Outside the Japanese Embassy, in Jungbuhakdong-gil, Seoul South Korea, there is a protest held every Wednesday at noon by the last living “Comfort Women” and their supporters. Who are the ‘Comfort Women”? Comfort Women are defined as women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army for the years leading up to and including World War II. The term "Comfort Woman" is a translation of the Japanese euphemism “inafu” which means “prostitute”.
But, in fact, who are the “Comfort Women”? Forget the definition, forget the term. Comfort women are courageous women with names like Yong Soo Lee, age 87, Kim Soon-ok, 90, Kim Bok-dong, 88, and 200,000 others. All who suffered. All with families. All of whom have a beautiful face to the unfamiliar name.
Inafu. Prostitute. Comfort Woman. The term “Comfort Woman” is disturbing, though, isn’t it? From whose perspective are these women ‘comforting’? Yes, the language is from the perspective of the man. It implies the women provided comfort to the soldiers at a time of war and pain when in fact the pain was theirs to bear. ‘Comfort’ implies they gave a gentle caress and a nurturing embrace when in fact they received violence and were repeatedly raped. It implies a sense of leisure when in fact it was hardship and labour, beatings and abuse. The term implies something of fairy tales and motherly love when in fact it was nightmares and hatred. Again, from whose perspective are these women a “comfort”?
It is time to shift the perspective, change the language and refer to the women with the dignity they deserve. But, there is no word. There are times when language is not enough. Can one solitary word be sufficient enough to describe these women who went through such unspeakable suffering? Can one word sum it up? Could we call them “kidnapped women”, “raped women”, “beaten women”, “abused women”, “victimized women”? –None of these would do any further justice than the term ‘comfort women’. But such were the horrible acts that were committed against them. Yet, to give them any of these labels or the label of “comfort women” is no justice at all.
In 2011, the “comfort women” and their supporters held their 1000th rally marking nearly 20 years since the protest started in 1992. The protest is now in its 23rd year.
Unfortunately, the protests fall upon deaf ears as the Japanese Government still has yet to apologize for the heinous war crimes committed against each and every one of these abused women, refusing to acknowledge that ‘comfort women’ was a state-sanctioned, state-organized form of militarized sex slavery, carefully orchestrated by the Japanese Imperial Army.
As of 2011, there were only 63 Korean “comfort women” still alive today, still waiting for an apology, still waiting for justice.
By the way, it may interest you to know that in Korea, “comfort women” are not called “comfort women”. They are called “halmoni”. In English, that affectionately means “grandmother”. They are not only the nation’s grandmothers, but at one time, they were someone’s sister, daughter, wife, aunt, cousin, mother. So, indeed, we can do better in what we ‘label’ them.
I asked earlier if one word could be enough? In fact, only one word would do: the word would be “Sorry”.
On Wednesdays, to get there, take the underground rail, line 3 to Anguk. Exit 6.
Meet Min-joo in The Homes We Build On Ashes (Fall 2015)
- Christina Park