Midday, Wednesday 2 February 1994.
We gather. An unlikely group, our papery skins nearly transparent, eyes watery, thinning hair held back under homemade hats. Time is wearing us away to dust. We barely have the strength to hold up our placards. Some of us bring folding chairs, hip flasks, blankets, basic barriers against the cold which blights central Seoul in winter.
We meet every Wednesday, no matter the weather, no matter the day. We rally, protest, talk, share and pray every Wednesday. We’ve been doing this for over a year now.
We gather to direct our collective anger at the red brick building across the road from us. Not that a building will listen, or care, or take the time to notice across from them, an ever growing throng of women. We stare at the red-brick building, aware the double glazing is preventing more than the elements from entering. The embassy is a haven for denial. The thickened, bulletproof glass keeps our stares and shouts at bay. The toughened windows keep out our existence.
Will the people inside ever acknowledge us? I don’t know if I have the life left in me to see a resolution to our plight.
Every day is the same. I search the streets for work. What can I do? I am a girl, the last child in a family of boys. Girls cost a family. We are another mouth to feed when food is scarce. My worth is measured in chickens and grains of rice.
I am a girl, the illiterate burden of the poor and disenfranchised, worthless according to my mother. Now the boys and men are gone, rounded up, taken away, gone to who knows where. Will they come back? My mother despairs. There will be nobody for me to marry in the village the way things are going.
‘Find work. Any work,’ she bleats. My brothers worked in the fields before they left. I watched from the kitchen fire as their bodies hardened over time. Then they were gone. We were left alone. No food from the farms. No money. No hope.
My mother reminds me of this every day as she shuffles off to clean the Mayor’s house.
One day, she came home with a man. He was too well dressed to come from our village. I had heard about him from friends.
I was to pack a bag and go with him. Factory work in Japan. I could send money back to my mother.
I could see the folded notes in her bag.
It was not my choice. I was no longer a burden.
We left within the hour.
Midday, Wednesday 14 May 1997.
The woman to my left is here every Wednesday. In the years we’ve been coming here she has never said a word. She has never made a sound.
Her secrets lie in her dormant tongue. She has not articulated a sound in over fifty years. She sits in her fold up chair, staring at the embassy. Her gaze can move a grown man to tears.
A small hand painted sign rests on her lap.
‘Don’t you have sisters? Don’t you have mothers? Don’t you have grandmothers too? What if this happened to them?’
Those in the embassy choose not to answer her questions.
The train carriage was stifling as the group of us sat, trying to be brave. We were now a part of the Japanese War effort. There to serve the men. We were not told where we were going.
We were to arrive before the ammunition, a service more essential to the Japanese Imperial Army than bullets or guns. For the troops needed very little to survive. A bed, a uniform, food, water and a woman.
We were there to stop the atrocities happening away from the battlefield, not that we knew this. We were told nothing.
The train ride, damp, claustrophobic, in the dark and through tropical storms, seemed endless.
We were treated better than the Prisoners of War who were kept like cattle at the back of the train. Slaves for the railway the lot of us.
The train made occasional stops. Everybody off. Food. Water. Piss. Shit. Stretch. Twice a day if we were lucky.
Yelling, screaming. A gunshot, a whip crack, a barrage of slaps signalled the end of the break. We moved more quickly than the POWs. We had a little more food. The dying were left by the tracks for eventual burial. Disposal by bullet was quick and clean, a small mercy for a few. Most were denied this.
The train eventually moved into the jungle. The chug of the engine was in syncopation with the hum of the insects and the drum of the rain.
Nobody spoke to us.
There was no comfort for the comforters.
Midday, Wednesday 1 August 2001.
We know they know we’re here. We see them peeking at us from behind the curtains, before walking back into their diplomatically sterile offices. Their immaculate dark suits and expensive haircuts are their uniform.
Say nothing, acknowledge nothing, apologise for nothing. It’s an unproven history. Nothing documented, nothing proven.
Nothing to see here, they tell themselves as they pass us on their way out the gate.
We are just a mob of attention-seeking whores.
They never look us in the eyes.
Have they not learned? We will not go away. We will not back down. We will stay here, demanding a real apology and compensation. We are worth more than the statement made by Mr Kono in 1993. Our honour and dignity was not just injured. It was destroyed. Do they think that hiding behind locked gates and curtains is facing squarely the historical facts, not evading them? Is this the Japanese Government paying full attention to the matter?
Death will not diminish us. As we gradually become too infirm to attend the protests, or die, another will come in their place. A friend, a family member, an activist will fill her shoes.
Our numbers grow in time.
We will not be forgotten. We will not go away.
‘You cannot make us disappear. Even when we are all gone, piles of dust and ash, we will still be here. You cannot write us out of your history books. Time cannot erase what your forefathers organised and sanctioned.’
‘You cannot make us go away.’
We are known as the grandmothers. Some of us are lucky enough to have actual grandchildren. Many of us were denied the privilege, diseases of the body and mind stripping our bodies of the ability to give life.
This was not factory work.
We were the factory.
The queue for our services, never-ending lines of men, waiting, hands in trousers, laughing, smiling. This was the one consolation of the Japanese Imperial Army with access to women, all the time, any time.
There was a sign in Japanese at the front of our huts, not that we understood what it said. ‘Be courteous. Pay for your services. Do not use violence. Exercise self-control.’
Show self-control? The slapping was easier to take. It was the butt of a pistol meeting your temple that left your vision blurry for days, the endless beatings, being sodomised, starved… This was self-control?
We could not complain. We could not run. Their bayonets made sure we didn’t.
What about our self-control? It took every ounce of strength to not scream all day, every day. Twenty, thirty, forty men in a day – a good day.
