The Empty Chair

Since 1995, a group of former Korean comfort women, now halmonis (grandmothers), and their supporters have protested in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul from 12-1PM every Wednesday. In December 2011, they marked their 1000th protest by unveiling of the statue of a young Korean girl, dressed in traditional Korean hanbok, who sits facing the Japanese Embassy with an empty chair beside her.

When I arrived at the 1000th protest, I could see neither the statue nor the halmonis who sat near it. Rather, I was swallowed up in the crowd, reduced to craning my head in an attempt to see over the circle of cameras and microphones that surrounded the statue and women. Ironically, while so many of us were looking intensely at where we thought the halmoni might be, when I looked back towards the Japanese embassy, I noticed the windows were covered with blinds, not a single one raised to look.

7 Demands to the Japanese Government
• Admit the drafting of Japanese military comfort women
• Make an official apology
• Reveal the truth about the crime and reveal all official documents
• Erect memorial tablets for the victims
• Pay restitution to the victims or their families
• Teach the truth in schools so that the same crime is not repeated
• Punish the war criminals

It is difficult to answer the question: why won’t Japan put this issue to rest? Certainly, the erecting of the statue is meant to create a permanent presence, an agitation of memory that will daily confront those entering and exiting the embassy. Such an enduring presence is important given the fact that, of the 234 former comfort women registered with the Korean government, only 63 are still alive. Many suspect the Japanese are simply waiting for these women to die in the hopes that their demands will die with them.

Since the statue’s unveiling in the chilly winter, passersby have bundled up the young girl in blankets, hats, and scarves. Others have left money and gifts at her feet. While such actions may seem silly given that this young girl is made of metal, they signal the way in which supporters of the comfort women wish to keep the fight for justice alive. Given that Korean culture largely failed to address the comfort women issue for so long, such actions also represent the commitment by the Korean people to never forget the way these women were violated and silenced.

Though the Japanese government called the statute “extremely regrettable” and requested that it be removed, the young girl continues to sit across from the embassy. Never growing old, never looking away, she is always waiting for an answer to the halmonis’ demands.

Photo by Alexa Kirsten Stroth for Seoulist

While the story of the comfort women is one that involves individual women’s suffering, it is also the tale of a tug-of-war between two nations. In effect, the Korean comfort women’s violated bodies have become the site of a power struggle, simultaneously serving as symbols of Japanese imperialism or Korean nationalism, with their individual demands often getting lost in the shuffle.

Perhaps, it is useful, then, to strip away the various national ideologies at work and begin with the basic historical facts, confirmed by both Japanese and Korean historians: “Comfort women” is a euphemistic term for the approximately 200,000 women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WWII. Comfort women were stationed in brothels, also euphemistically called “comfort stations,” located throughout Japan, Korea, China, and numerous other South Asian countries.

In order to obtain women to populate such stations, the Japanese military used a variety of methods from kidnapping to trickery (often luring women with the promise of legitimate jobs), while also relying on middlemen to round up local women. Once at the comfort stations, women were subjected to daily rape and torture at the hands of soldiers, doctors, and other officials. Though the women came from numerous countries, the vast majority were from Korea since Korea was, at the time, a long-standing colony of Japan. (For more detailed information about life in comfort stations, please visit the House of Sharing website, which contains testimonies offered by Korean comfort women).

Estimates indicate that three quarters of comfort women died in confinement, either due to injuries or execution, while those who survived to be freed upon the defeat of Japan were encouraged by social stigma to suppress their experiences. Indeed, the comfort women issue was not widely discussed in Korea until the early 1990s, when three Korean comfort women filed suit in a Japanese court citing evidence from military documents provided by a Japanese professor, to argue that the Japanese government owed them not only financial reparations, but a formal, official apology.

Many of us familiar with the comfort woman issue have heard that Japan has never apologized to these women. This is not exactly true. After the first lawsuit, the Japanese government (or, perhaps, more specifically, representatives of it) did and have and continued to apologize in various formal and informal ways.

However, such apologies are tarnished by the fact that they have been carefully worded to side-step admission of the Japanese government’s direct responsibility, thus avoiding criminal liability. Furthermore, these apologies have also been subject to erosion when more conservative leaders have taken control of the Japanese parliament. Thus, a back-and-forth occurs between “official” apologies and deflections or outright denials of the comfort women’s claims.

A similarly nebulous situation exists in regards to the issue of reparations. In response to the halmonis’ demands, the Japanese often note that they have already paid reparations to these women. And again, this is somewhat true.

In 1965, Japan paid Korea a sum of $800 million in grants and soft loans as part of a treaty that normalized Korea-Japan relations. Part of this sum was meant to be used to compensate victims of Japanese colonization; not just comfort women, but also forced laborers and those who had been conscripted into the Japanese army. Yet much of this money was never given to these people. Instead, Korean dictator Park Chung-hee used most of these funds for infrastructure projects to encourage economic development. Only a small amount was ever collected by victims of Japanese colonization with many never receiving any payment whatsoever.

