Thursday, February 15

No comfort

When John H visited Memphis back in December, he asked me what made me become a feminist. I said it came largely from growing up in a religious household where the man was, by virtue of his sex, the automatic leader of the family, and how that view of man at the absolute top was not only personally insulting, but also really impractical. Egalitarian relationships tend to make everyone more happy than those where sex/gender determines destiny.

Anyway, it was an incomplete answer, because I'd never really considered that there might exist a point in my life where I turned the switch from "apathetic" to "feminist." I remember the approximate time frame during which I began to self-identify as feminist — spring of 2001. (I'm an infant in feminist years, it's true.)

Tonight, I realized when I read this that there is an actual event in my life that triggered my feminism or, more accurately, upped it from a slow drip to a full-on deluge.

And it's this woman:



Her name is Hwang Geum Joo, and she was a "comfort woman" for Japanese soldiers during World War II. "Comfort women" were actually sex slaves — many of them young girls — placed in "comfort stations" near the front lines, who were repeatedly raped and beaten and, in some cases, murdered. Hwang Geum Joo and others are currently embroiled in a battle to get the Japanese government to make an official apology to the now-elderly comfort women still living. The Japanese government has so far refused to make an official apology, so the surviving comfort women are imploring the U.S. for a little help.

Comfort women were unknown to me until Monday, March 12, 2001. That night I attended Hwang Geum Joo's lecture in the James Union Building at MTSU. I was there out of my own interest, but also because I knew we had sent a reporter to cover the event for Sidelines, so I figured I could also help cover the story if needed (which I did in this not-very-well-written story here*).

The Tennessee Room was packed that night. I was moved to tears listening to this woman's story, translated by Dr. Jid Lee. She told us that the Japanese government was recruiting girls to work in a factory, and absolute obedience was required from the occupying government, so she left her foster family and volunteered for the work. She soon found out what kind of factory she'd be working in when soldiers dumped her and the other girls in an old field and made them huddle together like dogs while they were assigned Japanese names and forbidden to speak their native Korean.

During her first year as a comfort woman, she was shared between officers according to their rank, and then forced to have sex with the soldiers — usually 30 or 40 a day and even more on weekends.

“I was good for three things,” said Hwang. “That was to have sex, translate for them and mend socks.”


Hwang Geum Joo said the girls in her barracks were all young. Many had never had sex before, and most had not been menstruating for very long. If at all.

Because of this, the girls who became pregnant were often not aware of their state. Daily injections of painkillers were toxic to the fetuses, causing the mothers to not only lose the babies, but also become sterile due to damaged uteruses.

The girls’ bodies would be swollen from both the infections and the shots they received to kill the pain.

A girl was allowed to be sick only twice during her tenure as a Comfort Woman. Upon the third sickness (if it prevented her from “performing”), a girl would either be taken away and never return, or she would be placed at the bottom of a pit and dead Japanese soldiers would be poured on top of her. The sick girl would eventually suffocate to death at the bottom of the mass grave.

Out of 20 women held at her barracks, eight survived. Joo was the only one strong enough to walk away.


The scars inflicted by her time as a comfort woman run deep. In fact, she showed us, by pulling up her garment and displaying the ragged scar where doctors had removed her gangrenous uterus and much of her intestines because they had become rotten from malnutrition. It took ten years of penicillin injections to get rid of the STDs.

She told us that she remains leery of men and boys older than five, because she's worried about what they want from her. She can't drink milk because of its resemblance to semen, and she can’t eat bananas because they resemble a penis.

There's something that didn't make it into the story has always stuck with me. That photo up there, the one of Hwang Geum Joo surrounded by blackness, is an amazing photo for obvious reasons. It's a simple portrait, but there's a heartbreaking story behind it.

The photographer, Matthew Starling**, met with Hwang Geum Joo before the lecture to take her photograph for the story. She was absolutely terrified of him and nearly refused to go anywhere near him, just because he was a man. I think I remember that someone else had to be in the room with them before the shoot could happen. (I'm not sure if she knew, but I'm sure it would have made it worse had she known that Matt is a former military man.)

That night, that story, changed my life. To know that a group of men — in this case, the Japanese government and military officials — could sit around a table and think of ways to boost troop morale and come to the conclusion that enslavement of young girls and women and repeated rape and beatings would do just the trick to make Johnny Soldier feel and fight better, well, if that doesn't change your perception of the world and its attitude toward women, then might I politely suggest that you go off and die in a fire?

The comfort women debacle is a very sinister, very clear example of the capacity to which women can be and are hated by men. Not all men, sure. But enough. Fucking enough.


*One of the obvious errors in this article is the inconsistency with which we referred to Hwang Geum Joo. It's Hwang sometimes, Joo others. This arose because we had conflicting information about Korean naming conventions, and which portion of the name should be considered the surname, which is typically what news writers use in subsequent references to the person in question. I actually still have no idea which part of the name is correct, which is why I've used the full name throughout this post. Does anyone know?