Some had it easier. They saw the officers, who had their favourites. The young and the beautiful. These girls received more food, more rest and better conditions. The new girls went to the officers first. Once used, their value decreased and they were sent as the carrion for the troops.
We valued our purity once. Now we think of the cost of its loss.
We prayed for silence. A place where the screams and moans and shelling stopped.
There was never silence.
Midday, Wednesday 3 November 2004.
I look at the woman next to me. We could be sisters. She holds her coat tight, trying to keep her old bones warm. She looks like life is draining from her as the minutes pass by. Where does your body go when you age? Will we be ground away to grains of sand?
Her brown eyes are milky with age. Behind her stare is hatred.
We are members of the faded, jaded protest crowd on yet another Wednesday in the centre of Seoul, outside of the Japanese Embassy. You know not to ask questions. You want to ask about what happened? Where do you come from? Did you go willingly? Were you one of the ‘shameful calling’ before the war? Were you one of the ‘shameful calling’ after?
Shameful or shamed.
Is there any difference?
Some came willingly. We knew this. These women answered advertisements, found out about the jobs. Good money to be made in the clubs. Hostesses, they called them. Prostitution was a way to make a bit of money on the side.
They were the lucky ones. They knew what to expect.
They brought us in to give comfort. It didn’t matter what we looked like. It didn’t matter we hadn’t bathed all day. It didn’t matter if they were the first or the last for the day.
We were there to relieve the soldier’s pains.
If we got too tired, there was no rest. Sometimes they tied us to the bed and our services continued. We didn’t need to talk, just lie down. We didn’t need to be conscious to comfort.
I watched one girl try to make herself unattractive by shaving off her hair. It had the opposite effect. She became a celebrity, a favourite among the men, a circus freak to be viewed and taken for the normal price.
There was no respite for us, there on the front, being of service to the Emperor of Japan. We were reminded of this. We should be proud to be in the service of the Empire, as this was the greatest of all things. We were helping to make Japan a great nation.
The Empire, in turn, was taking away our lives forever.
Midday, Wednesday 18 April 2007.
A curtain twitches across the road.
They don’t see the scars. Now, as the weather warms our clothing lightens.
A faded, white line snakes its way down my arm made by a bayonet. I said no. This was not acceptable. Another girl sewed up my wound with a needle and cotton later that night. I have no idea where she found it. It took months to heal.
You can’t see the real scars.
These are the ones that have tormented all of us for fifty years.
Rubbish bins crash. A car backfiring. Sudden noises. I’m immune to the sounds. My hearing is diminished. It hasn’t been the same since I was hit about the head time and time again.
I’ve seen all I have needed to see in this life. Bodies left rotting in the jungle. Women dying of diseases they have no business contracting. I’ve seen a man shoot out his brains at the whim of the commanding officer. I’ve seen too much in this life, too much hardship and despair. More than I would have seen if I’d stayed with my family, if I hadn’t been coerced into sexual slavery.
The sounds and the sights fade with time. It’s the smells that leave me despairing. The rotting wood of the jungle, the mould permeating every item of clothing you own, the metallic breeze of gunfire, the smell of jungle fires, all scents that take you back to a place you don’t want to be.
The ammonia taint of semen, the smell of dirt and sweat and gangrene. You never forget the sour breaths and acrid sweat that linger for hours. Smells that cannot be scrubbed away. The smell of men, unclean, overworked, angry, entitled.
Anger has its own smell. You never forget it.
After fifty years, most of us have died.
The lucky ones had their minds taken away. If they didn’t go mad, diseases took their brains eventually.
They took away our innocence. They took away our safety, our sense of pride. They took away our babies. Abortions were necessary if you didn’t lose the child early. The unlucky ones had their wombs ripped out.
They took away a generation.
I don’t trust doctors. We were checked by a doctor once a week at the front. He raped us if we were clear.
Scars are seen and unseen.
They taught the administrators about us. The price of a woman. What they paid us, what it cost to transport and feed us. Everything was costed.
Even the bullets they used to dispose of us. What was the cost of hiding their shame? The value of those bullets cannot be counted. Those bullets saved them years of questions, years of tribunals, years of punishment inflicted on the perpetrators for the brutality they inflicted. As they were shooting us, ripping us apart with bayonets, sinking us in submarines and leaving us in the jungle to die, what they did to us was no crime.
Rape was not a war crime back then.
Women were mere collateral damage. We were an unfortunate circumstance of war. Rape was only a problem when there was theft or looting involved. We were less important than property.
Men don’t think of women when they go to war.
We are just another thing to be counted and costed with the guns and bullets.
They know the price, but they do not know the cost.
Midday, Wednesday 14 December 2011.
A young girl who looks like I did sixty years ago sits in a chair staring straight ahead. Immortalised in bronze, she is installed next to an empty bronze chair.
She will sit here in perpetuity to mark our battle.
This is the thousandth Wednesday on which we have met in solidarity to protest.
We will never go away. We will not be silenced.
We will continue to meet every Wednesday at midday outside the Japanese Embassy demanding an apology, demanding compensation, demanding recognition.
We know they will try and ignore us. We know we will be spat at, have stones thrown at us and be called every name under the sun.
We have met here every Wednesday for over twenty years. We are the legacy of a regime that took away everything. Our purity, our honour, our dignity and our lives.
We did not leave the war intact. We left behind too much, our babies, our health, our minds. Too many lost their lives.
They think they can write us out of the history books. Deny our existence. Write us off as opportunistic prostitutes.
To hell with them!
We have lived in hell for over fifty years. You can see war’s effects in our stares, our stooped gait, our frailty and our scarred, papery skin.
We are the grandmothers. Grandmothers do not disappear without a fight.
Don’t they know this? Don’t they have grandmothers?
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Image by: Jake Thacker