After Japanese Prime Minister Shinto Abe’s apologies to 46 surviving former Korean comfort women (a poetic name for sex-slaves used by the Japanese military during World War II) was aired in December, many people asked me how I felt about it, knowing that my first book, “A Gift of the Emperor” (published in 1997), is the story of a 17-year-old Korean school girl whose life shattered after she and her classmates innocently volunteered to help the emperor’s efforts to unite all Asian countries under Japan by joining the “Women’s Brigade.”
There is no simple answer to such a compelling and complicated issue as Japan’s occupation of Korea (November 1905 to August 1945), during which time they forced Korean men to fight for Japan and women to serve soldiers in military brothels all over Asia — among other atrocities — and why it took so long for Japan to admit and apologize to the victims, particularly to the comfort women.
For nearly seven decades, Japan declined to admit its wrongdoing and hoped that its shameful past would fade away from Korean people’s memories. But it did not. When the comfort women voiced their anger repeatedly and persistently, demanding Japan to apologize for its long-dead soldiers’ barbarism against them, Japan counterattacked, calling them “wartime prostitutes” and saying that their services had been paid already.
That’s partly true. In 1965, the South Korean government received $800 million from Japan as reparations for its long occupation and damages caused by its occupation forces to Korean people and the land. Satisfied, the Korean government, then under militant leader Park Chung-hee agreed with Japan that no further claims against Japanese government would be made by any South Korean citizen. In reality, only a small portion of the money went to families whose members were killed or whose property was destroyed by the occupation forces. None of the thousands of South Koreans conscripts or forced laborers, including the former comfort women, received compensation.
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The majority of the $800 million was spent for the government’s New Country Building Movement — a five-year project during which time South Korea made a major facelift and housecleaning: corrupt politicians and government employees were booted out. Straw-thatched roofs in the countryside were replaced with asphalt shingle-roofs. Miles and miles of dirt roads were converted to paved roads and freeways were built. Illiterate farmers, islanders and common laborers were taught to read and write as well as to be self-reliant.
Thus, the South Korean government is partly responsible for the comfort women’s issue that had lingered this long.
To set the record straight, late University of Kansas history professor Grant Goodman played a pivotal role in whistle blowing about “Houses of Relaxation,” which Japan had owned and operated all over Asia.
As a young second lieutenant, Grant had been stationed in Manila, Philippines, between 1944-1945 and worked in the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section in General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters. One day, Goodman came across a document about the “Houses of Relaxation” with such details as house rules, hygienic measures used to control sexual diseases, and how much a soldier paid to “relax” with a comfort woman for how long; that 1,183 ianfu (comfort women) served at 20 different military brothels in Manila, and each “employee” was allowed one day off from their sexual labors in a month.
The document was such an eye-opener to the young American working in Asia at the time that Goodman kept a copy for himself.
Almost a half century later, in the early 1990s, Goodman, then retired from teaching but still living in Lawrence, read an article about Houses of Relaxation written by a Japanese professor in Tokyo. He looked for the document he had brought from Manila and sent it to the Kyoto News Agency’s Washington bureau. Shortly afterward, in February 1992, a Japanese reporter from the agency wrote his own article about “Houses of Relaxation” using the information Goodman had sent, and the story was published on the front page of every Japanese newspaper and broadcast through televisions.
A year later, in the summer of 1993, Goodman presented a documentary film of the Pacific War in Independence and I first learned of this compelling truth. Though I had lived in Korea until I finished college, I didn’t know such cruelty had been inflicted on my countrywomen, women of my mother’s generation. Our teachers didn’t talk about it nor did our parents, probably because they didn’t want to talk about “marked women.”
While I was in Los Angeles in 1998 as the presenter of my book at the LA Book Fair, I was contacted by a Korean Christian radio station for an interview. My interviewer was a young Korean woman who didn’t understand a word of English and strictly spoke Korean to me. After a few introductory questions — she asked why I wrote the book. As I answered, she interrupted me. “My question is, why did you write about these whores who served Japanese, when you could have written about a better subject about our country?”
I was speechless. How could a woman of my homeland use such vocabulary for those who had been forced into unimaginable slavery to Japanese soldiers? It was obvious that she knew nothing about Korea’s modern history and her words could be the reflection of the general Korean public’s attitudes about the comfort women.
I told her to learn some Korean history and left.
In this short span of life, no one needs to do dirty laundry for his grandfather’s generation. For the sake of the remaining 46 comfort women, I say, it’s time to forgive but we shouldn’t forget.
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.