Words by Ruth Moon Lopez
The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
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There is an old Korean saying that goes, “In ten years time, all the rivers and mountains will have changed, but the Japanese government will only get worse.”
For human rights activist, Kim Hak-Soon (1924-97), Japan’s seemingly inert mountain was one she dedicated her entire life, or rather what was left of it, to moving. Between 1932 and 1945, years leading up to and during the Second World War, an estimated 200,000 women were forced into Japan’s military sexual slavery system, victims who would later be referred to as “comfort women,” though there was nothing comforting about it. Despite these heinous crimes, the issue would be swept under the rug for the next 50 years until Kim broke her silence. On August 14, 1991, she gave the first testimony against Japan’s war crimes.
Between 1932 and 1945, years leading up to and during the Second World War, an estimated 200,000 women were forced into Japan’s military sexual slavery system, victims who would later be referred to as “comfort women,” though there was nothing comforting about it.
“Each woman had to serve an average of three to four soldiers on regular days, and seven to eight soldiers after battles,” she stated during the press conference in 1991.
From childhood, Kim lived an arduous life. To escape from Japan’s colonial rule over a then-unified Korea, her parents fled from Pyongyang to Jilin, China, where she was born. After her father passed away, Kim and her mother went back to Korea, where her mother remarried. When she was 16, her stepfather took Kim back to China to work as a gisaeng, a courtesan trained in music, poetry and dance, but upon their arrival in Beijing, Kim was abducted by Japanese soldiers and transported to a “comfort station.”
After the war ended, many women, left abandoned, continued to live what was left of their lives bearing a heavy weight of shame and stigmatization on their shoulders. The painful and, for many, embarrassing aftermath of the “comfort women” tragedy prevented these women, even initially Kim herself, from coming forward.
“When I was young, I couldn’t come out in public like this because I was so embarrassed. I feel fine now that I’m old but when I was younger, I felt so shameful. Who wouldn’t feel shameful?” she stated.
Kim’s bravery and powerful account gave voice to those who were silenced and put the first face (of what would be many) to a continuously denied moment in history. Following her testimony, 238 former “comfort women” in South Korea came forward and others from the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Burma, East Timor, Indonesia, the Netherlands and Japan followed suit.
A year after her testimony, Kim and other “comfort women,” began to organize protests outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul every Wednesday. “Shame on you!” “Apologize!” they yelled. Some time into this uproar, Tokyo released a beat-around-the-bush statement admitting to their crimes, confessing that the Japanese military were “directly or indirectly involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations” and that “coaxing” and “coercion” were used in the recruitment of comfort women. No apology was made but “civil support funds,” not reparations, were offered instead.
“I will not die before it is finished. I will live until I am 110 or even 120, that’s why I am fighting for my health right now, to [see] and hear their sincere apology.”
Kim continued to fight until her last breath. While battling a lung disease, she stated in her last interview in July 1997, “I will not die before it is finished. I will live until I am 110 or even 120, that’s why I am fighting for my health right now, to [see] and hear their sincere apology.”
Kim passed away five months later, on Dec. 16, 1997. Though she did not live to see her prayer come to fruition, her courage to be the first moved the hearts of many and those inspired by her activism continue to carry her torch onto victory amidst the still on-going battle.
For more information on the “comfort women” issue, please visit here.
Published on August 14, 2022