• Comfort Women
  • Stories Making History

Twists and Turns

【※ Won-ok Gil’s testimony was recorded by Yeon-ju Oh and Ju-hyeon Na (Sungkyunkwan University Department of History, studying for a Master's Degree)】
The journey for printing Won-ok Gil’s testimony was long and arduous. Work began on her testimony when the research team was initially assembled in May 2002. After discussing the principles for interviews and writing transcripts, the team scattered across the country to interview former 'comfort women.' We then gathered again in Seoul and discussed the progress for each of the testimonies as a team. When the interviewer responsible for Won-ok Gil came back and reported that she had in fact gone to 'comfort stations' on two separate occasions, the entire team was stunned. We were all very curious about the past experiences of Won-ok Gil. Upon reading the transcripts, however, the team decided that Won-ok Gil's accounts of her past experiences were too scant considering she had been to two different 'comfort stations.' The team member who interviewed Won-ok Gil was instructed to actively seek ways to assist Mrs. Gil in recounting her memories from more than 60 years ago. For the third interview, I joined the original interviewer as support. However, Won-ok Gil was not able to clearly recall the memories of her past, and stated on multiple occasions, "I wouldn’t have survived for all these years by carrying all those memories with me." We determined that richer information was needed to bring Won-ok Gil's story to the readers and find evidence for 'comfort women' who may have lived more than 60 years ago but were at the time unavailable. The original interviewer was once again requested to dig deeper in any subsequent interviews for a more detailed account of Won-ok Gil's story. Despite increased efforts, Won-ok Gil's memories were still too scant, and the team member responsible for interviewing her steadily grew tired of the lack of results. About eighteen months after the start of the project, the original interviewer decided to give up on including Won-ok Gil's story in the final book.
Five months later, in late February 2004, I picked up where the previous interviews had left off. All interviews, final drafts, and epilogues had been completed at the time, and the team was near the final stages of the general discussions. The supplementary interviews for Won-ok Gil and the decision to include her story in the book during the final stages were only possible because of the moral responsibility of the team.
When the initial interviews were conducted in June 2002, Won-ok Gil was afraid that her past secrets of being a 'comfort woman' would be disclosed to the public. She was so nervous that if she heard any strange noises during the interviews, she would immediately stop the interview. However, her attitude gradually started to change after she was contacted by the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (the Korean Council) during the course of the interviews. She even participated in an event held by the Korean Council. Mrs. Gil started to open up by meeting other 'comfort women' survivors at social gatherings such as the Human Rights Camp. Soon afterward, she showed initiative when she would wake up early in the mornings to travel from Incheon to Seoul to participate in the Wednesday Demonstration. She also consented to appearing in the KBS television program "This Is Life" in August 2003. "I'm happiest when the Korean Council asks me to participate in an event," she said. She did not hesitate to speak out about her experiences or meet with other 'comfort women' survivors. She gradually became a full-fledged activist in the fight to resolve the 'comfort women' issue. An estimated 80,000 to 200,000 women were believed to have been systematically enslaved as 'comfort women,' but as of April 2004, only 212 women have officially registered with the Korean government. Of those women, only 66 have provided their testimonies for the previous five volumes of this series. We firmly believe that the stories of the 'comfort women' survivors in Korea represent the voices of hundreds of thousands of other survivors who died nameless in other countries. And so, with the consent of the survivors, we strive to record the stories of all living former 'comfort women' for posterity. Won-ok Gil understood the significance of our work, consented to the interviews, and even looked forward to when the book would be published.If Won-ok Gil's story had not been included in this sixth volume of testimonies, someone certainly would have contacted her for another set of interviews for the seventh volume. She probably would have had to face another microphone and camera just to relive the harrowing memories of her past that she tried so hard to forget. We do not believe that the task of recording Won-ok Gil's story was the sole responsibility of the original team member who conducted the first set of interviews with Mrs. Gil. Rather, we believe that all testimonies of 'comfort women' survivors were produced by the collaborative effort of our team members who shared the responsibilities. We conducted dozens of official meetings, and all tasks were completed collaboratively, including interviewee selections, post-interview discussions, transcript readings, editing, epilogue writing, and proofreading. We could not give up on Won-ok Gil simply because the original team member gave up on the interviews. That would have buried the courage of the 'comfort woman' survivor who struggled to break her silence.
