1. The rooms of the surviving “Comfort Women” Part 1 - Lee Ok-sun’s room
2. The rooms of the surviving “Comfort Women” Part 2 - Songnisan Lee Ok-sun’s room
3. The rooms of the surviving “Comfort Women” Part 3 - Park Ok-sun’s room
Liberation, the beginning of another damage
On August 15, 1945, the surrender speech of “Hirohito,” the emperor of Japan, was broadcast over the radio announcing Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. On the following day, August 16, as independence fighters against Japan who were released from the Seodaemun Penitentiary and citizens who welcomed them started parading along Jongno Street, the delight and exhilaration of liberation spread throughout the nation. The streets were filled with countless people bursting into huge “cheers,” and the Provisional Government staff members hurried up to return home. However, such joy of liberation was not delivered to Japanese military “Comfort Women” victims taken to various places of Asia by the Japanese Imperial.
After the Potsdam Declaration was issued in July 1945, the Japanese military forces were preparing for retreating to their homeland. However, they paid absolutely no attention to “Comfort Women” victims. The Japanese troops didn’t even inform the victims of liberation and left for home by themselves. As a result, the victims neglected in a foreign country had to prepare for the future with their own strength. There were not many options left for them. Some of them returned home on foot or by train on their own, while others were able to board the return ship with help of the allied forces. In some cases, the victims taken to regions relatively far away from Korea, including Taiwan and the Philippines, gave up homecoming or flocked to the jurisdiction of China as a way of returning home.
The situation in China was no different: after liberation, a considerable number of victims remained there; they just gave up on their return or couldn’t find a way to return home. We don’t know exactly the reason why the victims couldn’t help but refuse to return home, but Lee Ok-sun (Busan) once said, “How on earth do I meet my parents and siblings with the stigma of a former “Comfort Women” attached?” As the number of victims who couldn’t return home and gave up on returning began to increase in China, the Chinese government pushed ahead with compulsory repatriation of victims, citing as the grounds for forcible repatriation: “shaman,” “courtesan,” or “disorderly conduct.” Those who sought to avoid deportation had to acquire a residence certificate by getting married to a local man.
Kang Il-chul was also one of the victims who couldn’t come back to Korea but settled in China after liberation. She was born in Sangju, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province in 1928, the youngest of twelve siblings. Her parents made a living by farming a lot of land, rice paddies, and fields, free from livelihood concerns. That’s why, unlike other grandmothers, she was able to attend school from an early age. However, there were more days at home without going to school as rumors had it that the Japanese conscripted young women. One day, her ex-brother-in-law, who was the head of her village, put the finger on her because he had a grudge against her sister’s remarriage to another man after divorce. Because of this, she was taken to a Japanese Military “Comfort Station” in Heilongjiang Province, China in 1944, when she was 17.
Not long after being taken to the comfort station, she ended up catching typhoid, not eating, and barely drinking water. The Japanese soldiers who were afraid of the transmission of typhoid dragged her to the mountain and attempted to burn her to death. Fortunately, she was able to survive on the verge of death with the help of a man who was a Korean serving as a Japanese soldier at the time. After she managed to escape death, she met an ethnic Korean-Chinese, married him, and settled in Jilin Province shortly after liberation. However, as her husband passed away in the Korean War and her mother-in-law treated her harshly, she left her in-law’s home. After that, she enlisted in the Chinese military as a nurse. Discharged from active service, she worked at a hospital in Jilin City as a nurse for 30 years.
In 1991, after the issue of Japanese military “Comfort Women” became public, civil rights groups in Korea set out to search for overseas victims. Around this time, a civic organization issued newspaper advertising for looking for the Japanese military “Comfort Women” victims. Kang Il-chul saw it and contacted the organization of her own accord. In that way, she was able to return to Korea 56 years after leaving her hometown. In March 2000, she was admitted to the <House of Sharing> after staying at a relative’s home for a while.
