About an hour’s bus ride north of Seoul in Gwanju, Gyeonggi-do, the House of Sharing is both a home for surviving “comfort women” of Korea and a museum focusing on their lives during WWII and the horrific torturous acts committed against them.
During WWII thousands of young Korean women were tricked or kidnapped into becoming sexual slaves for the Japanese military. They were taken from their homes and brought all over Asia, to China, the Philippians, Manchuria, and South East Asia. They were sent to “comfort stations” and forced to service up to 40 men a day. With little protection from STD’s many of them contracted diseases and were beaten and if they were unlucky enough to get pregnant they were usually killed. They were treated as property by the Japanese military, appearing on military documents in lists of other military necessities like food and artillery. Most became barren because of the torture they were subjected to. After liberation the surviving women were freed, but many of them did not return home. The shame that came from the life they were forced into was too great to try to reunite with their families, even with those who never knew what happened to their daughters. It is estimated that 200,000 Korean women were sexual slaves. But this information was basically unknown by most of the world, including in Korea and Japan because the Japanese military would never admit to having kidnapped thousands of women for the pleasure of their soldiers and none of the women came out to tell the public.
In 1991, that all changed when Kim Hak Soon told her story publicly. Soon more survivors came forward and in 1992 The House of Sharing Establishment Committee was founded. Soon after the first House of Sharing was built in Seoul. The location of the house moved around several times because the people in Seoul did not want the women living in their neighborhood. Eventually the location I visited was built out in the country, and currently 10 survivors live there. They are respectfully called “Halmoni” which means “grandmother” in Korean.
The halmoni have become activists to insure that their story is told and that they receive an apology and reparations from the Japanese government. They have had regular protests since 1992 in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. These women are close to 90, sick and frail and most of them have not missed a single week of protesting for 20 years. Even when Kim Hak Soon was dying of lung cancer, she came to the protests. In her final weeks she was kept in the hospital and several news reporters recorded her asking repeatedly for someone to make sure her passport was renewed so that she could go to Japan and give a speech. It is really awe-inspiring to hear about their activism, that all they want to do until they die is get their story to as many people as possible.
As of today, there has been no official apology from the Japanese government, and none of their requests have been met. Japan did acknowledge that there were women involved at the military camps, but maintains that the women were willing prostitutes and were paid. This is in no way true, and some of the halmoni don’t even want to take reparations if they were ever given because they are afraid that people will think that they actually were prostitutes and had not been forced into sexual slavery.
I was not able to take pictures of the museum, but I did take some of the grounds. We met with the halmoni for about half an hour after our tour and had a roughly translated conversation. Overall, it was a interesting and humbling experience that I would recommend anyone near Seoul to take part in. Just be prepared for some serious feelings when you are down inside the museum hearing the testimonies of these women.
The house where the halmoni live.
One of the art pieces in the courtyard. It is a woman coming out of the earth, representing the colonization of a woman’s body much like the world can also be colonized by men.
The ashes of the halmoni who lived at the home and have since passed away are in the pagodas. Anyone can come and pray or leave flowers or another offering. You can see some of the countryside the house is located in in the background. It was quite peaceful out there.
The main installation in the courtyard. The busts are of the deceased halmoni. The sculpture in the background is called “Unblossomed Flower”. The space was really calming and peaceful, a wonderful place to live after all the terrible things the halmoni have gone through in their lives.
If you are interested finding out more about the House of Sharing, visit their website: http://www.nanum.org/eng/