For this reason, I agreed to conduct supplementary interviews with Won-ok Gil in February 2004 after a discussion with the team members. Additional interviews were conducted after Wednesday Demonstrations at a shelter for the Korean Council when Won-ok Gil traveled from Incheon to Seoul. The interviews primarily focused on the events in and around Manchuria, in China. She said, "The owner ... was even scarier than the soldiers." Perhaps it was because Won-ok Gil was taken to a 'comfort station' at the tender age of thirteen, but her memories were still encapsulated from the perspective of a child who was fearful of her surroundings where no parental or adult supervision was available. Although Won-ok Gil wasn't able to provide information that the team felt was satisfactory due to the deterioration of her memories, we believe that it at least satisfied the implicit criteria established for the publication of a book. The initial interviews conducted by Won-ok Gil's original interviewer were used as a framework, and the gaps were filled with supplementary material and then re-edited to form the print version. I had no doubt that Won-ok Gil's story would be recorded as a scene in history.
However, there was more trouble as the team discussed the re-edited version of Won-ok Gil's testimony. The main point of contention was the fact that when Won-ok Gil was taken to the second 'comfort station,' she knew that she would be going to a place to "serve drinks and sing." This statement contradicted the traditional sentiment that 'comfort women' were abducted or fraudulently lured into sexual slavery. Once again, the issue of determining "scope" when categorizing 'comfort women' was a topic of debate. We could not ignore the occasional attacks by right-wing Japanese, and so we were skeptical that Won-ok Gil's story might provide the Japanese with more ammunition. We fell into confusion again as we asked ourselves, "Can Won-ok Gil be classified as a 'comfort woman?'"
In fact, confusion about categorizing 'comfort women' was a core topic of discussion throughout the project. Where do we set the boundaries for classifying a 'comfort woman’? Who sets those boundaries? As the Japanese government has not formally recognized the 'comfort women' crime, the boundaries of the term can be considered to have been determined by historians based on testimonies of the survivors and data from the Japanese colonial period. Surely, the initial group of survivors who provided their testimonies were not "different types" of 'comfort women’ than those from the latter groups. Why is it then that including the survivors who participated in the interviews is so difficult to fit into the 'comfort women' category? In the process of trying to answer this question, we lost sight of the most important aspect of this entire project - the voice of the survivors.When we started this project, our objective was never to create a framework for what a 'comfort woman' was and to be the witness for the survivors to prove their eligibility. Our only goal was to provide a voice for the survivors and let that voice be heard. Won-ok Gil said, "I had never even heard of the term 'comfort woman' before. I only described my experiences as ‘sub-human treatment.’” When the ‘comfort women’ issue became publicized in the media, she said, “The real victims are living their lives quietly with their heads down in shame – it’s always the people who have nothing to do with the issue who are the loudest.” That was when she drew a parallel to her experiences with those of the women shown on television. Won-ok Gil did not understand that the Korean government applied the term ‘comfort woman’ to women who were abducted or lured into sexual slavery. She did not have a term that captured her experience other than her own “sub-human treatment.” It did not matter to her whether Korean society labeled women who were abducted or lured into sexual slavery as 'comfort women.' However, she clearly equated her "sub-human treatment" to her 'comfort woman' experiences. The central focus of the 'comfort women' issue should never have been the degree of force in the abduction or how pure and innocent the women were before becoming 'comfort women.' Won-ok Gil's perspective lets us know that the focus should be on just how isolated and disconnected the so-called 'comfort stations' were from the rest of the world and how much information was available regarding the constant rape and sexual violence to which the women were subjected. Even if Won-ok Gil ended up in a 'comfort station' under the pretense that she would be working to "serve drinks and sing," no one should be able to argue that she deserved such “sub-human treatment.” The fact that she knew that she would "serve drinks and sing" means nothing when she was confined to a place completely isolated from the outside world. Won-ok Gil's voice will never be heard unless we change the narrow official discourse that 'comfort women' were abducted.
We believe that the testimonies and voices of the survivors have the power to tear down the out-of-touch official discourse from the bottom up. The scope of our task has been widened from setting the stage from which the survivors’ voices can be heard to providing support for those voices. Won-ok Gil's voice has the power to form a new category – one that is inclusive of victims of continuous confinement, assault, rape, and any other sub-human treatment well beyond the limited scope of 'comfort women' who were abducted or lured into sexual slavery. In other words, the difference between 'forced' and 'voluntary' has absolutely no meaning to the survivors who at the time had no concept or information regarding the subject of 'comfort women.' We included the story of Won-ok Gil in this book to support her voice.

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