It was a particularly hot day in the summer of 2002 when I visited Hwa-ja Kim for the first interview. I was familiar with Mrs. Kim due to my work as a full-time staff member for the Daegu Citizen Forum for Halmuni [sic]. Through many regular visits, my rapport with Mrs. Kim had grown significantly, and I had acquired a great deal of personal information about her. I figured that the first interview would be relatively straightforward, because she had previously disclosed information to me that otherwise remained hidden from other people. Mrs. Kim was in a particularly good state of mental acuity despite her advanced age. She had told me, in passing, stories of her experiences in a comfort station prior to the interview sessions. I expected no trouble with the interview process due in large part to her ability to recall extremely detailed memories.
Hwa-ja Kim's stories began with her childhood and family relationships to the circumstances that led to her stay in a comfort station. The stories continued with her return journey to Korea post-liberation and concluded with how she came to adopt her son. Leading up to her return journey, Mrs. Kim's stories were told in perfect chronological order. As expected, her stories were told with great speed and precision with every question.
Hwa-ja Kim's stories were notably different from the disjointed stories told by other survivors. Despite the many decades that have passed since her experiences, she was able to recall her travel path, the exact name of the comfort station, as well as the names and even the hometowns of other women. The vessel name and the identities of the comfort station operators were also recalled with great accuracy. Mrs. Kim described how she specifically memorized the names of the vessel, the comfort station, and the women whom she stayed with so that she would never forget exactly where she had been.
The anxiety she felt at the time for the unknown likely led to her ability to recall information from more than sixty years ago. The travel path and vessel name were the only information available to Mrs. Kim, and the anxiety she felt made sure the information was absolutely unforgettable. They were essentially labels in her own Ariadne's Thread for finding her way back home.
Two additional interviews were conducted after the initial session. Mrs. Kim never turned down an interview and fully disclosed everything she remembered. She was fully cooperative in every interview. However, the glimpses of pain in her stories were sometimes difficult for me to process. Mrs. Kim believed that her testimony would assist in former comfort women receiving a formal apology and reparations from the Japanese government. She also had an expectation of receiving some form of reparation for her economic benefit. On a few occasions, she asked whether her contributions would result in reparations.
However, Hwa-ja Kim does not wish for a formal apology and reparations purely for self-interest. Although she certainly would benefit from a restoration of her tarnished reputation and reparations would alleviate her economic instability, Mrs. Kim primarily wants to help her adopted son who has suffered economically since the Asian financial crisis in 1997. She has continued to send part of her earnings to her son throughout the years, and in 2001 she started providing financial assistance to her granddaughter who has been preparing to take a university entrance exam. However, Mrs. Kim desires to do more to provide for her son. She believes that reparations from the Japanese government will alleviate her son’s dire financial situation. Mrs. Kim has always viewed her adopted son as anything but adopted. There was a great sense of pride in Mrs. Kim as she pointed to a black and white picture of her son and said, ‘That’s my boy.’ That sense of pride provides Mrs. Kim with the strength to persevere. Mrs. Kim firmly believes that her son is the only person left upon whom she can rely.
Hwa-ja Kim has refused all requests for television appearances and interviews in the mass media primarily due to her love and respect for her son. She refused any requests in which her face and name would be exposed to the public. The research team had to ensure her that her privacy would be respected in this book. At one point in the initial interview, she created the alias that is used in this book. Mrs. Kim’s alias would serve to shield her from the painful memories of comfort station life that are still fresh in her mind to this day.
She reiterated her desire to use an alias during the final interview. Although I ensured Mrs. Kim that her true identity would not be revealed, it was clear that she would never feel quite at ease for fear of her friends or family discovering her deepest secrets. She was absolutely adamant that her son, granddaughter, and other family members did not know the truth be protected from any possible repercussions that may arise from her being exposed as a former comfort woman for the Japanese military. Mrs. Kim introduced me as a volunteer for the elderly to the neighborhood residents. I was reminded just how difficult it must be for former comfort women to divulge the secrets of their past. For her courage to re-live the painful memories of her past, I can only promise Mrs. Kim that her secrets will be forever safe with me.