By Lee Ji-yoon
Frail-looking grandmothers gathered again Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
They were former “comfort women,” who were forced to provide sex to the Japanese army during World War II.
However, there were no chants denouncing the Japanese government, which has yet to issue an official apology to them.
This time a silent tribute for 10 minutes was followed after a brief memorial address for the victims, their bereaved family members and other survivors in the wake of the deadly earthquake and tsunami which struck the northeastern coast of Japan.
“We hate their past wrong, not the people. We offer our deep condolences to those who lost loved ones,” said Gil Won-ok, 84.
“I still remember vividly my scar 70 years ago. That’s why I can understand the current sufferings of Japanese people more than anyone else,” said Gil, who had her uterus removed at age 15 as a result of sexual slavery for the Japanese army in northern China.
Since 1992, the elderly women have participated in the weekly demonstrations every Wednesday at noon outside the Japanese Embassy, together with activists and citizens.
There was only one exception when a powerful earthquake hit the Japanese city Kobe in August, 1995. In the wake of the disaster, more than 6,000 people lost their lives.
“There were some grandmothers who requested to cancel today’s gathering considering the Japanese situation. After discussions, we decided to hold a memorial event,” said Yoon Mi-hyang, head of the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
The civic group has supported the former comfort women in their efforts to call for an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government, offering shelter for those financially struggling.
Yesterday’s meeting was also aimed to ask both Korean and Japanese governments to find another comfort woman, Song Shin-do who was living in the Miyagi region, which was hit hard by the double disasters on Friday.
Fortunately, the woman was confirmed to have been rescued two days ago and stayed at a shelter.
“An activist in Japan called me and said the grandma was OK,” said Lee Yong-soo, 83, who had met former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, then secretary general of the Democratic Party, in 1998 to request apology from Tokyo.
“I just couldn’t move after watching news report on the earthquake in Japan. I hope Japanese people work together to rebuild the country as soon as possible,” Lee said, adding that she arrived from Daegu, some 300 kilometers south of Seoul, where she lives, in order to express her sympathy for Japanese people.
The normally modest event of dozens of activists and nuns received unusual media attention on Wednesday amid a widening crisis in Japan. Foreign media as well as domestic reporters attended the gathering.
There were also some young Japanese tourists who dropped by the scene. However, they declined to allow an interview, saying they had no idea about the issue.
Yoon, the group leader, agreed that the Korean government’s active efforts to help Japan were a good thing.
However, she pointed out that current humanitarian exchanges are not enough to resolve the decades-old tensions between two bitter rivals.
“If their historical issues, including compensation for former comfort women, had already been solved, this could have been a great opportunity to strengthen our friendship,” Yoon said.
“Japan should face their past wrongs more sincerely. The Korean government also should request compensation more strongly, clearly.”
The group said it plans to continue holding the weekly demonstrations but they would keep a low profile for some time.
Historians estimate that the Japanese government coerced nearly 200,000 women, mostly from Korea and China, into sexual slavery at army bases in Asia before and during World War II.
It was only in the early 1990s that some of the women started to speak up about their ordeals.
Most of the women are now in their 80s. Only 86 women are still living out of the 234 registered in government data.