The long anticipated rain I wrote about in my previous post ended up lasting only one night. In the morning I woke up to find the humidity had doubled, and barring the occasional spot downpour it’s remained that way for the entire week. In a way, it is almost appropriate: the sticky and muggy Seoul, where you’re only ever completely dry for the first five minutes after a shower, is the one I have come to know and value over the past month. I’ll be sad to leave this amazing country, but these four weeks have left me with a wealth of fantastic experiences and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity which the Australia–Korea Foundation has given me.
A final sunny traffic jam near The Korea Herald’s offices in Gwanghwamun. Photo by Nick Gowland
On Saturday I had the absolute privilege to visit The House of Sharing, a combined museum and residence for the former Korean sex slaves of Japan’s World War II army. Known better by the euphemistic title ‘comfort women’, their suffering has come to symbolise the cruelty inflicted here by the Japanese colonial rulers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These mostly poor and uneducated women were stolen from their homes and shipped to the front lines of combat across the Pacific Theatre. There they were raped by 25 to 35 Japanese soldiers a day, and subjected to inhuman levels of physical violence.
The existence of the comfort women was kept a top level military secret by the Japanese, so the exact number of abused remains uncertain. Some estimates run as high as 300,000 to 400,000, and it is thought that around 40% of these women came from Korea. Survivors here now prefer to be called halmoni — an affectionate word for grandmother — rather than the offensive and misleading term ‘comfort women’. The wounds continue to run deep in Korea, due in no small part to Japan's infamous spells of denial and revisionism about the existence of government sanctioned sex-slavery. Other than a tokenistic apology and offer of reparations the Japanese government has extended no form of official compensation.
My tour began when a House of Sharing volunteer picked my group of about a dozen up from Gangbyeon station near the Han River. After an hour of driving through suburban mist, we arrived at a set of buildings nestled in among the mountains. The House of Sharing is not actually a house, but rather a compound containing a residence, a museum, an educational centre and an administration block.
The sculpture on the left symbolises the unfulfilled dreams of the halmoni, and the one on the right symbolises their violent reality. Photo by Nick Gowland
We began our tour by watching a heartbreaking film that reconstructed the experience of survivor Chung Seo-Woon at her comfort station in Indonesia. Seo-Woon was forcibly injected with opium so she wouldn’t attempt an escape. She survived a suicide attempt and narrowly escaped execution at the end of the war. Upon returning to Korea she found that both her parents had died under Japanese rule.
Next we were taken through the museum, built entirely using private donations. Here visitors could view maps depicting where the women were located, examine photographs and a model reconstruction of a comfort station, and see the artefacts and testimonials of the victims. The top floor of the museum contained artworks painted by the halmoni living at the House of Sharing's residence, which really pressed home the awful reality of their abduction, torture and eventual release.
My tour group with two of the survivors living at the House of Sharing. Photo by House of Sharing
Neither our guide nor the museum exhibits shied away from the graphic and harrowing details of the women’s experiences, and our entire group was silent and shaken once the tour had come to an end. Luckily, we were next given the honour of meeting the house’s resident survivors in person. Although most are in their late 80s or early 90s, the Halmoni were vibrant and engaging. They wanted us to understand their suffering and to make sure that their story is told, but they also told jokes and participated in a spontaneous sing along to K-pop played over mobile speakers. It was a moving, life affirming meeting that I feel absolutely privileged to have experienced. The article I wrote following my visit is my proudest accomplishment from my time here.
I might even miss ironing shirts on a towel spread across a kitchen table. Photo by Nick Gowland
Right now I’m finishing up my final day of work here, then I will head back to Hongdae for one final night of live music in the dingy basement sweat boxes. Tomorrow I’m off to spend a few days resting up on Deokjeokdo Island, which is an hour’s ferry ride from the nearby port city of Incheon. I’ve been told that the tiny island is devoid of theme parks and attractions, meaning its beaches should (hopefully) be peaceful and relatively empty. Then it’s back to Sydney! Goodbye Korea, it’s been amazing.