“ Let’s Not Talk about the Past. It Just Makes My Heart Break”
- Born in Daedeok County, Chungcheong Province.
(the official year of birth is 1922)
- (15 years old)
- Learned how to dance and sing at a gisaeng school.
- Around 1938
- (19 years old)
- She was arrested by the military police and began working as a comfort woman for the Japanese Army in places such as Manchuria.
- (26 years old)
- Returned to Korea after liberation.
Maintained a livelihood as a peddler, street vendor, and shaman.
- Lived with a man named Kwon during.
- (73 years old)
- Registered as a former comfort woman with the Japanese Army.
- Kwon's death in the same house.
- (85 years old)
- Living in a rented apartment in Boryeong, South Chungcheong Province.
“Why do you bring up sad stories that will make me upset? For what purpose?
(Stroking her chest like she has heartburn) “Whenever I am reminded about the past I have pain here. You can never understand how it feels unless you experience it yourself. Something huge inside comes out whenever I think about it.
“Damn fucking bastards. They should all go to hell. After all these years, they still deny, deny, and deny? The victims are still alive and they are still weeping, crying, and screaming. Can’t they see the people in pain?
“They ruined thousands of young girls’ lives. They still have something to say?
Old Single Lady
I don’t know why but I used to say I would never get married no matter what.
“[My hometown is] Yuseong. From the spa, you walk a little bit farther.
“It was a suburban neighborhood, with some people farming and others doing something else. It was not entirely a remote village. The people were somehow affluent.
“My house? It was not a tile-roofed house, but a big thatched-roof house. With two full-time servants.
“We had a good amount of land under our ownership, including rice paddies and farmlands.
“There were many relatives living nearby. My family was the Gyoha Noh lineage (交河盧氏). That’s where our whole extended family was based.
“The village elders would never allow the girls to go out. The only entertainment for us girls was to go out in the evening under the pretext of carrying water from the well. Relationships among siblings and cousins were so intimate.
“[My father was] an educated man. He even taught his children how to read and write.
“There was a village school in the neighborhood. In the evening after work, he would teach there.
“My mom stayed home and did a little farming and household chores and the like.
“I had three older brothers, two younger brothers, and a younger sister.
“The eldest brother was very smart and got married in Japan. He even invited some of the nephews to study there. At the time he was hired as a teacher in Japan. That’s how he spent his life in Japan.
“As my family had big farms, I was always busy doing farm work. So my only opportunity to learn to read and write was going to night school. That’s all. Just one hour a day and then I returned home.
“[Back then] I was an old single lady already. My parents wanted me to get married. But I said no. I want to live with you for the rest of my life doing farm work like this.
‘(Singing) Hanging a fishing pole in the water, sitting on the mountain slope…’
“I was 15 years old when I entered the gisaeng school (gwonbeon) .
“Most of my friends were attending that school. I didn’t know what it was exactly. I just went with them as they asked me to join them.
“All we did was sing and play the drum.
“[The gisaeng school teacher would] call out our names one by one. If you are called, you have to go on the stage and sing a song.
“[The place to sing was] a kind of theater. You had to sing while dancing.
“I had a good voice. I could sing any song well.
“I was just glad to hear people applaud and call out, ‘Encore.’ So I sang “Hanging a fishing pole in the water, sitting on the mountain slope…” Then people clapped and [laughter] said, “Beautiful.” My voice was much better than now. I was dominating the stage, so to speak.
“[Back then] I was pretty and my hands were so smooth. Whenever I stood on the stage, people would yell out [smiling] “Encore, encore.”
“There was no dormitory or eating place at the school.
“It was a real gisaeng house where you had to pour drinks for customers. That’s for professional gisaeng.
“But I was just learning how to dance and sing. I won a lot of prizes for doing well in dancing and singing.
“Sometimes I won fabric for Korean clothing as a prize. The colors were so pretty--with light pink with flowery designs.
“I graduated [from the gisaeng school] in three years.
