Telling the Stories of the Comfort Women
A wide range of reactions were received from survivors upon the research team’s requests for an interview. While some women expressed disappointment because they were not approached for interviews for previous compilations of testimonies, others were reluctant to meet with interviewers during initial visits. Women who were proactive about sharing their stories even became minor celebrities in their respective neighborhoods. They were often well-treated by neighbors after their stories were reported in newspapers and on television. Some even proudly displayed their framed comfort women registration certificates in their living rooms. The presumptions held by interviewers that survivors would be passive due to being long-stricken with victim mentalities were quickly debunked by women who were open to the idea of speaking out about their experiences. In fact, the past experiences of these survivors seemed to provide the women with strength to carry on in their current daily lives. The cases in which the survivors shared their stories, overcame illnesses, and strengthened their affection for life after receiving comfort women registration certificates demonstrated that the act of speaking out was a healing process for these women.
Of course, not all survivors were comfortable with their stories being made public. The research team focused on the survivors who were not included in previous releases of testimonies, and many were reluctant to consent to interviews. The main reason was the fear of exposing long-concealed secrets to their families and friends. Although the interviewers attempted to persuade the survivors of the historical significance, such efforts were futile against women who were fearful that their lives would be turned upside down. Some women, after reluctantly agreeing to the interviews, requested that the interviews only take place when their families were not at home or at another location. In such cases, the women requested multiple confirmations that their identities would not be revealed prior to commencing with the interviews.
Unfortunately, for many survivors their past experiences were deep, shameful secrets that were to be concealed until their deaths. Thus, many of the women still experience extreme guilt for “deceiving” their husbands and children. Their extreme anxiety led to 60 years of suffering from nightmares, and even schizophrenia in some cases. The comfort women experiences of the survivors are not buried in the past but remain as ghosts that still haunt them to this day.
Speaking out about the past experiences has been considered taboo for many years. Consigning such experiences to oblivion was not only demanded by the Korean patriarchal society, but also a way of survival for the victims. Confessions that the women felt dejected but at least liberated or they would not have survived by carrying their demons convey a sense that forgetting their past was a decision they made to stand the test of time. Thus, remembering their horrific past experiences was nothing but an uphill battle for women who wished to simply move on. As this journey would mean that the women had to confront the source of their greatest pain, the mere act of speaking out forced them to re-live what they hoped to forget. Strong determination was required to describe their past.
In Korean society, however, speaking out about the comfort women experience is not simply a personal decision. It is a delicate choice entangled in a complex mesh of multiple layers of ramifications. Unfortunately, publicizing their stories would mean that the women would have to divorce from their husbands, bring pain and shame to their children, and wear the proverbial scarlet letter on their chests. The negative attention from the community to which they belong and opposition from other male figures in their lives who provide emotional support (son, step-son, male nephew, etc.) quickly made some women reverse their decisions to speak out.
If the subsidies received from the Korean government upon registration as a comfort woman, restoration of pride, and historical obligations were elements that demanded disclosure from the women, family relations and societal pressures kept the women in states of constant anxiety over revealing their identities as sex slaves. The stories of these women emerged amid the constant agitation and struggles between the two extremes. Speaking out about their past was an act of breaking through multiple barriers that had confined the women to silence. It was the principal agent for defying the patriarchal ideology that has proliferated throughout Korean society, unfairly imposing shame upon the victims.