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[John H. Cha] Formula for Korea-Japan harmony

Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate to the San Francisco Bay is a special place for me. My father, bless his soul, used to spend a lot of time there, poring over his oil painting canvass, trying to capture the beautiful surroundings. The park also houses an art museum, Legion of Honor, known for its European painting collection. An Auguste Rodin bronze statue, The Thinker, guards its entrance, where my children used to run around during the 1970s and 1980s. 


Come November 1984, Holocaust Memorial designed by sculptor George Segal was installed near the museum, at the behest of then Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s Commission for a Memorial to the Six Million Victims of the Holocaust. The memorial depicts a man looking out a barbed wire fence toward the Golden Gate, with ten bronze sculptures of dead bodies strewn about in various poses behind him. The sculpture was hard on the viewers, especially the children, and I remember asking myself whether such horror was appropriate within the pristine environment that celebrated nature’s beauty and art.

I stayed away from the site. It was simply too heart wrenching to face it again. If Segal meant to shock the viewers into the reality of human cruelty, he succeeded. His artwork reminds us of one of the darkest moments in human history, and tells us that the unthinkable did happen and that it can happen again if we let it.

Recently, I have run across people in San Francisco, who would like to discuss the historical elements related to the "comfort woman" issue, in conjunction with the upcoming installation of a memorial for the survivors of another horrific human disaster during WWII. The issue deals with the sexual slavery system instituted by the Imperial army of Japan to provide “comfort” for its soldiers across the vast warfronts throughout Asia from 1932 to 1945.

What happened there defies imagination, too. It was difficult for the good, ordinary people of San Francisco to understand how an army could initiate and organize a sexual slavery system involving hundreds of thousands of women and girls and subject them to rape and violence in places thousands of miles away from their homes.  It was difficult for ordinary folks to fathom the scale of such undertaking, and some refused to believe it happened. 

In fact, Toru Hashimoto, former mayor of Osaka Japan, said that the women were military necessity. He willingly looks past the deception and coercion employed by the imperial army, which leads me to think that, given a chance, he would do the same if he felt such a system was necessary. Others like Yumiko Yamamoto advance an argument that the women were not sex slaves, but prostitutes who enjoyed a life of luxury.

A number of people actually presented these points of view during San Francisco hearings. They seemed to want to view the “comfort women” situation as an issue arising out of political disputes between Korea and Japan, and not from the victimized women’s point of view. Supervisor Eric Mar summed up the plight of these women, whom he referred to as halmonis, a Korean word for elderly grandmothers, how they were recruited and taken to the war front and suffered abuse and violence. Those who managed to survive the war, hunger, and abandonment, somehow found their way home after the war, but they couldn't tell their parents or friends what had happened to them during those years because (1) they felt ashamed, (2) the male-dominated culture viewed them not as victims but as damaged goods, (3) the women wanted their normal life back, and silence was a way of doing it, (4) the Korean government over the years have not had the wherewithal or the will to deal with the halmoni's issues.

I realize I am over simplifying what happened to them, but they kept silent for almost half a century. This silence of shame is common for victims of violence, and it took a tremendous courage on their part to reveal their unspoken past. They spoke up because they wanted the truth known, and they continue to encounter people who accuse them of making up their story for money and attention, causing them to re-live those moments of horror all over again. 

I don't pretend to understand what is going through their minds now, but I would think that they want to believe that their life was worth living, after all. The only thing that would give them solace in the twilight of their lives is knowing that their stories would help the rest of the world understand—that the atrocity must not happen again.

When we look at the big picture, humankind evolves by learning to hold and act on abstract thoughts, vis-a-vis, the instinct-driven animals. Abstract thoughts I am referring to include justice, honesty, moral values, among other things.

But alas, we mostly learn by making mistakes. The "comfort woman" system was a mistake, if not a travesty like many other cruelties we humans have practiced and experienced throughout history. I am a proponent of the notion that things don't happen by themselves; we make things happen.

The "comfort women" system did not happen by itself. Someone designed it and made it happen. When we admit that it was a mistake, we can figure out a way to prevent it. Covering-up or denying will not make it go away. Halmonis know that, obviously. I would think that they, more than anyone else in this world, wish it hadn't happened to them.

The horror was real, and the pains halmonis feel are real. Politics aside,  they want to set the record straight. They want human dignity. The forty-seven last remaining halmonis don't have anything else left in their embittered lives.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s action to install the memorial is a positive move toward a better understanding of these historical events. The memorial will serve as a reminder and an educational tool for San Franciscans and the world that it must not happen again. 

By John H. Cha

John H. Cha lives and writes in Oakland, California. He has written several volumes of biographies about Korean and American leaders, including Willow Tree Shade: The Susan Ahn Cuddy Story, The Do Or Die Entrepreneur, Exit Emperor Kim Jong-il, A Small Key Opens Big Doors. Cha is an award-winning translator of Korean literature into English. ― Ed.

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