Day 2: 8 Years and More- The Inspiration Still Continues in My Life

13 Feb

Have you ever heard of 10,000-hour Rule? It’s a rule/theory appears in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. He observes extraordinary people in human history such as Bill Gates and claims that for these successful achievers, one of the key elements was putting in approximately 10,000 hours into specific tasks throughout their lives. Well, I’m not here to write about Bill Gates, and I’m not sure if I actually buy his whole “theory,” but I can agree for sure that one has to put in continuous exercise and trials in order to really become knowledgeable and good at what she is doing. And when they are combined with passion, one will definitely become extraordinary without a doubt.

Today, I will talk about women who have inspired me, perhaps putting in 20,000 hours (or more) into what they have been doing and still loving their work.

I mentioned briefly in my last post (hope you read it, ha!) that my feminism was started by participating in an advocacy organization’s activities. I want to talk about The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery during WWII by Japan (phew, mouthful, so I will refer it as the Korean Council from here on). It is not just an organization, but a group of people which have influenced my life so much over the past 8 years of my life. But before I get to anywhere, let me talk about the issue of military sexual slavery which has been popularly as “Comfort Women” system. For your information, I could not quote anything from academic sources, because it is coming out of my own knowledge accumulated so far.

For most of East and Southeast Asians, the histories of colonial period are still rather painful to talk about. Korea, my native country, was not an exception. Being geographically right next to Japan, it was one of the first countries to be colonized in the early 20th century as the land provided the road to the whole continent and had resources that could be exploited. During Japan’s march to create an Asian Empire through colonization, numerous lives were sacrificed through battles and exploitation, and starting in 1930s, the Japanese government created a system called “Comfort Women” system to draft women of colonies (although initially it started with poor Japanese women on voluntary basis) for rape camps under the military. The reasons were to 1. prevent local rape incidents in the colonies (which had negative impacts for the colonial rules while the locals had growing ill feelings against the colonizers, especially after the Nanking Massacre) and 2. provide sexual outlet for the soldiers right inside the military barracks. Yes, it was OK to exploit certain women, especially if they were from colonies, and especially if they were poor and desperate to work.

Many women in Korea were lied that they would be working in a military factory, earning money for the family. Some were kidnapped on the street. Others were drafted instead of the men of the family since the “citizens” of Imperial Japan were supposed to contribute something to the war. Scholars estimate that 100,000-200,000 women of colonies (Korea, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc.), and over 80% of the women were Korean, although it is not possible to know the exact number as all the “Comfort Women” related documents were deliberately destroyed around the time that the war was over. Korean women were often taken as far as Singapore and Indonesia, not knowing how their fate would unfold. Based on the survivor testimonies, each woman whose age ranged between 12 and 24 had to “receive” 10 to 50 soldiers a day, without getting any day off, even during their periods. Their medical check-ups were only for venereal diseases for the health of the soldiers, and if the women were sick, there was no way that they could get proper treatments. When they became pregnant, they were forced to have abortion which often endangered their own lives as well.

After the war, they were not free to come back home, especially when they did not even know where they were at. They were subject to mass killing after the defeat of Japan was clear, and many were also just “thrown away” like trash. Even those who could make it back to Korea after the war was over, they were so afraid of being stigmatized as “prostitutes” who lost their virginity to the dreaded Japanese men, they could not tell their stories to anyone, even to their own family members, during the period where the social norms for women were extremely oppressive. Most were unable to marry because they could not bear children, and they all lived in destitute condition, suffering from physical and psychological trauma from the war period. Since this issue came out in the late 1980s by a courageous female researcher who was almost drafted in the 1930s, Japanese government has denied its legal responsibility of apology and reparations while denying that such horror ever happened sometimes and partially acknowledging yet denying its current responsibilities.

So this is the “brief” history of the issue that I have been passionate about. I have left out many details, but hope that this gives you an overview. Lots of this knowledge came from my senior thesis during Uni years, but it’s an accumulation of experiences with so many women and men of extraordinary courage and passion.

The summer of 2004 was the first time that I contacted the organization. I was extremely shy about calling the Korean Council without knowing any insider, but I just felt that I must do it. I never regretted making that blind leap that really changed my life. The office was housed in a small office space in Seoul, and the relationships I got to form from the beginning were incredible. I helped out with anything from making copies to translating documents between English and Korean. I attended the Wednesday Demonstration where I got to meet the courageous survivors who were in their 70s and 80s mostly (and now 80s and 90s) and leading weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul since January 1992.  December 2011 saw the 1000th mark of the painful weekly event. The first several times, I ended up shedding tears, witnessing the clear injustice still happening several decades after the war, while the survivors have suffered so much.

But the more I attended the protests and got to know the individuals who were parts of this movement, I learned that the survivors were more than victims and the activists were more than supporters of the survivors. What they immediately demand has always been the serious legal and diplomatic commitment from Japan. However, what they, both the survivors and activists, pursue in this movement is global peace without violence against women around the world.  The survivors have actually become human rights activists themselves. They were not just “fighters” and “protesters” but have been forming a sense of sisterhood in order to improve women’s human rights globally and perhaps upset the patriarchal orders that perpetually have made the same mistakes of violating powerless women on daily basis.

Coming in and out of the office, I got to meet some incredible supporters as well. There are activists who have committed their own time and resources in order to hold fundraising and conferences on the issue and made academic commitments by choosing this issue and activism as their main research topic. I have encountered scholars and activists from Korea, Japan, the US, and many other countries. The beauty of activism is perhaps this human connection that one is making with others for the same cause. I’m an introvert myself (and some of you may think, “really?” but I am!!!), but within the space that is created through the connection, I always feel so connected with the people and with the movement. Perhaps it was a natural course for me to pursue feminism and be interested in many women’s human rights related issues.

Considering this big picture, the issue is not simply just an issue of patriotism (which is the discourse often mistakenly taken by many nationalists) or issue regarding women. To me, it has always been about making my identity as a woman, a feminist, a Korean, a cultural hybrid, a scholar and an individual who would like eventually contribute to the social wellbeing whatever it might be.

On this Friday, I will be volunteering to be an interpreter for Ms. Gay McDougall while she will be visiting the Korean Council and the shelter for some survivors (more information found here about her). She is a Professor at Georgetown Law and an Independent UN Human Rights expert who has been deeply involved with minority rights during armed conflict around the world. I remember doing translation work and reading her UN reports several years ago as she also focused on the “Comfort Women” issue. Although my role is merely being an interpreter, I hope that I can be a decent bridge of language between the two languages that I love and the topic that I’m passionate about. Most of all, I’m so thrilled meet a rock star in this field.

I have been involved in the cause (if I may say this) for about 8 years. I can’t say that it is the same level of commitment as the survivors or the professionals who work at the Korean Council, but I can feel that I have become someone who is very aware of the issue. And who would have thought I can be committed for almost a decade and still feel passionate about this? I hope that my commitment would continue for the next several decades as well.

I might be far away from my 10,000 hours, but hey, I know that I will get there one day.

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