“I told my parents that I graduated [from the gisaeng school]. They said what kind of girl is doing such vulgar work deserving only for low-class people. It was a long time ago, and they used to discriminate against people like that. So I was confined to home and even when I went to the bathroom, they were worried that I had disappeared. Sometimes when I was upset, I would sing aloud in the bathroom. Then my parents would say, “She has gone crazy now.” I would sing louder until they became disgusted and went away.
“My father always chased me wherever I went. He would beat me with a club. Sometimes he beat me so hard.
“One day I showed the citations I won from the school to father and begged him to allow me to go back to the school for a contest. He said, “Okay, then this time only and don’t go back ever. This is the last time. Stop going to the gisaeng school. No more!”
Open-topped Freight Car
They just left with hundreds of people crammed in the train car
“(Her voice shaking) I feel anger whenever I talk about that. If I had a knife, I would have stabbed myself to death. I get choked up every time I think about it.
“I think I was 17 or 18 years old. Women would work together on the farm. Several of us were working on the farm with hired hands. Then four or five uniformed men approached us. They were so good at spotting young unmarried girls. I was working on the farms and suddenly they, [talking to herself], it doesn’t make sense. They just picked me up and dragged me. I screamed out, “Help, help, some hoodlums are kidnapping me!” The people working with me were running to me with their hoes in their hands. But the men were too fast and I didn’t know their language. No matter what I said in Korean, cursing and screaming, it didn’t matter. They didn’t understand me. So that’s how I was abducted.
“The Japs, I think they were from the military police, were as bad as the detectives in the police station. They were considered more powerful than civilian detectives.
“But what did I know back then because I was just a small girl doing farm work. The women working with me in the back just screamed out loud “What can I do, what can I do?” But they couldn’t do anything about it. Who would run and grab me no matter how loud I screamed? It just happened because the monsters dragged me like an animal.
“I was put in an open-topped train car with so many girls in it.
“We were just there crying. There was no use crying. What can you do about it? Nothing. Who will save us? Some fellow Koreans? So many girls were kidnapped that way. I suffered a lot and cried a lot. Just thinking about it makes me feel pain all over again.
“Back then, I don’t even remember how many days I traveled. In the open-topped freight car, we were fed a rice ball and pickled radish. That was all I ate, with drinking water from a jug in the car. I was being kidnapped and I didn’t even know when my life would end. So I cursed them as much as I could. They didn’t understand Korean and I didn’t know Japanese. You fucking bastards, don’t you have children and loved ones? We kicked and jumped and screamed our lungs out. How could they understand what we were talking about?
“I thought maybe they were taking us to use as servants. What else could I imagine?
“Where was that? It’s been too long and I don’t remember exactly. They said the train stopped in Japanese territory. But there were not many soldiers around.
“Once we got off the train, we just sat there because we were so exhausted and hungry. As we were packed in such a small place, many suffered broken arms and shoulders [pointing to her shoulder]. In the evening, I found there was nobody left in the train station. At sunset, I was left alone in the station. I was scared. I screamed out and called some of the girls I knew. But no one answered. The Japs at the platform were talking. It seemed like what to do with me. And then one of them came to me to drag me to some place. I resisted and the other ones came and took four limbs of mine to lift me to somewhere. How can I resist when four or five big men did that? The whole way I was dragged, I screamed and kicked
Sometimes they tried to take me to rooms.
“It was like a fortress. A fortress where nobody can get out. There was no way to get out because two guys were standing guard.
“I could see the military station, although not so close. From afar I could see soldiers walking around, hanging the laundry, and exercising.
“Once I got out of the sleeping quarters, I could see trees and soldiers exercising, and the like.
“I was so worried about what my fate would be and kept my fingers crossed not to be taken to a bad place.
“The place I was taken was a kind of restaurant. The kidnappers took girls to this place and got paid a middleman’s fee.
“Some of the girls became comfort women and some others went to shokudō (restaurants). Our group was fortunate enough to work in the shokudō while other groups were taken to whorehouses.“It was not exactly a comfort station, but it was called Asahi Shokudō. And then I would pour liquor in the shot glasses of the guests sitting in rows [stretching her arms].
“Tokkuri (sake flask). There is a liquor flask called tokkuri. So I would walk to the guest and pour sake like this [with a gesture to pour sake] whenever the shot glass was empty.
