I can say I have many memories from Korea, many fantastic memories. It has been an amazing year so far. Unfortunately not many of those memories revolve around "cultural" activities. Arriving here 11months ago I had the very best of intentions. I was going to go on Temple stays, go hiking in the famous mountains, learn korean cookery etc. but none of those plans materialized and I am sorry to say that now I just don't have the time left to do them. One item on my "cultural" list was to visit the 'House of Sharing' and I managed to finally go about 3 weeks ago.
Dee, Helena and I had all signed up to go on Saturday the 12th of November. Unfortunately that was the morning after our Irish dinner and it wouldn't have been a real "Irish dinner" without some alcoholic beverages so the girls didn't feel very much like getting out of bed the next morning and therefore I made the trip myself. I'll admit I was hesitant when I got the note slid under my door saying not to wake them as to whether I should go or just crawl back into my warm bed too but I decided to give it a chance and I am glad.I had heard things about the House before my visit but nothing could have prepared me.
The House of Sharing is a home and museum for survivors of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945). From 1932 until the end of WWII, the Japanese military forcefully conscripted - by means of kidnapping, deception and colonial authority - an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 women and girls from all over Asia, mostly from Korea, to serve as sexual slaves in their brothel system. Many of these girls and young women died and were murdered and massacred. Of those that survived they were abandoned in countries far from there homes with no means of income after the war. Few ever returned home.
After decades of silence, the issue was brought to the public in 1992 and since then a number of "comfort women" have come forward. These women's lives were devastated by what happened to them yet with great strength they spoke out. Every Wednesday since January 1992, survivors have gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to protest the Japanese government's denial of its role in military sexual slavery and its refusal to meet the demands of the victims. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary the Japanese government continues to refuse to accept its role. However, due to deteriorating health the "Halmoni" are being forced to discontinue their protests with their 1000th and final protest being held on December 14th of this year.
On arrival at the house we were given a brief talk and shown a video of one of the women who had first fought for the cause.The women living in the house are known internationally as the "comfort women" but more affectionately known by the volunteers at the house as the "Halmoni", Korean for grandmother.
After the video we were shown through the museum where we were told shocking facts and listened to disturbing testimonies. One of the testimonies read to us was of one of the 8 women who currently live in the home. In her 80's now she was 13 when she was abducted by Japanese soldiers while fetching water for her parents in her local village. From Korea she was taken to China to a "comfort station". These "comfort stations" were dotted all throughout Japanese territories in Asia as it was believed that the soldiers fought better if the had their sexual desires filled. On arriving the other women asked her age and finding out how young she was one woman objected to the guards. To show their authority the soldiers rolled that woman over a bed of nails until pieces of her flesh began embedding onto the spikes and tearing off and then beat her before finally beheading her in front of all of the other women.
Another testimony read to us was about a woman who became pregnant due to one of the many rapes. She was of no use to them pregnant so to deal with her pregnancy the soldiers put a red hot poker into her vagina. The women also spoke of having to eat while being raped at times as the had no time in between one soldier and the next. The Japanese military often inflicted torture on the women if they tried to refuse, such as by putting blades into their flesh and twisting them so the wound would not heal for longer. It was hard not to feel disgusted and heartbroken by the accounts and many people, myself included, were holding back tears.
Following the museum tour we were given a chance to ask any questions we still had before we got to meet the Halmoni (the women who were abused). The language barrier would have caused difficulties but volunteers translated for us and the meeting was amazing. Obviously the events were very traumatic for them so for the most part we just talked in general and one of the old women who loved singing asked us as a group to sing for her but occasionally they would mention something about their experiences. One of the women showed us the scars left all over her body from the torture she received. Another told us how the rapes and chemical abortions she was given had made her infertile (this happened to a great many of the survivors). Eight women currently reside at the 'House of Sharing', the youngest in their 80's. As we left and I was saying goodbye to the woman one of them held my hand for a minute as others past by making it seem even more shocking how these women who should have been somebodies grandmother's had their futures taken.
The halmoni are very happy at the "House of Sharing" which is completely funded by public donations and say that they are treated better their than most state nursing homes. The have a wonderful art gallery of paintings by the women as part of a therapy. They halomoni told us how much they enjoyed meeting the tour groups that came and were grateful that their stories were not being forgotten.
. Talking to the women that day and hearing the sadness in their voices of not being able to continue their protests and the fear that their sufferings will never be truly acknowledged was an extremely emotional experience and one which I will not forget easily but also an experience which I would recommend to anyone. You can find more information on online testimonies at www.houseofsharing.org