Peace Philosophy Centre
How do you go on living, when you have experienced suffering and humiliation beyond description? Should you abandon your past and live in the present? Or perhaps cut yourself off from the present and live in the past? Or confront the past in the present and live from moment to moment? Most women who were made sex slaves of the old Imperial Japanese army chose a way to go on living, and have embarked on new journeys.
On November 21, 2008, I went to see the Korean production of NABI/Comfort Women (originally COMFORT WOMEN written in English) by Chungmi Kim, which was directed by Eunmi Bang and performed by the members of her Nabi Theatre Company from Seoul, Korea. It was presented at Evergreen Cultural Centre in Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver on Canada's West Coast. I attended the opening performance. The 260-seat theatre was full. The Korean title of the play was "Nabi," which means “butterfly” in Korean. The butterfly has symbolic meaning in the play. The way butterflies take flight is a metaphor for the way victimized women regain dignity and freedom by talking about their experiences.
The story takes place in 1994 in New York City. Yuni Kim lives a quiet life with her daughter and her daughter’s family. One day, Yuni's granddaughter Jina, a student at New York University, returns home in high spirits. Jina explains that two victims of the Japanese Army's sex slavery during WWII are in New York to provide testimony at the United Nations. Yuni tells Jina to avoid contact with these women, but Jina replies, "Actually, I brought these halmonis home with me.” The two halmonis (“halmoni” means “grandmother” in Korean) enter and approach an agitated Yuni. These two tough women are able to tell of their painful past and still sing and laugh out loud. They find Yuni’s cold and unsympathetic manner annoying.
Yet the two halmonis sense something odd about Yuni's reactions. They notice scars on Yuni's fingertips, and what look like tattoo marks on her back. Bokhi, one of the halmonis, taking a long look at Yuni, suspects she has seen her before. Bokhi asks Yuni whether she was "Hanako," the “comfort woman” kept by a Japanese Army officer for his exclusive use. Yuni denies this fiercely. All she can hear in her heart is her late mother's voice telling her, "That was a nightmare, no more than a nightmare. Just forget about it!" And then all the formidable memories of old are brought back to her. Yuni cannot bear to confront the past she once buried away, and attempts to take her own life. Jina rushes to grandmother’s side, embraces her, and tells her how much she loves her. When Yuni later revives, she asks Jina to open the window. Sunlight and a breeze from outside fill the room.
During the last scene, the entire audience was in tears - even those like my Peace Center colleague from China and myself who were well informed about the "comfort women" issue. In July 2007, I travelled to Seoul to attend a demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy. (This protest has been held by former victims of sex slavery and their supporters every Wednesday for the last 17 years.) I also visited the “Sharing House," where (at that time) nine former victims lived together. I have also been a member of Women's Active Museum (WAM) in Tokyo, which specializes in addressing wartime violence against women, particularly the sex slavery perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Army. I realized I could never truly understand the anguish and suffering of these women, but I believed I understood this to a certain extent. Seeing this play, however, made me realize that my understanding had remained at an intellectual level.
In this play, we learn that Yuni was given the Japanese name "Hanako," when she was taken away at the age of 15 and made into a sex slave for the exclusive use of a single officer because of her beauty. Some envied her, saying, "At least you only have one officer to deal with, so you won't have to suffer from syphilis." At the end, however, Yuni was treated violently by this officer and transferred to another "comfort station," where she was raped by many soldiers. Following the war, Yuni's mother told her to treat the experience as a nightmare and forget about it. Yuni eventually married, but after having a baby her husband beat her when he learned that Yuni had been a sex slave.
Many scenes in this play made vivid the stories of these victims of sex slavery that I had read in books and heard in their testimonials, speaking directly to the hearts of the audience. Thekla Lit, President of BC ALPHA, a sponsor of this production, often speaks of the importance of our making emotional connections with the victims of war. This play certainly served that purpose for me, enabling me to nurture empathy with these women on a deeper level, as I believe the play did for many other members of the audience.
I was also moved by the way Yuni's despair was transformed into hope. Yuni had been married and was leading a seemingly happy life with her daughter and family until she was forced to confront a past that she had hidden away for over 50 years. Now she was left to face all the unbearable emotions of the past ? her childhood trauma, as a young and innocent girl who had been deeply wounded and never healed, her guilt over receiving ”better” treatment by the lone officer, her remorse over the fact that she had to abandon a friend with whom she had initially planned to make an escape, and her inner turmoil over believing she could never tell her family the truth even though she knew she bore no responsibility for her suffering.
I could relate to the anguish that led Yuni to choose her own death, though there was absolutely no need for her to die. As I was watching the scene, I found myself mentally screaming out and begging Yuni not to die. In this play, Jina and the young Yuni were played by the same actress. When Yuni came to, after her life had been hanging in the balance, she found Jina holding her. At that moment, Yuni must have seen her young and innocent self in Jina, and must have found hope for the future in her granddaughter. Jina's love and her words that she was proud of Yuni provided Yuni with the courage to live on.
Yuni's situation reminded me of Sakue Shimohira, a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic-bombing who was only 10-years old when she and her little sister became orphans. Amidst deteriorating health, poverty and despair, she had to "choose between the courage to die and the courage to live." She chose the courage to live. Even though these two women confronted different circumstances, the love they and all survivors received from family, friends and supporters plays a crucial role when they pass through the tunnel of pain and despair to find courage and hope. Yuni had her granddaughter Jina, but many victims of sex slavery don't have any surviving family members, as was the case for the two halmonis in this play. Who can love these halmonis, as Jina loves Yuni? The answer is each of us -- each of us who has seen the play, and each of us who chooses to face the issue of military sex slavery. Yuni decided to live on by a single thread of trust in humanity. Responsibility lies in each of us human beings to respond to Yuni's trust, irrespective of our nationality, gender or point of view.
According to the playwright Chungmi Kim, "Comfort Women" was first staged at an Off-Broadway theatre in New York in the fall of 2004. The play was included in the book "New Playwrights: The Best Plays of 2005" by Smith and Kraus. In May 2005, a Korean version of the play, titled "NABI," was presented at the Seoul Theatre Festival. Director Eunmi Bang established her own Nabi Theatre Company in the fall of 2005. The company has since performed the play about 200 times in Korea before being invited to perform it in Toronto and Vancouver this past fall. Hanuree Drama Club, a Greater Vancouver local theatre group, produced the performances in Coquitlam. According to Marketing Director Kevin Sung, the Club has 19 years of history and its members are primarily Korean Canadians. For this production, over 20 members of Hanuree Drama Club worked with 7 cast and 4 staff members of the Nabi Theatre Company. In the audience were not only Korean Canadians but also Canadians of European, Chinese, Japanese and other descent. It was significant that multicultural Vancouver hosted this production, which will raise awareness about the unresolved issue of the military sex slavery throughout the world. I would like to see more performances held outside of Korea, especially in Japan.