There are other errors, too, or maybe not errors but instances of clumsy and superfluous wording. What can I say? It was a team project and we were both new reporters dealing with a horrific, mind-boggling subject.


** whose work I adore but whose website will hijack and resize your browser window, so be forewarned

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6 Comments:

Anonymous john h said...

When my daughter was in elementary school she and her friend Anna were inseperable. When we went on vacations, Anna went with us. Once somewhere down in Florida, Anna was telling us about her favorite babysitter.."She used to be a Satanist, and then changed her mind and became a babysitter". She never understood why I nearly did a true 'spit take' and kept laughing on and off for the next hour.

The point of all that, is that my question was faulty..you didn't wake up one morning and decided to 'switch to feminism'. I do suspect that it is an evolutionary process based on life experiences and the epiphany arising from the incredible story you recount in your post.

The culture of subservience and degradation that led to a practice so horrid and demeaning should be studied described. It's easy to say, oh that's an historical artifact...we aren't like that, but the truth is, it's just a matter of gradation.

You are a great writer, Lindsey, and I'm really glad I asked my faulty question.

Fri Feb 16, 06:11:00 AM  
Blogger Freedonian said...

That's a truly heartbreaking story, Lindsey.

The atrocities committed by the Japanese military of the era were on such a horrendous scale in terms of cruelty that even the most hardened of people do double takes.

Let's put it this way--- The Rape of Nanking was so vicious that a member of the Nazi party with business interests in Nanking was writing to Hitler, begging him to bring it to an end.

The sexual exploitation of women is something that has bothered me for a long time. I had actually planned some travel in Eastern Europe so I could research a story about Ukranian women being forced into sex slavery in Turkey. Then I found out it was happening on a smaller scale here--- Girls as young as 13 brought in from Latin America and being forced into brothels here.

The scam is the same as the European one--- "Come to America. You can earn enough money as a waitress to send money home". When they get here, the coyote that brought them over typically rapes them and says "You owe me $____ (The amount changes, but it's typically $3000-5000) for bringing you here. Here's how you're going to pay me back."

I'm still working on the story, but it's a hard one to break.

Joo's story is simply heart-wrenching. And the discomfort, the fear you talked about--- I can see it in the photo. Her body language is very guarded, her expression the look of someone that's tense and trying not to show it.

Thank you for sharing it.

Fri Feb 16, 10:25:00 AM  
Blogger Freedonian said...

I left something out--- I hate it when I do that.

When they get here, the coyote that brought them over typically rapes them and says "You owe me $____ (The amount changes, but it's typically $3000-5000) for bringing you here. Here's how you're going to pay me back."

It should have been followed with this:

The brothel pays them very little and charges them rent, food, and any medical expenses they need at exorbitant rates (Particularly considering that the medical expenses rarely involve an actual doctor). Some of these girls are forced to have sex with as many as 40 men (And I use the term "men" loosely) a day, yet end up with nothing. The scam involves perpetually keeping them in the debt of the coyote. They almost never make enough to buy their freedom, although some are given a break--- If they recruit another girl.

They don't dare escape--- They have no idea what the country around them is like. Quite often, they're told that if they escape, either they'll be killed, or their family back home will be killed. They're kept in through the use of perpetual fear.

Fri Feb 16, 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger mike said...

Wikipedia has an entry for Korean naming. It's basically the same as most Asian cultures: family name first, personal name next. But some Koreans and Japanese who deal in the West a lot will make the name switch when they introduce themselves, or the Western press will automatically do it for them. It can be confusing.

Read down to "Usage" and you'll see there was pretty much no way for y'all to address this woman that wouldn't have managed to insult her in some way. Such is Asian culture....

BTW, there are Korean families that have been living in Japan for up to six or seven generations. They have totally assimilated into Japanese culture and have no traces of their Korean ancestry left. And yet, they are still called "Koreans" by the Japanese. Not the equivalent of "Korean-Japanese," but the alienating "Korean." They are not and can never be Japanese. It's a monumentally closed monoculture.

(Total aside: It's also why a lot of Chinese media stars take a Western personal name. For example Wong Kar Wei will become "Johnny Wong" for the West. It's correct for the West and it uses the family name correctly as well. It's easy for Westerners, who will otherwise screw up their Chinese name and accidentally insult them. Seriously. To Western ears, "foreign" accents are funny, but to Asian ears -- especially Japanese -- it is literally painful and insulting to hear. Native Japanese do not want to hear you tear up their language.)

Fri Feb 16, 12:35:00 PM  
Anonymous jag said...

Wow. I can't even imagine.

Fri Feb 16, 02:36:00 PM  
Blogger theogeo said...

John, I don't think your question was faulty at all. It got me to think, which was the whole point. So I too am glad you asked it. :)

Freedonian, thanks for sharing all that. It makes my mind scream to know that things like that are possible, much less actually happening.

Mike, thanks for the tip! I'll take a look right now.

And Jag, me neither.

Sun Feb 18, 12:03:00 AM  

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