Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Every Wednesday at Noon ...

... in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, a handful of hal-muh-ni (grandmothers) gather to speak truth to power.

On this day, it was only five. I am told there are only a dozen or so remaining to begin with, but today it was cold, the wind had picked up, so some of them had to stay home. The ones who came stayed in the vans until it was nearly time to begin.

Stooped, wrinkled, drained by years of hard life--what elderly person is not?--but with these women, there is something more: these are the Korean "comfort women," at least those able and willing to come forward.

Close up of comfort women at protest
Some sixty-five years ago or more they were taken from their homes into bondage, sometimes forcibly, sometimes on the promise of factory jobs in China, and pressed into sexual slavery by the official Japanese military. As young as early teenagers, these women were raped multiple times every day, often for years, at so-called "comfort stations" in Japan, China, Burma, Cambodia, the Philippines--wherever there were Japanese soldiers in World War II. If they became pregnant or diseased, murder was a common fate.

These are the facts. Yet to this day, the Japanese government has refused to admit them, and properly apologize--just as it has for so long taught schoolchildren that America attacked first, and that the Nanking Massacre was a "controversial incident." When you write the textbooks, you get to decide what the facts are.

Yet, these women are the facts. A few minutes before noon they don yellow vests and take their places on plastic stools directly across from the gates to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul--and across from twenty Korean riot police, with their shields and paddywagons, there to protect the wrought-iron gate from a handful of eighty-year-old ladies.

Riot police protecting Japanese Embassy from grandmother attacks
While I suppose this makes the Seoul government feel that it's doing its international duty or something, the disproportionate response is but an added humiliation--and even a slap in the face--that should be dispensed with. Didn't these old ladies see quite enough of men in uniform in the 1940s?

Maybe that's part of their point. They come here every Wednesday at noon, these halmoni and their supporters, and it forces both governments to acknowledge them. The Japanese have constructed around their embassy a fortress, just look at the high fence and imposing metal gate--the only indication of its purpose and nationality is a sad little flag on the roof. The only thing more ridiculous is the Japanese history of denying, excusing and minimizing their behavior.

The protest proper begins exactly at noon--it is rather scripted. The video above is a ten-second capture of a song which roughly translates as "Stand Like a Rock" which is sung at every protest. Organizers, particularly the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, hand out sheets with lyrics and texts so participants can follow along. It helps if you know Korean. They also sing a song to the tune of Abba's "Dancing Queen." Hmmm.

A very nice young Korean woman who speaks excellent English named Hannah gave me contact information and a copy of the latest newsletter. Please do visit I also met a young lady named Krystal--her English was impeccable, but that's probably because she's from Minnesota, an exchange student at Yonsei. Father Korean, her grandmother was a "comfort woman".
leading the rally in singing new lyrics to Dancing Queen Krystal in the crowd
photo of the Wednesday protest Amnesty International East Asian office rep with interpreter
It's a fortress Scene of the crowd, including a few men

On this day, a representative from Amnesty International was present, who announced that the city of Sapporo (in Japan) has adopted a resolution admitting the Japanese military is responsible for this victimization and apologizing for it. What does it mean that the national government can't do the same? Ultimately, that's what these women are looking for. Compensation? Sure, it'd be nice. But recognition, confession and apology, the restoration of the truth to their lives, which have buried in other people's guilt all these years--is it too much to ask?

I say the protest was scripted, but one part of the script involved handing the mic to one of the grandmothers--the one on the end in the purple hat. I am not conversant in Korean, so I hardly recognized a word she said. BUT, I understood exactly what she was saying--insulted, proud, righteous, deeply injured, and searingly angry. Are you listening, Japan?

[UPDATE: June, 2011 photos and blog post, click here: Comfort Women Protest]

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