A cry of more than 200,000 lives from nearly a century ago that echoes into the 27 million of today...
This issue is dear and personal to my heart.
It exceeds a passion for social justice and penetrates into my own history of generations before me.
A statue commemorating the "comfort women" sits in Glendale Central Park, located right across from the Americana, a huge outdoor mall with heavy foot traffic in Los Angeles County.
In June 2014, I visited the statue with a friend. As soon as I stepped into the park, my eyes searched for it with a mix of anticipation and fear. I knew about the lawsuit filed against it months ago, and wondered if it was gone.
As soon I discovered the statue, I saw a Korean family walking towards it. The parents, a grandmother, and a girl who looked my age. She was holding flowers. I didn't know what to make of the situation, but my heart welled up in a strange feeling - and soon I was in tears.
When I finally walked up to the statue, its solemn atmosphere struck me with an overwhelming sorrow - then a burning anger for justice. I looked at the statue of a Korean girl sitting next to an empty chair with a shadow of a grandmother behind her. Next to the statue was an inscription about the comfort women that reads: "in memory of more than 200,000 Asian and Dutch women who were removed their homes in Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, East Timor and Indonesia, to be coerced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Armed Forces of Japan between 1932 and 1945."
It also addressed the proclamation of "Comfort Women Day" by the city of Glendale on July 30, 2012, and the "passing of House Resolution 121 by the United States Congress on July 30, 2007, urging the Japanese Government to accept historical responsibility for these crimes."
My childhood spent in South Korea included an extensive education about the history of Korea, especially about the 35-year Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). In 1932, the Japanese government set up "comfort stations" for the sexual pleasure of Japanese soldiers. During this time, Japan faced international criticism for large-scale atrocities like the Rape of Nanking. Through these isolated operations, Japan hoped to hide from international attention while reducing the risk of declining health and medical spending of the military that increased from indiscriminate and large-scale rape incidents.
Another reason for the stations: "The women kept there for the pleasure of Japanese military personnel were isolated. Many of them had been trafficked from distant countries, did not know the local language, could not leave the facilities and were abused if they did not comply with their captors' orders. Therefore, they could not communicate any military secrets confided to them" (Argibay).
Doesn't it sound famiilar?
In 2012, I learned about modern-day human slavery, known as "human trafficking," and became involved in many anti-trafficking causes. Through personal research over the years, I discovered that both atrocities share details that are eerily and strikingly similar.
According to "Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of World War II," comfort woman victims were "abducted from their homes while some were lured with promises of work in factories or restaurants." The false promises of jobs or the hidden environments with day-to-day cycle of oppression including abuse, rape and abortion disturbingly resemble the reality for the victims of modern-day human slavery.
The main controversy of this issue comes from the adamant refusal of the Japanese government to give an overdue apology to the victims. They instead justify their involvement through claims of historical fabrication - despite living survivors and their testimonies.
Also, despite the national tension between South Korea and Japan, and the establishment of monuments in major U.S. cities, I was appalled by how little is known about this part of history. Though it is a common knowledge among South Koreans, to Korean Americans who grew up without education about Korean History, not much is known.
With growing awareness of human trafficking and rising movements against sexual injustice, like the END IT movement or petitions to boycott 50 Shades of Grey, it may seem like the public is finally catching up to injustice being done to women all over the world, and even in our own backyards and neighborhoods.
But have you heard about the comfort women?
Most died young, while many of the survivors became infertile and forever lost their womanhood. They live on without memories of youth, but scarred by trauma and shame.
In South Korea, many of the survivors - now aging women, averaging age 90 - still participate in weekly protests for formal apology by Japan. As of today, out of 238 registered Korean comfort woman victims, only 53 are alive.
For the 70th anniversary of National Liberation Day of Korea, Korean Broadcasting Station (KBS) recently released a two-episode drama about the issue called Snow Road. This drama covered more than already known facts and testimonies. It portrayed the loss of the victims beyond the right to one's physical body: a right to dream, hope, and live life fully.
The drama parallels the lives of the comfort woman victims to the neglected girls and women of today (shown through the orphan teenage girl, Eun-Soo, interacting with comfort woman victim, Jong-Boon, in her 80's). Through this connection, the drama links the historical issue to the present time. This intention does not portray the former comfort women as mere victims, but as present advocates for justice.
For example, former comfort women recently advocated for the formal apology to the sexual abuse victims by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam war. An article states their position: “We sincerely hope tragedies of comfort women will never be repeated. Not only are we seeking (an apology and compensation) from the Japanese government, we want to create peace on our own.”
Also, a review from Hancinema notes, "Snow Road" suggests "the ghosts of the culture that allowed for comfort women haunt us to this day in ways we haven't come to fully appreciate."
In addition, a South Korean article points out:
"This is not a mere problem of Japan - but that if we ourselves don't learn from the past, we can repeat the same mistakes.
Wrong history will always repeat itself. Comfort women issue is not a past issue. As long as it is denied, it will remain a issue relevant to not only the present but also future" (translated).
Some may argue that it is far-fetched to correlate the modern issue of human trafficking into a point of history almost a century ago. However, we cannot deny the reality of historical roots that manifests through present activities.
My point is not to condemn a nation for its past war crimes or take the side of the victim.
The truth is, many South Koreans harbor anger and hatred towards its former oppressor, Japan, to the point of it being a "unifying nationalist concern."
It's no wonder why South Korea's president Park Geun-hye recently said in her Independence Movement Day speech: "South Korea could find common ground if the leaders make it less of an issue about past grievances and more about global cooperation to end forced prostitution practices around the world."
She remarked: “Human trafficking is very much a reality to this day. Sexual slavery is not something in the past. If they really want to take ownership of this, they can do that. And then there is potential for the two countries to actually come together.”
I am also for reconciliation and peace between nations and people groups.
But how can we make tangible progress?
I have witnessed the changes in a spirit awakened to the reality of injustice.
Their eyes flash, hearts beat and fists clench. They will do anything to see justice served.
But how will you steward this exploding hunger for justice?
I'm not just advocating for these women, but extending an invitation for you to join me in the journey of true justice.
An invitation to choose love and forgiveness, cling to the hope that springs forth, into tangible progress and growth.
It is messy and painful at times. But being part of a community that fearlessly and enduringly fight for the Hope they share and Victory they see is a cause worthy in itself.
So, what about you? Whose story can you tell? Who can you be a voice for?
Their stories need to be told. Their voices must be heard.
It begins with a Yes.
It begins with sharing.
It begins with opened eyes and awakened hearts.
It all begins with You.