According to the Japanese view, the treaty of 1965 satisfied the need to pay reparations to the comfort women on a state level, leaving payment of individual reparations up to the South Korean government. Nonetheless, in 1995, another fund—the Asian Women’s Fund—was established by the Japanese government as a stop-gap measure to quiet the ongoing request by comfort women for individual reparations. However, this move was deemed inadequate due to the fact that these monies were not supplied by the Japanese government, but by private donation. Again, the Japanese cited the payments made as part of the 1965 treaty to explain that making such individual reparations were no longer the government’s responsibility.

Certainly, the facts above create a division between the two nations wherein Korea is the victimized, innocent party, and Japan the victimizer; and yet, the issue is more complicated than these simple dichotomies might initially suggest. Truthfully, the Korean government has also played a part in ignoring the demands of the comfort women, while still using their stories to ignite nationalistic fervor against Japan.

At times, the Korean government has even actively attempted to suppress its own role in the issue. For example, it was not until 2005 that the full provisions of the 1965 treaty, in which Korea gave up the right to seek further reparations from Japan, was made public. Such reflection on the role played by the Korean government culminated in August 2011, when the Korean Constitutional Court ruled the government violated the “basic rights” of comfort women by remaining inactive on the issue for so many years.

Currently, Korea is seeking to form an arbitration committee, a move which is allowable under the 1965 treaty, to address the issue of reparations for the comfort women. Such a committee would contain members not only from Korea and Japan, but also a third party chosen by the two nations to help facilitate the arbitration. Unfortunately, at this point, the formation of said committee is merely under consideration by Japan. Encouragingly though, Lee Myung-bak seems to have committed himself to agitating for action on this issue, citing it as the main “stumbling block” in Korea-Japan relations.

From an outside perspective, an arbitration committee seems to be the best way to address this contentious issue, allowing both sides to consider their individual responsibilities in the matter while keeping the demands of the comfort women foremost in their sights.

At the 1000th protest, a woman on stage was speaking in Korean; though I could not understand most of what she said, she repeated one phrase I could manage to make out. Over and over again, she said, “Halmoni, we are sorry.” As she lamented what I imagined to be the failure of Korea’s government and people to address the issue of the comfort women for so long, apologizing for the way these women had been silenced, I began to think about the issue of my responsibility. What was I—a white, American woman—doing at this protest?

I had come after a visit to the House of Sharing, a home in Gyeonggi province for former comfort women. While there I had learned more about the history of the comfort women issue in the on-site museum. I had also had the chance to meet two of the halmoni who live at the House. Of course, I supported the comfort women’s claims, but what does it mean to do so from a non-Japanese, non-Korean point-of-view?

Many Western governments (including the U.S. government) have passed resolutions supporting the claims of the comfort women, a move I fully support, but what else could I do besides stand in solidarity outside in the cold?

Certainly, our first response as outsiders to the comfort woman issue is one of pity. Indeed, an editor to whom I pitched this story said she didn’t want just another “pity the women” piece. I agreed: what good is pity? It seems when we feel pity, rather than being moved to act, we’re merely moved to feel bad. I don’t want to stop at pity for the comfort women. When I met them, they didn’t ask me to feel sorry for them. Rather, by their tireless example of protesting Wednesday after Wednesday, they seemed to ask me to take a similar stand against the violation of women—not only the violence wrought via sex trafficking, but also military violence, prostitution, and the general violation that occurs when citizens become pawns in national conflicts.

The issue of the comfort women and the past isn’t one that is only relevant to those who hail from Korea or Japan. It is an issue that can point us to ask hard questions about the way our own countries’ governments fail to address sex trafficking and military violence today.

For instance, what does it mean that the comfort women’s suffering can be held up as a national disgrace while prostitution continues to account for 4.1% of the GDP in South Korea? What does it say about Korean culture that many of the comfort women left comfort stations only to discover they could not find work except in U.S. military base “camptowns?” Furthermore, what does it mean that the militaries of the world still struggle with the issue of sexual assault both among their ranks and against civilians? Finally, what is the implication in the fact that many of the same techniques the Japanese and Korean middlemen used to entrap women in comfort stations are the same as those used by contemporary sex traffickers?

In the best case scenario, one day soon Japan will meet the demands of the comfort women. But even if they don’t, what will be the legacy of these events? Will we have learned anything from these women’s stories? Or will we fail to realize how their experiences so long ago, in places so far away, are being repeated even now in the places we call home?

In a sense, this is why the empty chair of the comfort woman statue is so powerful to me. Its presence invites us to sit in it, to connect ourselves—no matter our nationality or the place we call home—to the comfort women issue. It invites us to consider what it means to share that young Korean girl’s point of view.

Photo by Alexa Kirsten Stroth for Seoulist


Ruth Williams

About Ruth Williams

Ruth Williams is a Ph.D. student in English Literature and Creative Writing, Poetry at the University of Cincinnati where she is also earning a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In 2011-2012 she is at work on a poetry manuscript exploring U.S.-Korea relations as a Fulbright scholar in Seoul, South Korea.

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