• Comfort Women
  • Stories Making History

”Memories of Sad Times”

It was the early summer of 2002 on a pretty warm day. Jung-ae[note 111]and I took the West Coast Expressway as if we were Thelma and Louise. During the three hours of driving to Boryeong, we talked so much about topics ranging from Taiji Seo to Geun-hye Park. As soon as we passed the tollgate, I called the lady and said that we would be there soon. We started talking about what to do during the interview session. Born in 1922, she was abducted when she was 19 years old while doing farm work in her hometown in Yuseong. She spent years in Manchuria as a comfort woman. Hers was a typical case of comfort women that we know intimately. Since she registered as a former comfort woman with the government in 1993, she has appeared in TV documentaries and participated in protests. As she was forthcoming like that, we thought it would not be so hard to get answers from her. We decided to ask questions related to what happened before liberation in 1945 in the first interview session. Accordingly, we prepared questions like family relationships and circumstances surrounding her kidnapping. Remembering the scholarly articles we had read about interview technique, we promised not to push her too much and instead let her talk voluntarily and naturally. It seemed that our plan was perfect.
She lived in a rental apartment in downtown Boryeong. We visited her house with a jar of honey as a gift. She was waiting for us in front of the apartment door, walking uncomfortably with her cane. She looked much older than we thought, maybe because of the lack of teeth. The sunny 36-square-meter apartment house was filled with small things she had collected over the years. Inside the bedroom, I could see an old bed and a cupboard full of drugs. In a frame hung high up on the wall, I saw a picture of her when she was young. She was wearing a pretty traditional costume and heavy make-up. All of the six or seven photographs in the frames were taken alone.
We began the interview as we had prepared. She started with curses on the Japanese and raw emotions. She talked in detail about how she was abducted by the Japanese military police while working on the farm. There was no problem until then. But the accounts after her abduction were quite different from what we knew. She said she was taken to a restaurant where she had to work as a maid who prepared meals and washed clothes for the soldiers. Even though there were cases of rape in the restaurant, she had never been a victim of such incidents because she was “shrewd.” Instead, she was taken to many places to do housemaid work. When she said she had never been to a comfort station, we were quite confused. We asked her again, “You have never been [to a comfort station]?” “Why would I go to such a place?” “Are you sure you haven’t?” “Nope. I just heard about it.” “You’ve never been raped by somebody?” “No way, how can that happen to me?” During the whole first interview session, she repeatedly said she never had a situation where she had to sleep with Japanese soldiers unlike any other foolish women and all she did was cleaning and washing clothes all day. She is doing that because she does not want to talk about her past? Or is it because she really believes she did nothing but cleaning and washing? Faced with an unexpected situation, we had little idea what to do.
At the end of the interview, she casually remarked that she takes her ID and house keys on a necklace whenever she leaves home because of Alzheimer’s. “Aha, Alzheimer’s!” In this project that collects the witness’ accounts that require a high degree of reliability, how much can we draw out as true stories from a lady with Alzheimer’s? While returning home from the interview, I had a lengthy talk with Jung-ae about the reliability of the oral statement. If her memories are not so clear because of Alzheimer’s, it would be better to stop now. But her attitude was too serious for us to give up prematurely. The description of situations was also very graphic and vivid. So we decided that we would wait and see.
Before meeting her for the second time, we needed more time to prepare. Whether her refusal to talk about her past was intentional or the result of Alzheimer’s, we thought, it was a manifestation of the scar she had sustained. So we decided to take a detour. Instead of asking direct questions, we prepared questions that are more comfortable for her to answer, such as her family stories and current life. Unexpectedly, however, she told us about experiences during her childhood. While attaching a microphone to her blouse, I jokingly asked her to sing a song for us. I also told her about my college days when I learned how to play the Korean drum. To which she said immediately she was good at drumming. We asked, “Where did you learn to play drum?” She said she learned it at the gisaeng school! And then she demonstrated for us by singing a short song and doing a dance move. According to her explanation, she joined the gisaeng school at the age of 15 with her neighborhood friends because of her curiosity about learning how to sing and dance. When she was abducted to Manchuria, she joined an entertainment troupe because of that background. This time, she did not talk about cleaning and washing and instead continued on with stories about the gisaeng school and the entertainment troupe.
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There were other reasons for our confusion. The fact that she spent years in the gisaeng school was not known to the people in the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, and she never mentioned it in 1993 when she did an interview for a TV program. We suspected the story of the gisaeng school that suddenly came out may not be true. But her accounts quite clearly matched those of scholarly materials during the Japanese colonial time. The fact that she graduated from the school playing the drum and learning how to sing for three years exactly matched the historical fact that gisaeng houses doubled as schools for small girls learning to be future gisaeng. There was no reason for us to doubt the veracity of her accounts anymore. But we wondered why she had never told anyone about her experience in the gisaeng school before. Maybe that is because she thought the experience at the school did not square with that of other comfort women? Just like the fictional character Mrs. Han in Memories of Sad Times, a novel by Won-il Kim, the Alzheimer’s symptoms of Chung-ja Noh may be a manifestation of memories suppressed for such a long time. We are aware of the perils of rash judgment and we decided to open up many other possibilities.
There were other issues to address. The lady did not tell us about her experience as a comfort woman. Just one time she said she allowed a Japanese officer who helped her run away from the military barracks to sleep with her. That was all she told us. It was like we have not got our hands on the “incriminating evidence.”
In television interviews she did seven or eight years ago she talked freely about her experience as a comfort woman. But now she is saying, “There was no such thing.” While trying to figure out what to do, a woman who was living with the lady told us an important tip. The lady told anyone in the neighborhood that she used to be a comfort woman. So that was public knowledge. After she began suffering from Alzheimer’s, however, she has tried to hide the fact from everybody. Whenever she hears about it, she would say, “How can they know about my past?” She would lose her temper, saying, “Who told about it?”
It seems that from the bottom of her heart she does not want anyone to talk about her past in any way. She was anxious to hide her past from everyone. That is why she was trying to hide it even though everyone in the neighborhood knows it. Even talking with us during the interview, she often looked outside whenever she heard a small noise and said, “Wait, wait a second.” Even though she denied that she had ever fallen victim to the “bad situation,” she trembled and cried quietly whenever a mention of Japanese soldiers was made. She was in effect testifying with her own body, not in words.

Her Alzheimer symptoms did not keep us from collecting important witness accounts. The memories damaged by the trauma were not just things that happened in the past. Her symptoms recreated her memories in new and unexpected ways. The symptoms somehow let the rational control in her mind loose and made her tell things she had tried so hard to hide for decades. In addition, these symptoms made her reveal the unconscious obsession to hide her shameful past. Unlike her forthcoming attitude years ago when she testified in front of the TV camera, she insisted that she had never been forced into prostitution and no “bad situation” happened to her. That is probably because of her inhibition that has dominated her mind for so long. For this reason, her witness accounts may not be 100% factual. Instead, her accounts are a mixture of actual experience and her own interpretation reflecting her state of mind. I hope her storytelling is taken with a grain of salt, instead of being taken literally.

 
[note 111]
She did the interview of Chung-ja Noh jointly with her colleague Jung-ae Park.
[note 111]
She did the interview of Chung-ja Noh jointly with her colleague Jung-ae Park.
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