“What else can you do? Once you were abducted there, you have to do what they told you to do, pour wine and eat food on the table.
“[Japanese soldiers who came to the restaurant] told me to sing. [Then I would say] “Watashi wa utau dekinai” That’s how I coped with requests.
And then they would say, “Musume-san utau yare.” ‘Watashi wa utau wakaranai desu yo.’ ‘Dōshite no utau ka?’ I would resist like that. I asked them how I could sing and the like to make them think I was a difficult girl. Some compliant girls were loved by the guests but arrogant-acting girls like me were not so popular.
“The place was frequented by all different people, Japanese, Korean, and all different nationalities.
“[A Korean man who came to the restaurant often was] Tsūyaku-san. Tsūyaku-gun (Interpreter-soldier). I just knew him as Tsūyaku-san.
“[Japanese men who came to the restaurant were] both military personnel and civilians. Most civilians worked for the military station.“They tried to grab my hands and drag me to a room. Then I would respond quickly, “ Baka yarō, kono yarō!” That’s how I learned how to curse. I was that tough. I acted tough so that the guests wouldn’t touch me out of fear.
“Some weak women were sometimes raped by a gang of men in the room. Often it was by one or two guys. Some other times it was by four or five guys. In that case the woman would be almost dead. Taken to the hospital on a stretcher.
“Then the woman would lie there like a dead body with a dark complexion. How can you know how many men attacked her? Like a dead body. Sometimes it was two women at the same time being taken to the hospital on a stretcher. Sometimes three. Whenever I saw that, I wanted to hide in some place, like in a haystack. I just wanted to hide and never get out.
“It drove me crazy. I didn’t listen to the owner and sometimes I was beaten
because I was so stubborn.” I would talk back, “Who are you to teach me? Leave me alone.”
“The boss always nagged me because I wasn’t compliant.
“He slapped me around and sometimes hit me in the back.
“The women working there went to the military station once a week to clean their barracks.
“They washed their clothes and cleaned the rooms. It was like they were housemaids. Real housemaids, unpaid ones at that. There were so many rooms in the barracks. Several hundred women did the work together.
“And can you imagine how much laundry work to do? We worked until late at night. The next day, we came back to work with a small rice ball as breakfast, doing laundry and cleaning.
“Some of the bastards even pooped in their clothes after drinking too much. There were so many different kinds of people. So I cheated a lot. The underwear smelled so bad. Why would you touch and clean it? I would just fold the underwear and flush it down the toilet. Then [the owner of the underwear] would ask me, “Where is my underwear?” Then I would answer, “Mita koto ga nai desu yo.” Then he would say, “Okashii na, okashii na” (That’s strange) and let it go. I fooled them a lot, the Japs.
“Once the laundry was dry, I would fold it neatly. If I did the job well, they would tip me. So I figured out I would do the job well for good tippers only.
Everyone in front was soldiers. I sang in front of the soldiers in dark yellow uniforms.
“Entertainment troupe from the restaurantin military stations.
“Usually the show was once a week.
“They would create restaurant spaces and put props on the stage. For this week we would be in this place and the next week we would be in that place. The schedule was like that and then we had to do everything to follow it.
“Everyone in front was soldiers. I sang in front of the soldiers in dark yellow uniforms. I took two fans and danced with them.
“Back then I did everything not to be selected for the entertainment troupe. But I was selected in the end.
“I didn’t want to do anything. But I was selected as the No. 1 pick.
“Entertainment troupe, what’s good in that? I suffered a lot when I was touring for the troupe, especially when I learned something.
“There were Japanese women [in the entertainment troupe].
“I worked hard not to lose to the Japanese. Not to lose to the bitches, I did my best on stage and got a lot of applause.
Whenever I saw Korean women looked down on, I would say, “You morons, why can’t you do this [moving her hands like dancing]?” When [the entertainment troupe head] watched them and said, “‘Kono yarō, atama ga baka yarō.” When he said that, I felt so bad.
“[When I performed on the stage] I wore Japanese dress, kimono. And the matching hairdo.
“[If you joined the entertainment troupe,] you didn’t get paid. Instead, you are fed well.
