Tag Archives: “Comfort Women”

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.

Day 1: Why I’m a Feminist- and Why You Should Be Supportive

12 Feb

For my glorious Day 1 posting, I thought I should be talking about something that I always wanted to talk about. That is about yours truly, the person that you are friends with (or slightly acquainted with, but that’s OK, this is for people to read my stuff, no?). I will talk about how and why I have become a feminist. After all, I believe that storytelling is a powerful means for better understanding of each other, don’t you?

I was thinking about many glorious topics from different aspects, like pop culture (especially the Korean one as it is such a big deal in Asian part of the world), education, inspiring women in my life, feminist writers and activists, gender-based/sexual violation, marriage, religion, and you name it. Of course I want to talk about them at some point over the next several days. But I think without talking about where I stand, as a person who will be talking about gender issues as a feminist (amongst other roles), the rest of my stories may as well be just not-so-meaningful gibberish. More importantly, I decided that I’m not gonna be afraid to talk about who I am and what I think.

So the beginning was probably when I was in high school. Many people have thought it was quite interesting (or strange) that I spent several years in Birmingham, Alabama, and tend to think that it took significant amount of courage and adventure for a little (I was quite scrawny 11 years ago) Korean girl coming from a completely different culture. It would be a lie if I say that everything was completely fine, and I fit right into the picture, which was completely not true. I was an awkward foreigner whose English wasn’t good enough at the beginning and studied really hard (just like Asians should, right?). But the experience of being a minority, in terms of language, culture, ethnicity/race, how I looked, and other factors, gave me a totally different perspective towards life. The “me” in the South was imposed many new roles, and the growth that I was able to experience was enormous while my identity was framing in a certain way that would not have been possible if I had stayed in my home country. Also, simply the fact that I was living in the city which was the center of Martin Luther King Junior’s activism was inspiring enough.

Did I experience racism? People have asked, but the truth is that, I probably did (because the majority often tends to be ignorant about its own racism/biases/discrimination while sometimes deliberate, unfortunately, and this includes myself), and although I don’t remember most of it in detail, I have painfully learned how to deal with what I faced and fight against injustice. All these experiences accumulated to my interest in gender issues. After all, women are half the world, so we may not be minority numerically, but most women do not necessarily have the power in social, economic, political, domestic and many other spheres as much as the other half, unfortunately. And of course, everyone knows this, and some of you may wanna deny this.

Since high school, I got to be involved in very meaningful feminist activism. I got in touch with an advocacy NGO for military sexual slavery survivors from the WWII period by Japan (I will talk about it in detail in another post). The survivors of the war crime, who were euphemistically called “Comfort Women,” and the activists have left a deep impact in my life, and I’m still proud to be a part of the activism. At the beginning, it was a simple interest in the issue as I am a product of patriotic history education in Korea (a lot of it was due to many unresolved issues historically and diplomatically with Japan), but eventually, the survivors and activists who have continued the fight over the past 20+ years, eventually made me realize about the greater power dynamics between those who have power —whether physical power to impose sexual violence, political power to frame systematic rape camps as the military policy of a country imposing colonialism against many countries, or any power that imposes patriarchy as the justification for male superiority over others— and those who do not.

At first, I was mad and angry at this inherent injustice that has run for thousands of years in the name of patriarchy. Then I realized that it’s not simply an emotional upset, but an awakening. I dare to say that it was a “calling” for me that I should pursue the cause of feminism throughout my life. I’m not someone who believes in fate per se, but I believe that everyone has her own call in a life. Following this call, I got to pursue feminism over the past decade. I learned from and became friends with many feminist women and men during the 4 years in college, and learning in depth was challenging and painful at times because of the “diverse” and confusing nature of it which often does not fit into the current social orders, but it made my entire life only richer while I got to pursue academically as well, whether in my major classes (cultural anthropology), women’s studies or minority women’s feminism study group.

I have witnessed lots of discourses on feminism, and despite the numerous questions and criticism on the lack of unity among different types of feminisms, what matters to me the most is not a single, simple definition of feminism. Feminism in action matters as it has affected the lives of many women and men. I believe that feminism is the reason how I was able to obtain many years of education along with male students at the same institutions (especially my post-secondary education), the reason I can vote, the reason I can dream of many professional possibilities that were only held by men several decades ago.

But because the reach of feminism is not enough, many women in many parts of the world still do not get proper nutrition and education, have to risk their lives on their way to school (because women are simply not allowed to get smarter, according some people), die giving birth to children without proper medical treatments, are victimized by gender-based violence (including spousal rape which is not considered illegal in many countries), are told how to dress (and not to dress) by patriarchal rules (whether they be national laws or religious rules) instead of choosing their own ways, and work at young age for their families, especially for their brothers’ education while they are not getting any. And women who were victimized by systematic rape by a colonial military law are still not able to obtain proper justice (official apologies and formal reparations), because women were simple tools of the war, disposable ones, and the similar violence is still happening in many wars that are currently happening today.

Because the reach of feminism is totally lacking, I firmly believe that feminism is not “getting old” but must still go on.

I’m not forcing you to join the bandwagon, although I would be thrilled if do (For example, I don’t claim myself to be an environmentalist, although I am all for the cause and try to exercise environmentally friendly practices, part of it largely because of the lack of my knowledge in it). All I’m saying is that it is a cause to give my life for, and dear friends, if you are truly my friends, understanding an important piece of me would be very meaningful for our friendship, wouldn’t it?

Lastly, let me leave you with a Ted Talk by Isabelle Allende. Think her talk is somehow in the same line, in a more humorous, way more brilliant way. Passion matters, and I hope to remind myself of it everyday.