In a small compound in the hills outside a small city near Seoul, seven elderly women live together. The youngest of these women is well into her 80′s while the oldest resident is approaching 91. In most ways this house is like any other seniors residence, complete with cooks, caretakers, and visiting grandchildren, but it differs in one major way. These seven women are not united by age, nationality or illness; they are all former sexual slaves of the Japanese Imperial military.
In 1910 Japan formally occupied the Korean peninsula, dissolving existing political structures and beginning a period of colonial rule which lasted for 35 years. During the war years (1939-1945) over five million Koreans were used as forced labourers to replace the Japanese conscripted into combat. Of this number, approximately 200 000 women were military sex slaves. Dubbed “comfort women”, they were deemed necessary to prevent soldiers from raping the local populations of occupied countries. Often still teenagers, these women were taken from their homes and scattered throughout Asia to “service” as many as 60 men per day. Many were not able to return to their home country for decades, and only a third of the total number is estimated to have survived the ordeal.
Of those that survived and returned to Korea, many were shamed into silence by a patriarchal and conservative society. It wasn’t until 1991 when Kim Hak-soon, a former “comfort woman”, publicly spoke out about the issue. She was the first such woman to talk openly about her experiences using her real name, and from her activism a modern movement was born.
The House of Sharing, established in 1995, is now home to seven women, who are no longer called “comfort women”, but are referred to respectfully as Halmoni – the Korean word for grandmother. A modest but comfortable place, it aims to provide a measure of security for these women in their final years.
This was my first visit to the house, but not the last. I am currently in conversation with the volunteer staff and project leaders about how to best document this stage in these women’s incredible lives without intruding too much on their privacy. While this project won’t be finished for some time yet, it is easy for anyone who is interested to get involved in the meantime. The Korean Council has information about attending the weekly protests in Seoul, and through the House of Sharing it is possible to visit the Halmoni on selected days every month or so.Note: The title “comfort women” was the imperial Japanese nomenclature for these military sexual slaves. Since these women did not find their experience anything resembling comfortable, the term is used in quotation marks throughout.