Women from Hometown
We talked all night about things from our past, sobbing and laughing.
“I had a specific place to sleep.
“It was separate sleeping quarters. We gathered our heads on one side with the middle part left empty so that any one of us could walk without stepping on anybody.
“It wasn’t a Japanese-style tatami room. There were beds made of sticks.
“Sometimes if there were three or four women from the same hometown, we would chat all night about things from our past, sobbing and laughing. We didn’t even know when the sun rose.
“There were some nice people there. It didn’t matter if they were Japanese or Korean. Later they called me Ne-chan, Ne-chan” because I was older than them. Between close friends, we talked, “Darn, when can we go back home to Korea? It looks like we will end up dying here. Let’s survive together until we return home.” We would cry our eyes out. Most of the girls were sold there. [Middlemen took them] for a fee.
“[A woman who called me an older sister was] a difficult character to deal with. I don’t know why she was so bitchy. Maybe because she was lonely. Anyway she earned so much money. One day when there was nobody, she talked [whispering] to me, “Sister, who would know what we did when we return home?” So let’s make a lot of money when we can. I already earned a lot. I will spend it like a queen. She had a small bag full of money. She said she would spend it like a queen.
“The boss at the place would pay us. We were paid by the day.
Even rubbish medals made you work less.
“All I did was run some errands for them and make them feel good. Then they gave me medals or awards. There was nothing special about the award. I would get a small piece of paper and a box of cookies. That was it.
“As I was wearing an arm band, they treated me like a second lieutenant or a first lieutenant. All you needed to get awards was to kiss their ass.
“Once you were given a medal, you would hang it on your arm. Then you wear it on the arm band with a couple of pins. You wear it walking around, officers would salute you. [On the arm band] there was a mark that you were a first lieutenant or a second lieutenant. That’s why the officers would salute you without missing a beat.“I did all the errands, with cleaning jobs too. When I finished the job, I was so exhausted. So I would sit down and a boss who was nice to me would ask, “Oh, Chintoko-san, itai desu ka?” ‘Hai, itai desu yo. Atama ga itai desu yo..’ Then he would say, “Come to me, I will give you a fake medal so that you can take a few days off.” That’s how I took days off doing nothing.
“When I did the supervisor’s job, I ate well because the women would bring me snacks to flatter me. They would sneak in food and sweets. I couldn’t help it because they forced me. Once I took the bribe, I couldn’t be mean to them. At least I wouldn’t be cruel to them and tried to be fair.
I just ran without even looking.
“I ended up doing the laundry for some boss. I would tidy up his clothes. Then he said, “Sentaku shimashita, hai yo..’ He was that polite to me. I kind of liked him, too.
“That Japanese was a gentleman. He used to say to me what a poor girl to work in a strange place away from home. How hard it is to work for the military. Sometimes he even massaged my shoulders and back.
“[I said to the Japanese officer] please send me back to Kankoku (Korea), Otōsan mo Okaasan mo minna are in Korea. They think I am dead. If I can’t go to Korea, I just want to die here. Please kill me when I close my eyes. And then I would cry my eyes out. He felt sorry for me and gave me a handkerchief to wipe the tears. He said, “No, I can’t kill you.” Damn, every time I think about it, I get emotional. So I wiped my tears and sat there.
“And then he said, “Kawaisō, ne. Mō sukoshi matte kudasai .’ Poor girl, please wait a little longer.
“So I did the cleaning work harder, being nicer to him, too. He was a first lieutenant. And he tried to be intimate with me. Maybe he figured I would never get out here without his help. So I thought, “What’s the point of staying here till the day I die. Why not sleep with him and finally go back home. That’s much better than dying here.” I felt I would really die here without seeing my parents and siblings ever. So I did whatever he told me to. Yeah, sleep with me, I said. That’s how I had sex with him. Otherwise there was no way to get out of there. Every time he came to me in the evening, he slept with me. So I figured I slept with him once, so what’s the big difference in sleeping with him two or three times.
“[One day] he said to wait until 12 midnight or 1 am without going to sleep. Come out of the room. Then you could go back home in Korea. So I asked, “Are you sure you are getting me out of here?” I would prostrate myself to you ten times if you did.