Kang Il-chul is tenacious, warm-hearted, and always full of confidence. She is suffering from dementia but is always interested in historical issues and the affairs of the <House of Sharing>. In 2016, a movie titled “Spirits’ Homecoming” inspired by her painting titled “Burning Virgins” was produced. The success of this movie has made her famous, but she is unaware that she has become well-known due to dementia. During the conversation with her about the movie, I explain the main character of the film is based on her. Though she forgets it pretty quickly, she really loves talking about the story. Also, She might seem to be gripped by the thought that when she meets strangers, she has to testify. Maybe that’s why she repeats the same words to strangers all the time, “We should know our history exactly!”, “It is the Japanese who turned our country into a sea of fire!”, “The tragedy must never happen again!”
In addition, Kang Il-chul is jealous of other “Comfort Women” victims. When seeing staff or other visitors keeping company or having a conversation with them, she flies into a temper. Once I extended a greeting to Lee Ok-sun first at lunchtime, not knowing she was around there, and then had to listen to all the swear words she knew until lunchtime was over. The “Comfort Women” survivors, who have been residing in the <House of Sharing> for a long time, don’t react to any provocation from her. It looks as if they have developed a tolerance for her. At first, such a scene was bizarre and bewildering.
However, Songnisan Lee Ok-sun, who recently was admitted to the <House of Sharing>, had big fights with her several times, unable to withstand her overbearing manner toward newcomers. After the quarrel, Kang Il-chul kept expressing discontent toward Songnisan Lee Ok-sun, but one day, she gave unexpected praise to Kang Il-chul. “Kang Il-chul is tall and beautiful. How wonderful it is for her to have children. I envy her.” Listening to her words, Kang Il-chul changed her facial expression and said with a smile, “Oh my! Sis, Thank you,” as if they didn’t have fights, which made the staff around them laugh aloud clapping their hands. Since then, staff members have given Kang Il-chul whispers when the two bicker, “Grandmother, Songnisan Lee Ok-sun says you are tall and attractive.”
The “Comfort Women” survivors living in the <House of Sharing> are not on friendly terms with each other. Rather, they tend to be apathetic about or quarrel with each other. Even there are some “Comfort Women” survivors under stress resulting from discord like Kang Il-chul or Songnisan Lee Ok-sun. It sometimes makes me wonder why they have to live together under stress while at odds with each other.
Kang Il-chul’s room
Kang Il-chul rarely stays in her room except when she sleeps, unlike others. In most cases, she’s in the living room watching TV and talking with members of the staff. Accordingly, her sphere of activity is primarily the living room of the <House of Sharing>, which is why household articles showing her characteristics are rarely seen in her room.
Her room nestles at the very end of the corridor of the <House of Sharing>. I didn’t know why she used the room at the end of the hall when there were a lot of other rooms, but I recently was informed that the late Kim Gun-ja, the late Bae Chun-hui, and Kang Il-chul called dibs on the room for the first time when the current living hall was constructed in 2009. It is said that the reason Kang Il-chul chose the room in the innermost section was that it was a little more spacious than the others. Actually, her room is slightly more sizable than that of others.
Kang Il-chul’s room has a rectangular structure, and a stone bed sits below the window on the edge of the room like other rooms. Two wardrobes are situated on the left side of the bed, and the dresser is across from the wardrobes. Next to them are the drawer, TV, a refrigerator, and another wardrobe in a row. When I first saw her room, I felt a little puzzled that three wardrobes of all different colors and shapes were placed in one room. At that time, never did it cross my mind to look up the reason, but one day, Lee Ok-sun told me, “Kang Il-chul stops people from hanging the photos of the former ‘Comfort Women’, saying they are scary! But then, she put all the stuff of the late ‘Comfort Women’ in her room.” Only then did I learn that wardrobes of all sorts belonged to the late “Comfort Women.”
Though Kang Il-chul frowns upon and begrudges other “Comfort Women” victims, she is tender to staff. Also, she likes people so much that when seeing staff or visitors, she would tap on the side seat, suggesting sitting next to her. Once they sit, she holds them back saying this and that, for fear of leaving her any minute. When she is absent from the living room, I would visit her room. Then she gives me warm greetings as always and continues to talk lest I walk out of the room.
