01 February 2008

field trip #8: the house of sharing

visit a living memorial that documents japan's sexual exploitation of 200,000 women during world war 2.

over the past 15 years, if you strolled by the japanese embassy in jongro on a wednesday afternoon, no doubt you would have heard the handful of elderly korean women and their supporters protesting with signs demanding formal apologies from the japanese government.

former korean sexual slaves at a press conference in washington, dc last july (photo by ahn young-joon/ap).

these grandmothers in their 70s and 80s are some of the last survivors of an estimated 200,000 girls and women from across asia who were forced into an organized system of sexual slavery perpetrated by the japanese military during the 1930s and 40s. my distant connection to the issue is that my father's wife is related to jan ruff-o'hearn, an outspoken, former dutch-indonesian "comfort woman."

korean "comfort women" who found refuge in lameng, china (1945)

despite irrefutable documentary evidence, as well as testimonies by former sex slaves and the soldiers who raped them, the japanese government denies its role. last march, former japanese prime minister shinzo abe suggested that the women were willing prostitutes. the ensuing furor helped encourage the passage of u.s. house of representatives resolution 121, which asks the japanese government to formally apologize and to teach japanese students about their crimes. the resolution was introduced by rep. mike honda, a japanese american from california.

the museum includes a life-size, recreated "comfort station" cubicle. outside the door are rows of wood blocks with the japanese names given to slaves. if a woman was unavailable due to venereal disease, her block was turned over.

although commonly referred to as "comfort women", in korea, they are known as wianbu (위안부), or just "halmohni," which means grandmother in korean. this intimate and respectful name bestowed on all elderly korean women, is especially important since threats of shame and abandonment compelled most of korea's former sex slaves to keep their torture stories a secret to this day. during the 45 years that followed world war 2 and korea's liberation from the japanese, many of them never married, and many of those who did were sterilized by veneral disease or the japanese-administered mercury injections that severely damaged their reproductive system.

in 1991, kim hak-soon became the first halmohni to publicly testify her experience as a sexual slave. her courageous coming out helped expose the poverty, isolation and post-traumatic stress experienced by many of the halmohnis. in 1992, a home in central seoul was established to help care for a handful of these frequently-ill elderly women. in 1995 the house of sharing, as it's called, was moved outside of seoul to gwangju on land donated by korea's joggye buddhist order. nine halmohni's between the ages of 77 and 86 currently call the place home.

one of many gifts to the halmohnis from japanese and korean school children, which highlight the fragile but growing rapport between the korean and japanese people, despite the fact that the japanese government refuses to atone for its crimes.

18-months ago, the house began monthly english tours, having previously catered to korean and japanese-speaking guests. on an especially cold sunday in december, i met about 40 anglophones at gangbyeon station in southeastern seoul. via bus and taxi, 90 minutes later we arrived at the house of sharing. while seated on warm ondol floors, our guides provided an historical summary of the issue before touring the museum of sexual slavery by the japanese military. the museum, which was built in 1998, includes wartime photographs, a life-size "comfort station" cubicle, art by the halmohnis, and documentary evidence proving the japanese government's role. for me, the most touching part was an alcove full of posters, paper flowers and gifts, most of them from japanese school children. of course, the tour's highlight is the opportunity to hear a "testimony" from one of the halmohnis. but given their advanced age and poor health, it's common for visitors to watch a taped testimony instead.

this is a portrait of the halmohni whose testimony we watched. in this photo, she is sitting in the museum's recreated "comfort station" cubicle.

overall, the experience was moving, but especially during the q+a session, i felt like the american guide was most interested in cultivating a space to criticize japanese and korean misogyny. no doubt a necessary exercise, but the tone and venue made it feel like a version of the "isn't asia backward?!" diatribe i find popular among white expats. it was weird to be among 40-some foreign visitors and guides with no korean perspective, especially since we were in a home for korean women created thanks to funding from the korean government and korean and japanese individuals. righteous minnesota white lesbian guide didn't appreciate me asking if there were any korean guides.

nonetheless, the house of sharing is a powerful experience, and sadly, time is running out for these courageous halmohni. visit and/or donate as soon as you can!

getting there:

(house of sharing) take subway line 2 to gangbyeon station and walk to the bus stop in front of the technomart. take bus #1110-1 to gwangju city hall. from there, take a taxi to nanumae-jip. 5,000 won (students: 3,000). english-language group tours are available one sunday per month. visit the sharing house website to find out when.

(japanese embassy protest) take subway line 3 to anguk station (exit #6), then walk 250 meters west and turn left as you pass the somerset palace building. walk 100 additional meters and the embassy will be on your right. wednesday 12:00.


sokoho Paul back from TH said...

You really have 'a' thought about them.. while still many of Koreans are still not interested or ignorant about the issue...

I'm back from Thailand.
WIll be in town for a couple of weeks and going to Cambodia soon.
Hope you'd still have a little bit of time to go for a tour to the hidden places in Seoul.

my # is 011-739-6281.
Text msg anytime!

matt said...

hi paul.

soko-ho, eh? hmmmm i don't know if you meant it like that. :)

i won't be back in seoul until 2/15 but hope we can meet up. i'd very much like to know what hidden places you know of. and... i wonder what's taking you to cambodia and for how long...

Paul said...

What's wrong with soko-ho? I already know your blog-code-words! :) (if it's the same sokoho you're thinking..)

So you're still in States. cool

I'm planning to go to Cambodia middle or end of this month.. for one full year, I guess.
Reason? I know it might sound stange but I'll be teaching English to the Prep-College Students in Siem Reap.

I would like to share thing if time allows..

have a great holliday and safe back to SoKo!