“Anyway he told me to come out. So I went out of the room at around 1 am. Outside there were two soldiers standing guard.
“From where I stood, the concertina wires were kind of far. The wires were scary looking.
“He said to me, the walls are out there. You get out fast while I stand guard. If a red flag waves, then that means guards are coming. If there is nothing, then the coast is clear. Approach the walls and get out through the doghole quickly. Once you go through the hole, you will be safe.
“I am grateful to him. Even though he took advantage of me sexually, he saved my life by letting me go. I am really thankful to him.
“[The restaurant owner] had no idea. If she knew, she would have demanded the money she paid to the middleman. I just snuck out.
“After I got out, it was Fengtian..
“I walked and took a bus and made a transfer . I kept asking and asking while coming back.
“[In the train] I said to the conductor I had no money. Kill me if you want. But he let me ride. Yoshi! (Alright!).
“So I took the train down south, asking around everywhere. It was a real ordeal. Don’t even ask. [In tears] I walked, begged, and slept outside.
“So many days I was hungry without eating anything the whole day. I thought, “Can I really see my parents and siblings or will I die on the road?” Sometimes I just sat on the road and cried out loud. Then someone came and asked, “Okane ga nai desu yo?’ Sometimes I would say, “Yes, I need money.” [In trembling voice] then they would give me some money. If I start with the story, it’s endless.
Don’t ask me, I did everything I had to.
“So I went to the place where my parents were (Yuseong).
“I made a big scene. Everyone in the neighborhood came out. Everybody cried for me and my parents.
“So I lived with my parents. But soon afterward my mother passed away. I sold the house and moved to Gyeonggi Province. From Gyeonggi Province I then moved to Daecheon. Daecheon was such a good place to live, with inexpensive produce and seafood and nice people. Daecheon was the best place I’ve ever lived.
“I worked as a street vendor selling food items in a washbowl.
“It was mostly selling food. Food is the best thing to sell.
“So I sold everything I could see. It was a good time for me. I could make some money, too. I replenished the inventory three times a day and came back home in the evening. [Pointing to a plastic bag in front of her] then I could bring home a bag full of cash.
“Sometimes I would change the items depending on the situation. While living alone, [pointing to the interviewer’s handbag] I carried around a bag like that. I would fill it up with cash [pointing to the upper part of the bag] and I didn’t know how hard it was. I just had fun saving money.
“I had so many regular customers because I was nice to them.
“One time I even opened a store. Another time I tried a moneylending business. But I lost a lot of money from it. So that’s life, eat or be eaten.
“I did a teahouse business in Japan. Maybe for seven or eight years.
“A friend of mine in Japan came to take me. So I followed along. She was a childhood friend who used to live next door. She said, “What are you doing? Let’s make money when we can.” So if you have no children, you have to have money instead. What are you doing in this countryside? She insisted so much that I took my passport and went to Japan with her.
“As soon as I joined her [in Japan], the place was filled with customers.
“I made tons of money. But I squandered all that on hospital bills for surgeries.
“I went through surgeries on this part [pointing to her groin]. There was a tumor this big [with her fist closed] so I had it removed and all. [Showing the interviewer where she underwent surgery.] It was a real bad tumor. I still have a scar from that.“If I told you my whole story, you will cry all day and night. If I start talking, it will take days. Let’s not get started with this.
“[My siblings] some are dead and some are alive. I try not to meet them because they try to take money from me. Without them I live a comfortable life, eating what I like to eat with no worry whatsoever.
“You know how much I got extorted from them? Tens of millions of won. Now I tell them on the phone. I don’t have any sympathy for you. So don’t try to deal with me. I won’t meet you until the day I die. I just say that to them.
If he had not died, we would have lived together longer.
“Where is romance? There was no such thing in my time. Back then it was like you visit someone’s house and talk and get friendly. I was good at telling funny stories. He was better at telling funny stories. That’s how we got close, and then he suggested that we live together.