Generally, the content of her story is that her hometown house had a lot of persimmon and jujube trees when she was young, that her parents cherished her since she was the youngest, and that they were rich enough to treat the guests to a meal all the time. At first, I thought she might tell me the story of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” victims, but I’ve never heard of such a story. Instead, she often shows me a scar on the back of her head, saying at times she got the scar from the violence of a Japanese soldier; at other times from a shell; and at other times by falling from a persimmon tree in childhood. Though the record of her testimony indicates the wound was caused by a Japanese soldier, I didn’t seek to rectify the memory.
Though no more Japanese military “Comfort Women” victims to be admitted to the <House of Sharing> remains, in 2019, it enforced extension work to increase its capacity to 20 with the aim to accommodate more “Comfort Women” victims. In the process, the belongings of “Comfort Women” victims were left outside unattended and exposed to monsoon rain. Among them were the items of Kang Il-chul, but fortunately, the damage her possessions sustained was slight compared to those of other “Comfort Women” victims. For that reason, her room recovered quickly, but meanwhile, she totally forgot her room due to dementia.
The Japanese military “Comfort Women” movement and grandmothers
It has been 30 years since the issue of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” became public and 20 years since overseas victims returned home. In the process, the sustained effort from numerous civic organizations, the government, and “Comfort Women” survivors have borne fruits in tackling the issue of the Japanese military “Comfort Women.” As yet the Japanese government does not acknowledge this issue, but the international community shares the perception that the enforcement of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” is tantamount to grave war crimes and infringement of human rights.
Over the past 30 years, “Comfort Women” survivors have done their utmost to raise awareness on the issue of the Japanese military “Comfort Women.” They have notified the fact of damage going around all parts of the world despite their advanced age and have not been averse to legal action. In addition, they have raised their voices toward the Japanese government protesting in front of the Japanese Embassy every Wednesday. Such sacrifice has made it possible for the anti-humanity of the Japanese imperial including the issue of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” to be known to the general public.
The grandmothers have done everything they can for our society, breaking away from the fetters of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” victims. However, we have just stressed the need for their roles that they should perform as the Japanese military “Comfort Women” victims but not paid attention to the rights and roles they deserve as individuals, Park Ok-sun, Lee Ok-sun, and Kang Il-chul, not as victims.
The grandmothers haven’t just led their lives of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” victims. They have lived as someone’s mother, grandmother, friend, and someone’s Park Ok-sun, Lee Ok-sun, and Kang Il-chul, beyond as victim’s life. The reward our society should provide for the Japanese military “Comfort Women” victims who have done their best for the last 30 years is to look at them as individuals, not victims, as members of our society.
They are ordinary people who have suffered unusual pains, just like us.
- The rooms of the surviving “Comfort Women” - Lee Ok-sun’s room
The traces and history of the surviving “Comfort Women” fill all corners of the <House of Sharing> but are most visible inside the rooms of the surviving “Comfort Women”.
- The rooms of the surviving “Comfort Women” – Songnisan Lee Ok-sun's room
Songnisan Grandmother had anticipated that she would live in Songnisan for the rest of her life but ended up coming to the <House of Sharing> in the fall of 2018 after having knee surgery which made it difficult for her to easily move around.
- The rooms of the surviving “Comfort Women” - Park Ok-sun’s room
Upon Park Ok-sun's return to South Korea, she moved back and forth between her younger brother's house and her nephew's house in Seoul, and eventually was admitted to <House of Sharing> in 2002.
- The End of the Tunnel - Interview with Kim Dae-wol, the Head Curator of the House of Sharing
Kim Dae-wol, Head Curator of the House of Sharing
- Writer Kim Dae-wol
He is the Head Curator of the <House of Sharing>. He completed a doctoral course in the Department of Korean History at Kookmin University. He was in charge of the overall planning of <The End of the Tunnel>. While working and studying simultaneously, he gives special lectures on the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” issue by taking advantage of his experience whenever firstname.lastname@example.org