Kim SeongHan is Representative for MCC Northeast Asia and a member of Jesus Heart Mennonite Church, Republic of Korea. This open letter responds to an opinion piece by Harvard Law School professor Mark Ramseyer claiming that World War II-era Korean “comfort women,” who were forced into sex work by the Japanese military, were actually exercising their free, rational choice to sell their labor. Ramseyer’s argument, which he also developed in an academic article, has caused intense anger in Korea and around the world. Ramseyer was reared by American Mennonite missionaries in Japan. For additional background, see Jeannie Suk Gersen’s coverage in The New Yorker (link).
History is somewhat distant. But when one finds the space of your little story in a more extensive history, the color of history begins to change.
I am not a historian, but I know how my family survived during the Japanese colonization era (1910—1945). My grandfather was involved in the independence movement in the 1920s, and he was imprisoned for several years. He passed away in 1966 before I was born, but I heard that he suffered from the aftereffects of torture until he passed away. However, the sad story that concerns me here is about my aunt. My aunt (my father’s only sister) was forced to marry at age sixteen to avoid the national mobilization for labor (it’s possible she would have been forced to become a comfort woman). Her father, who was fighting against Imperial Japan, could not allow them to take away his only daughter. Not surprisingly, this unwanted marriage did not go well. They divorced later, and my grandfather put my aunt’s daughter on his family register as his daughter. My aunt needed a fresh start.
I know this is too personal and too detailed. However, this is one story behind the larger story of the comfort-women-sex-slave story during the Imperial Japanese colonization, which Mark Ramseyer claims is a pure fiction.
While working with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Northeast Asia as a peace educator, I have had the privileged to join several international gatherings and trainings in the region—the Northeast Asia Reconciliation Initiative (NARI) and Northeast Asia Regional Peace-Building Institute (NARPI). NARI is a Christian gathering from the region. Theologians, nuns, pastors, and activists stay together and learn from each other about reconciliation for a week. NARPI is an intensive peacebuilding training for people who want to engage in peace work in Northeast Asia. MCC has been deeply involved in these regional peacebuilding efforts from the beginning. Although these two programs serve a different group of people, Christians or not, there is an important common feature: the pilgrimage (NARI) and the field trip (NARPI).
When NARI gathered in Nagasaki in 2015, they pilgrimaged to atomic bomb sites, and a small museum focused on Japanese military atrocities. Many participants recall that as a turning point in their life. They finally saw different narratives from other countries, and this was possible because they walked together, even in a difficult place.
In August 14, 2019, I went to Nanjing for a NARPI training. As a field trip, we visited the Comfort Women Museum in Nanjing. I was stunned when I found a small crucifix in the small room dedicated to Lei Guiyang, a comfort woman from Nanjing. I do not know why the crucifix was there. Was she Christian? But, because of that crucifix, I can make a connection between the story of Lei Guiyang and Mary’s Magnificat. It was the day before the Assumption of Mary.
When I read Ramseyer’s article on Japan Forward, “Recovering the Truth about the Comfort Women,” I felt hurt. Ramseyer said that comfort women voluntarily joined the wartime sex business hoping for a great reward with great risk-taking. However, my simple question is that if they all voluntarily became comfort women, why would my aunt be forced to marry at age sixteen and suffer the consequences? The article is also hurting people committed to making peace and reconciliation in Northeast Asia.
I want to invite Ramseyer to join a pilgrimage with other Christian sisters and brothers in Northeast Asia. We may learn from each other. When we walk together into the most difficult place, we will see differently and hear differently.
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We just saw on PBS a documentary of Korean women requesting the Japanese government to apologize for the abuse of Korean women. Their request has been made for many years and the Japanese government has not apologized.
Hello Cheryl, the link to the New Yorker article in paragraph before the letter specifies what the Japanese government has and hasn’t done, and steps taken by previous governments that have been undermined by later governments. In short, there were apologies in 1993 and 2015, but the circumstances of the more recent one are complex and the government’s attitude since the early 2000s has been unapologetic.
Thank you SeongHan and Anabaptist Witness for this post. While serving as president of AMBS I was privileged to visit S. Korea in May 2019. Hyun Hur, AMBS board member, planned an extensive tour for my husband and me. We were fortunate to visit with many people in the Anabaptist networks there, and with persons committed to the work of peace and justice. One day our local hosts took us to the House of Sharing, a museum with artifacts, research data, news reports, pictures and victims’ stories describing Japan’s systemic use of “comfort women” in sex slavery during the war and Japan’s ongoing refusal to acknowledge and apologize despite widespread documented evidence. We met three of the elderly surviving women who are also cared for on the premises. It was a profoundly moving visit; heartbreaking to read the stories of many, many young women who at the age of 14-16 were forced into sex slavery during war with Japan. Because of the deep shame, the women hid themselves afterwards for a long time until one woman courageously told her story—and then more and more came forward. Here is one excerpt from extensive commentary posted throughout the museum:
“As the number of victims who came out and attested to being used by the former Japanese military as ‘comfort women’ increased around 1990, the interest in the issue also grew in Korea. However, the Japanese government neither offered an official apology nor showed a very serious attitude toward the issue. The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan started the Weekly Wednesday Demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy…. Several members of the Korean Council and the victims from the House of Sharing participated from the beginning. The demonstration has continued week after week, rain or shine, and the general public as well as domestic and international organizations, have also participated.” The intention was stated that the weekly protests would continue until “Japan officially apologizes and pays individual reparations.”
Pictures (on FB page) include a cluster of bronze statues of women victims when they finally came forward to tell their stories. The man dressed in black in the second picture was our Japanese guide—a man clearly devoted to caring for and telling the stories of the victims his own government refuses to acknowledge.
Mr. Kim gives one perspective about what happened on the Korean peninsula in the 1930s. My article is not very long, and is not very difficult to understand. If people are interested in this historical discussion, I encourage them to take a look. Here is the free version of the article: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3822439
Prof. Ramseyer, thanks for your response. Yes, my family story is one of many stories from the Korean peninsula in the 1930s. I will read your article carefully with some questions – What is your story? What perspective do you represent in this discussion? What can I learn from you?
Lastly, maybe this is a pure historical discussion in academia for you, but this is eliminating someone who suffered a lot.