“[He was] such a nice person. If I told him to do this, he would say, “Yes.” I asked him to do that, and he would do that without complaint. He never made me feel sad. He gave me a lot of love. When he was sitting in front of the door, he would get up right away as soon as he saw me come in with things in the washbowl and took the things. And then he massaged my legs and shoulders [gesturing to massage the legs].
“As he was good at preparing meals, he cooked for me with groceries bought from the market. He took care of me so well. And then he died suddenly. That made me sad and lonely. I had no one to rely on. Yeah, I suffered a lot in my life.
“He was such a scholar-like character. All he did was follow me around to take care of me. He spoke softly and gentleman-like.
“[He had] two sons who died when they were young. He said they were so smart. They died from measles, just like that. It’s strange. Some people have no children no matter how hard they try.
I feel pain in my legs whenever I stretch them after sitting a while.
“[What the Japanese did wrong to me was] force me to work in a drinking establishment and make me pour drinks to male customers.
“So they [the Japanese] deserve to pay compensation. As I suffered because of them.
“Years back when the government investigated former comfort women, I registered for it and afterward I got paid every month. That’s how I made a living. I have no other income now.
“The best time of my life? Maybe when I was 35 or 36 years old.
“I think that was the best time, the relationship with him was good, too. I have some money stashed away. I had a moneylending business with it.
“The worst time was when I was sick.
“I feel saddest when I am sick. When I am healthy, I don’t get so depressed. I am a healthy woman in normal times. But once I get sick, I get sick a lot. I can’t even get up and I have nosebleeds all day.
“If I have the right mind, then what’s there to worry about? These days I lose my mind probably because of Alzheimer’s.
“My back hurts, too. I have to lie down after two hours of sitting. So I have to lie in bed so much of the day.
“I don’t know when I will die. Maybe I will die soon. I feel weird these days.
“And I get sad for no reason. It didn’t happen before, but I get sad for no obvious reason. I feel pain in my legs whenever I stretch them after sitting a while.
“I have a lot of dreams about dead people I used to know. My dead husband, too. He would say, “Eat well, gain strength. You have only a few years left.”
“Whenever I have dreams like that, I feel strongly that I will be gone soon. That’s what I feel.
“So that’s so simple. I die and somebody takes my money. All I want now is somebody who will bury me in a nice place. I just want to adopt a daughter who will take care of me while I am alive and care for my grave after I’m gone. I have nothing else that I want. That’s all I want. That’s my life, you know.
“Let’s not talk about the past. It just makes my heart break.”
- [note 091]
- Yuseong District, Daejeon City, South Chungcheong Province
- [note 092]
- The gisaeng school was run by the Gisaeng Union during Japanese colonial rule. The school taught its students dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments.
- [note 093]
- The people who kidnapped the girls from Korea were talking about what to do with Chung-ja Noh, just like the other girls.
- [note 094]
- Means “I can’t sing”
- [note 095]
- Means “Young girl, sing for us.”
- [note 096]
- Means “I don’t know how to sing.”
- [note 097]
- Means “Why do you sing?”
- [note 098]
- It means that most civilians who frequented the restaurant were military dependents.
- [note 099]
- Means “You idiot, you bastard.”
- [note 100]
- Means “I haven’t seen it.”
- [note 101]
- After the 1937 Sino-Japanese War broke out, the Japanese organized the entertainers into cultural promotion troupes for the soldiers. It was called the entertainment troupe, and went to places in Korea and Manchuria to put on shows
- [note 102]
- Means “You idiots.”
- [note 103]
- It means that the restaurant manager often presented an arm band for good work to the kitchen workers who were treated by lower-rank soldiers with reverence.
- [note 104]
- Means “Chintoko-san (the Japanese name of Chung-ja Noh), do you have pain?”
- [note 105]
- ”Yes, I feel pain. My head aches.”
- [note 106]
- Means “Did you finish the laundry?”
- [note 107]
- Means “Father and mother and everyone.”
- [note 108]
- Fengtian County (奉天縣), Fengtian Province (奉天省), Manchukuo. Fengtian is today’s Shenyang (瀋陽).
- [note 109]
- Means “You don’t have money?”
- [note 110]
- Chung-ja Noh had surgery on the upper part of her thigh because of a large syphilitic tumor.