At the end of last year I was focussing on ceramics, using the Live Projects module as a way of developing and refining my ceramic practice, choosing to sink into themes surrounding mental health. However, after a summer studying in South Korea, a country whose history I’ve always been interested in, I found out about forgotten/hidden histories surrounding women, and felt deeply compelled to explore further.
During my time in South Korea I taught English to students at a partner university and studied a course in South Korean society, culture and history with Professor Susanna Lim. The course was incredibly rich and I found it really challenging, but equally rewarding. During the course, I learned about the history of Japan’s use of sex slaves for the Japanese Military, euphemistically called ‘Comfort Women’. This is primarily where my research began; being in South Korea meant I had access to a different perspective on the issue and the opportunity to learn more from that perspective.
What are ‘comfort women’?
A euphemism for the women who were sexual slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army in Japanese occupied areas during World War II. The Japanese forcibly enslaved hundreds of thousands of women to act as sexual slaves in “comfort stations” initially set up as a means of reducing the number of rape reports in occupied territories. The women were often tricked into believing they were going to work in factories or as nurses for the Japanese army, when in fact they were being sent to “comfort stations”. About 2/3 of the women who were enslaved were killed after Japan was defeated, and gradually many of the remaining women died without every talking of their enslavement.
In 1991 the first woman spoke out about her experience – Kim Hak-sun came forward and gave her testimony, sparking many more testimonies from other survivors, which in turn started a movement to seek justice for their trauma. Japan still has yet to officially and sufficiently apologise for their part in their suffering.
Extract from The House of Sharing’s website – http://www.nanum.org/eng/sub1/sub3.php
I was drawn to this particular subject after a class dedicated entirely to learning about the cultural implications of this part of Korea and Japan’s history on today’s generation. We discussed how the treatment of women within each culture’s colonial past lead to this point in history, and how the impact of this has sent tremors throughout generations, and how those tremors have turned into waves fighting back against the oppression of women through protest & demonstration.
I couldn’t let go after the class finished. I found myself unable to think of anything else but the pain and trauma suffered by women and children forced into sexual slavery. After class ended it was common for students to walk down to the restaurants and wind down, but I went back up to my dorm and cried uncontrollably. I’ve been to numerous memorials for periods in history such as the holocaust and genocides, and always felt their impact and been horrified by the histories they spoke of. Somehow the history of ‘comfort women’ struck me deeply, and the more I thought about it the more helpless I felt.
I became fixated on knowing as much as I could about it, I reread all of the material from the class and spoke with my fellow students about it. I felt as if I were investigating something unsolved, with the answers right in front of me, yet an overwhelming silence from those responsible.
I discovered the issue of wartime sex slaves had particular importance to the people of Korea as it’s estimated 80% of the victims were trafficked from the Korean peninsula. I also came across information about The House of Sharing, a nursing home for several remaining survivors, based in rural Seoul. I went to The House of Sharing alone, as I didn’t feel like it was a trip I wanted to share like a tourist might. The journey was complicated as it was such a rural location, I took several trains as well as a bus and a very long taxi I was certain had no clue where I needed to go until suddenly, I was there.
The Place of Requiem – a memorial for Kim Hak-soon, the first Korean woman to testify in 1991. The House of Sharing, Seoul, South Korea, (2017).
Portraits of former ‘comfort women’
Memorial: The Un-blossomed Flower: The Place of Requiem
Replica ‘comfort station’ within the museum
The House of Sharing was rich with information, with an extensive collection of exhibitions in the museum attached dedicated to the history of ‘comfort women’. I was also able to talk with volunteers in the main research office about why I was interested in the issue of ‘comfort women’ and as a result of my conversation I was able to view four documentaries in a conference room on my own. I felt I was able to sink deeply into all the information and spent a long time meticulously reading every single piece of text I came across.
I reflected on my time at The House of Sharing & Museum of Sexual Slavery by The Japanese Military in the context of my upcoming work for 6105 Negotiated Practice with fairly narrow views of what my work could address:
Note taken after class (July 23rd, 2017)
Look at the possibilities of using ‘comfort women’ as a research start point – their use of art therapy and their Korean cultural ideals – han jeoung and etc (look up Dan Tudor article from Dr Lims class week 3) the act of sharing their story as a cathartic action of relieving their grief. Their grief can only be resolved with their demands of Japan’s government met. Their work has served as an educational tool – humanising victims of an atrocious act, allowing for the understanding of the feeling and emotion of the survivors of the abhorrent history to help prevent reoccurrence. Atrocities lost to history can never be learned from. Making art as a means of releasing pain and educating to prevent this horror reoccurring is incredibly important and can only continue – in a digital age where everyone can find anything.
After several weeks I was less interested in the ‘redemptive’ powers of work made as a result of trauma, and more interested in the reasons why for so long these women’s voices were left unheard. The period of silence after the end of WWII stretched from 1945-1992, with survivors suffering from immense feelings of shame and loneliness as they lived with their trauma. I began to realise I was asking myself the same questions over and over:
Why were their voices being ignored?
Why were they shamed into becoming invisible?
What can be done to hear them now that so much time has passed?
Footnotes presentation extracts: