Searching for Lost Memories
To someone who had never met any living persons with historical experiences from Korea's colonial period, the opportunity to meet and converse with a former 'comfort woman' was a particularly precious one in which I would be able to face a living witness. What type of person would she be? Would she be well-spoken? Would her memories be clear? Would she be uncomfortable with or offended by me? My mind was filled with questions while traveling to visit Bong-i Kim in July 2002.
Mrs. Kim lives a simple life alone in a clean and quiet part of Gochang. Her house was quiet, and balsam flowers and bellflowers lined a small flower bed in the yard. I visited her on a particularly hot summer day, but the door of her house was closed. When I called for her, the door opened, and a petite Mrs. Kim emerged from a dark room. Her vision had deteriorated to the point of near-blindness, and so she was already accustomed to darkness even on a bright summer day. We entered her room, turned on the light, and exchanged greetings. I explained to her about the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and asked for her consent to the interview for future publication. She asked how I knew that she was a former 'comfort woman.' She nodded yes for the interview and let me know that if it would be of assistance, she would tell me everything she remembered. And so the story began.
“I understand. I want as many people to know about this so that Japan pays for their crimes. As long as my name and face don’t appear in the book, you can send it to Japan. Those animals.”
The purpose of interviewing former 'comfort women' is to thwart the efforts of those who have denied or attempted to forget the history of people from the Japanese colonial period while at the same time to comprehend how the past experiences of the survivors are continuing to affect national discourse. On the other hand, to Mrs. Kim, the published testimony means widespread knowledge and retribution. Through her testimony, Mrs. Kim wished to share her life with millions of people and show her defiance to the people of Japan who had marginalized her life by denying the existence of 'comfort women.'
Mrs. Kim's story was not some folk tale that had been passed down through generations. Due to her illiteracy, Mrs. Kim had never written about her experiences. She had not even expressed her feelings or described her experiences to anyone. It is never easy for anyone to reveal and share painful memories with others. In the first interview, I reciprocated to Mrs. Kim's long stories with numerous short questions. The experience felt as if I was a child again listening to my grandmother's folk tales. I felt regret when she started to struggle with her respiration. Embarrassingly, I had a preconceived notion that she would be a source of endless stories. Mrs. Kim's stories were told in brief chunks. They were no different than other short conversations between two people, and she often became frustrated as if she was being stifled. Decades had passed since her life as a 'comfort woman,' and due to the mental illnesses caused by years of trauma she struggled to remember exactly where she went, what she did, or how she returned. However, the people who were at the center of important relationships and the heinous situations that had carved indelible memories in Mrs. Kim's mind were slowly being revealed one by one.
The very first sentiment that Bong-i Kim expressed in the initial interview was the shame that she felt not only for her life experiences as a 'comfort woman,' but the fact that people in her life would soon discover the truth about her past. She described the pain she felt when she was forcibly taken by strange visitors and the circumstances for receiving a beating on the ship to Japan. I believed that how she remembered her own experiences was closely related to what she wanted to say. The first interview mostly consisted of accounts of her abduction, violence she suffered while being transported to Japan, her friend at the comfort station, the onset of mental illness, and life after the war. Her life at the comfort station was simply dismissed with the words "mental illness" as she was reluctant to expound upon her experiences. I followed Mrs. Kim’s lead in the first and second interviews and concentrated on building rapport while she spoke of her family and everyday experiences. In the third interview, I attempted to gain deeper access to the specifics of Mrs. Kim's life at the comfort station.
When she recounted her very first rape by a Japanese soldier, she became visibly anxious and physically withdrawn. She calmed herself by placing a hand on her chest and explained that she would not be able to continue without smoking cigarettes. I witnessed first-hand how the memories of traumatic experiences could dominate one's life despite the passing of decades of time. Sometimes, my entire body shuddered as I listened to her accounts of such experiences.
The print version of Mrs. Kim’s story was completed over the course of four separate interviews. Needless to say, listening to and then organizing her entire life story was no simple task. Mrs. Kim's hazy memories were organized chronologically, and the entire story was reconstructed faithfully to her experiences. In addition, a great deal of effort was given to the context of Mrs. Kim's emotions and her subjective understanding, interpretation, and evaluation of her experiences. I tried to be considerate of the integrity of Mrs. Kim's testimony when her memories were chronologically inaccurate or inconsistent, or when she could not recall specific names or dates. However, I realized that the most important task was deciphering the message she wanted to convey through memories that still remained even after 60 years, while at the same time, recording her story for posterity. It is difficult to process her experiences as a ‘comfort woman’ without any bias.
Bong-i Kim registered as a former 'comfort woman' when she joined the Association for War Victims. When her vision was still good during the 1990s, she participated in demonstrations demanding compensation from the Japanese government. She still occasionally participates in activities organized by the Association. Mrs. Kim is very knowledgeable about the experiences of other members of the Association for War Victims, and this has had a significant impact on her opinion of the Japanese government as well as her own memories of being a 'comfort woman.' The damaged parts of Mrs. Kim's memories are filled with the experiences of others, and the contempt she holds toward the Japanese is evident in her everyday life. Mrs. Kim has expressed her disdain for the solar calendar as "it's a tool of the Japanese," and she has violently cursed at the Japanese attorneys who visited her with members of the Association for War Victims. She has emphasized the need for the existence of this book for the purpose of obtaining a formal apology from Japan.
Mrs. Kim often described herself as “a fish on the chopping block.” She was implying that her secrets were now revealed and she would speak her mind, because there is no going back. Mrs. Kim wished to gain strength and assistance for the remainder of her life by being proactive in speaking out about her painful experiences. Despite this, she still felt shame about her life as a former 'comfort woman' and wished to conceal her identity in the book, partly to save face from her own children and grandchildren. Although she recognized that her life as a 'comfort woman' was unavoidable considering the historical situation at the time, she believes that her shame is something that cannot be overcome within the confines of her own family life.
Bong-i Kim is nearly blind. She can only eat soft foods as she has no teeth, and she suffers from severe indigestion. Although she wishes to be more active, her vision loss has greatly limited her abilities. She used to burn herself on the stove due to her eyesight, but (un)fortunately, she has become accustomed to her condition and avoids any dangerous situation. She is often visited by her friends. One friend in particular nursed her when she was hospitalized due to her illnesses. Mrs. Kim quietly boasted that her friend moved into the same neighborhood to be close to her. Mrs. Kim appeared to be replacing her painful experiences and shame with the precious personal relationships in her life.
What would this book mean to her? Before the interviews started, I explained to Mrs. Kim about the historical significance of this project and how important her testimonies would be to future generations. She simply nodded in return. I realized this project was truly a collaborative effort between the interviewer and the interviewee. However, a true collaboration is much more than occupying the same space with another person. It is more than merely telling and listening to a story. Near the end of my time with Mrs. Kim, I said to her, "This is a very important and meaningful project for me." She responded, "It may be meaningful to you, but it doesn't mean a thing to me." At the time, I was dumbfounded by her reaction and completely conflicted. The fact that her hopes and beliefs quickly deflate in the face of reality is a testament to the heartbreaking duality of comfort women survivors who can never shake the traces of their painful lives.
What can I say to Mrs. Kim to restore her faith in this project? I am afraid there is not a simple answer to that question. It will be important to create a society in which the survivors, who have already experienced terrible atrocities, can live with some semblance of pride without their heads hanging in shame. I do not know how Mrs. Kim will react to reading this, but I hope to read it together with her. Perhaps one day, I will have a worthwhile response for Mrs. Kim when she says this project has no meaning for her. I can only hope.