Glasses and a Gold Wristwatch
I walked along the small stream in downtown Masan. Turning and entering a small alley on the right side of a small concrete bridge, I saw a single-story house with a blue door. I knocked on the door and entered the house. “Grannie, it’s me!” “Oh, I missed you so much!” Just like a child waits for mother, she was waiting for me. Ms. Lim always welcomes me like that with a broad smile. Since some time ago, she has waited for me like that. Having someone eagerly waiting for you is really flattering.
In the summer of 2002 it rained a lot. The first day and the last day I met the lady were really stormy days due to a typhoon. When Typhoon Rammasun enveloped the Korean Peninsula in July 2002, I met her for the first time. It seemed that the typhoon was a prelude to an encounter that might not be smooth. With the anxiety from the bad weather and the first meeting with a former comfort woman for the Imperial Japanese Army, I took the bus to Masan. It took five hours to get there. Fortunately by the time our team arrived at the southern city, the storm had calmed.
Before meeting the lady, I was told by an official at City Hall that she is friendly and talks freely with the press. Feeling relieved, I went to the area where she lives, accompanied by an official with the dong office. The sky was still dark from storm clouds and the interior of her house was also dark with feeble light coming out of the windows. The lady welcomed me with a warm smile, saying it must have been a hard trip because of the typhoon. Her kind remarks dissipated the anxieties that I had when I began the journey.
She is currently living with a nephew in a small house with the money the government paid her when she registered as a former sex slavery victim. Since her younger sister died, she has raised the nephew who treats her like his mother. She always consults with the nephew whenever important matters come up. It seems that the nephew is an important part of the lady’s life.
At the first meeting, she was home alone. She said the nephew left home knowing that I would visit. As soon as I walked in the room, I saw a picture of a woman in her 40s with unusually white skin in a large frame. It was Jung-ja Lim. Now her weathered face is covered with wrinkles. But the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and lips made me feel comfortable. Her room was neat and tidy and looked like it had been cleaned just before my visit. In the room’s cupboard were three Japanese songbooks. As the lady loves to sing, she often turns on the gramophone and listens to trot songs or Japanese enka. It seems singing is the only entertainment for her as she is confined to home mostly.
Maybe because of the camaraderie from the fact that I was a member of the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan or because of her extroverted nature, she did not feel inhibited when talking with me. Her attitude made it easier for me to interview her. She began talking emotionlessly about the days at the comfort station. Her memories were fairly vivid and she told her stories quite logically. She was abducted by Japanese soldiers at the well when she was 17 years old. Her experience for eight years was typical of comfort women who were in most cases forced into prostitution. While talking about her past, she often fell into deep reminiscence and shed tears. Looking at her, I became aware of the pain she went through all her life and how it was unimaginable for ordinary women like me.
She talked without pause as if she had met an old friend of hers. That’s probably because she had been lonely for such a long time. After four hours of non-stop talk, our interview was interrupted by the return of her nephew in the evening. I promised her that before doing the second interview I would take her to the hospital at the next visit as she said she had not been outside for a month.
It was the next Monday, two days after the first meeting. I arrived at her home at 10 am, as promised. Still, she complained, “What took you so long?” She said she had been waiting for me for hours after waking up early in the morning. That is why it felt so long even though I got there on time. She was busy preparing to go out. She thought hard about what to wear and ended up picking a pink jacket after asking my opinion. On her finger she wore a ring with a big jewel, with a gold watch on her left wrist. She finished with horn-rimmed glasses and finally stepped out of the house. But the glasses and gold wristwatch are just decorations that do not help her a lot. That is because her vision in one eye is very weak after undergoing cataract surgery two years ago. The gold watch on her left wrist is of no use either because it stopped working long ago. The unmoving hands show 11:20.
I visited her place even on days without an interview. By meeting her more often personally, I felt I was gaining her confidence. At some point, she began treating me like a trusted friend rather than an interviewer and started opening up to me. I thought I could continue the interview without problems as she began to talk more freely about herself. I never thought something would happen to disrupt our little business.
Two weeks after I had visited her home for the first time, her nephew married a second time, which was the cause of the problem. When I entered her room for a second interview, the whole house was lit brightly and the lady’s face was happier than ever before. She introduced me to her daughter-in-law as someone from a government agency in Seoul. She explained to her I was there to find out what she did when she was dispatched as an entertainment troupe member during the Japanese colonial period. From then on, she was nervously looking to the side of the door fearing that her daughter-in-law might overhear what we were talking about. It seems she was afraid the new daughter-in-law might look down on her if she found out. Even the nephew had asked her to talk quietly when we did the interview so that his new wife would not hear it. Although she welcomed my visit, she was worried that her past would be revealed to the daughter-in-law.
After detecting what she wanted, I tried to finish the interview as soon as possible, preparing the third interview focusing on the itineraries of the comfort stations she was transferred to and how she got there while asking questions about what she had said previously. She was one of the few women who were moved around to many places. For this reason, it was hard for her to remember everything that happened 60 years ago. In the end, I was unable to determine all of the itineraries and the means of transportation. But I prepared much before the interviews and I learned to wait for answers with a long pause. Maybe because of this attitude, Ms. Lim began to talk about her life at the comfort stations and some personal stories, such as married life after her return to Korea, that she had never told anyone including her nephew. Nearing the end of the interviews, it seemed that I had obtained nearly all the information I needed.
When I visited her for the last interview, she had just been discharged from the hospital after a breathing problem. In addition, she had some domestic problem, which made it difficult to continue the interview. To make matters worse, the surroundings were so noisy and shaky due to Typhoon Lusa that she became more emotional and tearful. I thought that I could not continue the interview and said that today’s session was over and I did not want to bother her anymore. If the storm on the first day of the interview was what made her start talking, maybe the storm on the last day was what made her rest.
Two months later, I returned to the lady’s home to get approval for publishing her stories in a book. She looked better than before, probably because of the oriental medicine health supplement she had been taking for one month. We started with pleasantries about what happened during the last two months. After our meal, I cautiously broached the subject of publishing the book. From the beginning, I told her repeatedly why I was doing the interviews, to which she consented. Still she was anxious about the prospect of her stories being read by many people. In the end, we agreed that I use a pseudonym Soon-ja Kang – the last name from mine and the second syllable of the first name her own. She asked, “Who’s going to take the book if I die?” So I promised her, “I will keep it forever.” She was still unsure about it and asked her nephew in the next room. Upon hearing this, the nephew said he understands this is a meaningful project but it will embarrass his family and left the room. She said meekly, “Sorry, he doesn’t want it” and took out a cigarette.
She was afraid that the nephew might lose face if her past as a forced prostitute was revealed. He also thought that way, it seemed. She was anxious that the book might damage her nephew’s career. What made her think that way? The travails of Jung-ja Lim are entirely because of the Japanese imperial ambitions. Still she is ashamed of herself and her family does not want her to reveal it. She still believes those kinds of stories are better left untold. Underneath the silence of Ms. Lim there lies the desire to live an ordinary life. Maybe that is what made her keep silent for the past 60 years. True, it must be exceedingly difficult for her to divulge her past after all these years. It must take unusual courage to overcome society’s judgment. Thinking about what may be going through her mind, I could not say anything as my heart was filled with sympathy for her.
Six months later, I received a call from an officer with the council. It was a miracle! The lady has made an important decision. She gave permission to an official with the council who visited Masan to use her real name in the book. Now she had taken a step forward to the world to break the 60-year-old silence. As Jung-ja Lim, not as Soon-ja Kang.