• Comfort Women
  • Stories Making History

For the Motherland

I first met Il-chul Kang at a sunny outing in June 2002. The outing to Anmyeon Island organized by the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan as a part of the victims' welfare activities was a pleasant, relaxed event that was in sharp contrast to the solemnness associated with the word 'victim.' The comfort women survivors, each with a unique accent, laughed and talked about their past experiences with a sense of lightness. From her childhood memories to her return to South Korea, Mrs. Kang spoke candidly about the sorrows and pain of her experiences without skipping a beat. The two-day event was much more than just a trip to the survivors. Although the survivors lived separate lives, they were all bound by a common denominator. Albeit a short period, the outing was an opportunity for the survivors to relieve the anxiety in their daily lives caused by having to hide their past experiences as comfort women from their children, relatives, and neighbors. For once, the survivors were able to speak frankly without having to worry about who was listening or judging, and Il-chul Kang was no exception. The survivors' positive attitudes relieved my worries that Mrs. Kang might be reticent in our interview or refuse my request altogether. The outing was an excellent ice-breaker for our future interviews.
After the outing, I met Il-chul Kang several times at Wednesday Demonstrations [in front of the Embassy of Japan]. In July 2002, I visited her at the House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, for a formal interview request. Although Mrs. Kang has family who live in Seoul and her hometown of Sangju, North Gyeongsang Province, she has been living in the House of Sharing since her permanent return to South Korea from China in 2000. She felt that there was no need to rely on financial assistance from her relatives. Although the House of Sharing is fully equipped with facilities to provide comfort women survivors with comfortable lives, Mrs. Kang always seized the opportunity to express her disapproval. Her single biggest complaint is that the House of Sharing is operated by Buddhists, because Mrs. Kang is a devout Christian. "God sent me here to test my perseverance," she said. She expressed to me that she was in a "hard fight" to keep her faith in God. This complaint was also the cause of minor bickering with other residents. Despite the looks of disdain from other residents, Mrs. Kang attends church every Sunday morning without fail.
After touring the House of Sharing, I carefully approached Mrs. Kang for an interview, and she refused. The rapport that I had built with Mrs. Kang over the course of the outing and Wednesday Demonstrations came crumbling down in an instant. At the outing, Mrs. Kang said to me, "I'll introduce you to my nephew back home," and we took pictures together. When I first visited the House of Sharing, she introduced me to her friends as a "close companion." However, none of these things guaranteed an interview. In retrospect, the rapport with Mrs. Kang probably served as an obstacle, and my request for an interview is likely to have caught her off-guard. Despite the setback, I continued to stay in contact with Mrs. Kang through phone calls and saw her at Wednesday Demonstrations. I remained persistent in my requests, and finally she asked me, "So what is it that you want to know?"
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Il-chul Kang's stories moved accurately through time as if she was reading well-organized notes, step-by-step. Mrs. Kang's childhood and abduction, the time she spent in Changchun, Mudan River, and Ji'an, as well as her nursing career and return to Korea were all told in chronological order as described in this book. Her stories remained relatively consistent and accurate in compared to her 1998 Korea Chongshindae Institute interview transcript that I read as preparation. The framework of Mrs. Kang's stories was consistent over the course of four separate interviews, and the sessions seemed to provide her with an opportunity to re-organize the tangled memories of her past. On the other hand, she had to embrace the burden of removing herself from the now-standardized memories and ask why those memories have come to be standardized.
The aforementioned interview with the Korea Chongshindae Institute was conducted prior to Il-chul Kang's permanent return to South Korea. In other words, it was the first time she had ever described her past experiences in an interview format. Did that mean that Mrs. Kang had already standardized the structure of her memories prior to my interview with her? During our interview sessions, Mrs. Kang told me that no one else would be able tell history better than I. It seemed to me that the “history” Mrs. Kang mentioned consisted only of the accounts of her experiences as a comfort woman and that she believed that I, as the interviewer, only wanted to hear that aspect of her life. Perhaps Mrs. Kang's memories have been standardized through her previous interview experiences. Or perhaps her memories have been edited through numerous interviews rather than summarized naturally. The structure of Mrs. Kang’s memories seemed to be asking, “Is this not the story you want to hear from me?”
I inevitably had to ask questions to break the flow of standardization. Rather than delving deeper into actual experiences, the questions probed Mrs. Kang's perspective and emotional state. For example, instead of asking when, how, and to whom she was married, I asked, "What is your perspective on marriage?" Or, in asking Mrs. Kang about her experiences as a nurse, I asked, "Did you ever feel pride while working as a nurse?" To the marriage question, she responded, "Marriage is a must, but you should avoid good-looking people," and continued by speaking about her second husband's infidelity. When she spoke about her nursing career, she stated, "Sure, I saved a lot of people, but I still lost my [first] daughter. I had no money – nothing. She died because she wasn't properly treated," as she reminisced about her first child.
Mrs. Kang complained about current affairs during a significant portion of the interview sessions. Her complaints mainly revolved around the Japanese government's stance on reparations and an official apology, conflicts with other residents in the House of Sharing, and the indifference displayed toward comfort women by the National Assembly and the Ministry of Gender Equality. Mrs. Kang's only personal request was that she be provided with a house so that she and her children in China and Korea could live under one roof. When such complaints and demands were repeated by Mrs. Kang, I asked questions to divert the interviews in different directions. Regardless of the questions, however, she continued with a cascade of complaints and demands directly into the microphone as if someone in the Korean Council or Ministry of Gender Equality would hear what she had to say.
Il-chul Kang's complaints and demands were not separate issues. She wanted the government to take a greater interest in the comfort women issue to hasten the reparations process, and she equated compensation with living together with her children in one house. When she was speaking about the various conflicts that took place in the House of Sharing, she expressed a desire to leave if she owned a house, but that house would have to be big enough for her entire family, not just herself. In the summer of 2002, Mrs. Kang found an apartment that was spacious enough for her alone, but she did not sign a contract, stating that it was not large enough for her whole family. Her dissatisfaction and conflicts were essentially prerequisites for a greater demand.
Il-chul Kang frequently used the phrases "for the country" and "for the future generations" throughout the interviews. She believed that speaking out about her experiences as a comfort woman was an asset to national interests, and her reference to such stories as "history" stressed its value. She stated that if speaking out meant future generations would have a proper understanding of history, she would gladly do so without any material compensation. However, she could not hide her disappointment in the lack of material compensation when she spoke of her decision to move to Korea and leave her family and comfortable life behind in China. Il-chul Kang desired to be recompensed for the childhood lost because of her motherland, as well as the social status in China she lost when she returned to her motherland.

 
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