said that a main purpose of his trip is to end disputes over Japan’s wartime past. They have a lot of past to overcome.

Koreans repelled Japan in the 16th century, but not until much of Seoul was destroyed. The Japanese were the victors in 1910, when they ended the 500-year reign of the Choson Dynasty and colonized the peninsula until 1945.

Under colonial rule, Korean men were pressed into the Japanese army or into forced labor camps throughout much of Asia. (See Man honors tortured comrades 52 years later.)

Thousands of Korean women, 15 to 22 years old, were abducted between 1937 and 1943 to serve in Japanese army brothels, often very near battle lines. Some women have told of being forced to have intercourse with as many as 30 soldiers a day. Women in China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Indonesia suffered similar fates.

In the years after the war, this part of history was largely ignored, if not covered up.

In the late 1980s, women academics in Korea began releasing research and hosting academic conferences on Japanese atrocities against women during the colonial era. Public interest increased sharply when a Filipina, a former comfort woman, went public with her experience in 1990 in Manila.

Korean women’s groups and nongovernmental organizations formed the coalition Never Again: Justice for Military Comfort Women. They began demonstrating outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. This is the Wednesday demonstration that has run more than 330 consecutive weeks now.

Finally in 1994, Kim Kak Soon became the first Korean to speak publicly about being a comfort woman. Since then, 160 Korean women have come forward to tell their stories. Kim Kak Soon died earlier this year.

Susana Yoon Soon Nyo, the secretary general of the Korean Catholic Women’s Community for a New World, one of the 76-member organizations of Never Again, explained why it took 50 years for these women to come forward.

“The victims could not show their faces, let alone speak out,” Yoon said. “When the war was on, they where abandoned by their families. And after the war they could not go home. Family shame was so deep. That was a personal pain.”

Yoon said the few women who could marry after the war kept quiet because they did not want their children to know what they suffered.

But most comfort women did not marry -- could not marry. Besides the shame they felt, years of sexual abuse, venereal disease and side effects from the contraceptive drugs the Japanese fed them, left many women sterile and thus ineligible for marriage by Korean traditions.

When the Korean women speak about their lives since forced sex slavery, they use the word han. Han can be translated as “a profound psychological suffering.” It has the sense of a prolonged, oppressive hurting, a chronic wound that will not heal and that the victim feels every waking moment. English speakers might call it a festering wound on the soul.

Now 76, Kim Yun Shim was kidnapped by the Japanese at age 14. “I have lived my whole life trembling because of this suffering,” she wrote in her letter to President Kim. “Even now that my hair has turned white, when I remember my past, my whole body shakes, my skin blushes red and my nerves are on fire.”

As women with no families, they suffered 50 years of isolation and poverty. As more told their stories publicly, Buddhist monks opened a hostel for the women where now about a dozen live. They depended on support from the coalition, Never Again, until this year when newly-elected President Kim granted them government pensions.

The women demand two things: an official apology and monetary compensation, and that these come from the Japanese government. Japanese individuals and groups have offered apologies and aid for the women, but these offers are always rejected.

“I cannot die this way without an apology from the Japanese government,” said Kim Yun Shim.

“To release the han, the [Japanese] government must act,” explained Yoon. “We don’t want the money,” she said. “We want the apology so that the world will know this history.”

Yee Yun Su, another comfort woman, was angry when she spoke; she was livid when she pointed out that to this day Japanese government officials deny the facts. She referred to a Japanese cabinet minister who said in July that comfort women were volunteers.

“They do not have a sense of guilt,” Yee Yun Su said.

In the open letter to President Kim, she said she wants to go to Japan with him. “I will go with you to stop [literal translation: ‘to stuff the mouths of’] those people who would deny what really happened,” she said.

It could be getting harder for Japan to deny these grandmothers their demands. On Aug. 21, a United Nations human rights watchdog endorsed the report of a special rapporteur that urged Japan to take legal responsibility for the atrocities committed against comfort women during World War II.

A resolution from the U.N. Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities meeting in Geneva, “welcomed with great interest the final report by the special rapporteur, Gay J. McDougall, on the systematic rape, sexual slavery and slavery-like practices during armed conflict, including internal armed conflicts.”

The subcommission asked the United Nations to organize an expert meeting in 1999 to adopt guidelines for the effective prosecution of international crimes of sexual violence.

Resentment against Japanese colonialism still runs deep in Korea. President Kim is known as a reconciler, and as a dissident in the 1960s and 1970s, he took refuge in Japan. Koreans are anxious to see what he will do in Japan.

Meanwhile, the grandmothers and their supporters will be waiting outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday.

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998