The Comfort Women


The title is of course an oxymoron of the cruelest kind.   Comfort for whom?  It reminds me of the title of Julian Barne’s book ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’, it all depends entirely where you put the emphasis. Until recently, I had not realised the number, the territory, the vast canvas of this henious crime.   It was on a recent visit to Seoul to be with family, that I came face to face with the history of sexual slavery during the Second World War.  According to Wikipedia a majority of the women were from Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines, although women from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and other Japanese-occupied territories were used for the Japanese military “comfort stations.” Many of these women have gone to the grave carrying their secret.     And now, a few, very old, very brave, live on as long as they can, hoping that by holding out, at some point, the Japanese Government will hear them, will see them, will give them all that they want… recognition, by way of an ‘official’ apology.

It is with pride that I write of my encounter with some of the still living sexual slave survivors at the House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, about a two-hour bus ride from the centre of Seoul.   Pride because they are resilient old women with dignity, courage, and often a surprising sense of humour.   Many of them survived the horrors of sexual slavery and because of the shame, married, raised families and did not ‘come out’ until later in life.    Even now, in this quiet rural setting, they are not entirely welcome.   Some of their neighbours would prefer them to be elsewhere, and believe they bring shame upon the district.   So, instead of the overdue compassion, they still carry both inwardly and outwardly, the stigma imposed brutally upon them, their dignity so tragically stolen by a Japanese Government at war.     Simply put, many people, the Japanese Government included, would like that these women would just die quietly, their secrets buried with them.

We were taken on a tour of the House of Sharing by my son and his Korean wife who actively campaign for and support the cause of the Comfort Women. On this particular day, they were the tour guides for a group of around sixty international tourists from Japan, America, China as well as local Koreans, and my husband and I, from New Zealand.   The tour is advertised in the Lonely Planet Guide for the socially conscious tourist who wants to know more about Korea than just the LCD screens, amazing restaurants and famous palaces.

Every Wednesday, a protest is held outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (near Insadong) and whenever they can, my son and his wife, join the protestors, and too, some of these elderly women (in their late eighties now and failing) will travel the two hours or more by van from their rural home at the House of Sharing to join the protest.   Why?   Because, the one thing they still demand from the Japanese government is a formal apology.    The Japanese have admitted that these events took place, have even given funds to support the women, but the most important step they seem unable to take, to offer the women the one thing money cannot buy, an official apology.   An apology will mean that this barbarous act against these women will finally be acknowledged as a a war crime, and not just some collateral damage to be swept under the carpet and forgotten.                 Alas, these women are dying now, one by one, every few months, another survivor dies without the dignity of an official apology.

                  Take a look at the photograph of the map I have posted and see for yourself the shocking geography of it, scan the map, look at the colour, trace for yourself the transportation of young Korean women, some as young as sixteen, as mere bodies to satisfy the Japanese invading troops.   Imagine yourself as one of those women, taken from your family, to serve as a sexual object for not just one, but hundreds of soldier’s gratification.   Imagine that now in your last years, all you long for is recognition, a piece of your dignity restored and all that it requires is a public apology, so that it is known officially, noted in the history books, a dark stain on the maps of Asia, that you and hundreds of other women were sexual slaves of the Japanese Government.   And although you have great dignity as a survivor, maybe something else, maybe but a piece, a small shining piece of something will be yours, before you die.   That small piece of something will be a light that shines on this crime, so that it may never be repeated.

And yet, as I write, and as you read, we all know that around the world in scenes of conflict both within and between national borders, women are still, often, the first victims of violence in acts of aggression by the state, or the soldier.

I am posting some of the poignant and eloquently tragic paintings by some of the women from the House of Sharing.  Unable to put into words the dramatic degradation they experienced as young  girls and women, they have taken to painting to express their pain.   Words are not necessary.

I met some of these women.  I sat with them in the afternoon, after a tour of the House of Sharing that unveiled the history and horrific details of their experiences.   What a contrast.   From the museum part of the settlement, we moved with a swarm of delightful young tourists, to the home where these elderly women are feted like famous movie stars.     These young people come regularly on the bus and the women, to be their friends, to love and to show support for them.   There is much laughter, affection and ordinary conversation.

It might have been any small residential home for the elderly – under-floor heating, spacious rooms, quite luxurious toilets with heated seats, and smiling older women, some more stylish than others, one knitting herself a pair of woollen trousers, one holding my hand with humorous affection and telling me what a wonderful son I have.   My son laughing and teasing her because he said that normally, when he visits, she tells him he is not good enough to be married to our beautiful daughter in law.   The humour is good-natured and the women can be just as cantankerous and difficult as any elderly people might be.   Except they are not ordinary elderly women – they are extraordinary and their story ought to be told, over and over, that it may never happen again.

The systematic rounding up of young women, their transportation to the battle fronts, moved like livestock from camp to camp from Korea to Japan and as far south as Indonesia across vast areas of Asia, to serve as sexual slaves for soldiers – some young women servicing up to sixty men in a day.  Records were kept to ensure the sexual health of the soldiers; prophylactics provided but with no concern for the health of the women….waiting in the small room……listening for the footsteps….   We entered a small wooden hut at the museum restored to the dimensions of the huts used, where the young women lay like objects, listening for the footsteps…   the dark, repetitive, footsteps.

I met two dedicated women volunteers from Japan, living in at the House of Sharing and caring for the elderly women.  Indeed it is common for Japanese volunteers to come and stay for weeks at a time, and through their caring to do what their government refuses to do – acknowledge what has happened. I found meeting these Japanese women a very emotional experience as it highlighted the common decency of the average person and how most of us at any level abhor what war brings, especially to women.  I was very moved by their dedication, generosity and obvious loving affection for the women they cared for.   But too, even this, a small house in the middle of almost nowhere, is not without cultural politics, disagreements, and differing ideals within the groups of people who care and support the women at the House of Sharing.   The Korean’s demand an apology from the Japanese and I hear whispers from the Japanese as to why the Korean Government has not looked after its own women better, with the money given to them by the Japanese.   And so, seventy years on, politics still blur the lines of compassion.

If no-one listens, (and you almost feel this is what the Japanese Government is hoping for), these women will go to their graves, all of them, without ever having had their dignity upheld, their story acknowledged, officially, that they were brutally and repeatedly raped, as part of an official Japanese government programme.   No amount of money or reparation is as important as this official apology.     An official apology will not take away the past, but it will highlight the stain, focus the forensic eye, so that this crime enters the history books and so that it can never be repeated.

I’m adding to this blog from 2011, and including a link to a newly released short film (sub-titles in English) about the recent agreement between the Japanese and Korean Governments which includes a commitment to removing the beautiful and most poignant bronze statue across the road from the Japanese Embassy.

Cuba, Cuba, Cuba, I Love you


We were planning to visit Japan. Our son and his wife live in Seoul and it seemed like a great scheme to fly there via Japan in the season of blossoms. Alas, the now historic earthquake struck, followed by a tsunami and we decided to change our travel plans (thinking perhaps that Japan did not need tourists right at this time).

So, where do you go, when Japan is off the itinerary? We decided it was time to visit Cuba – a place we had hankerd to see ever since Ry Cooder rode his motor cycle around this country and discovered the Buena Vista Social Club. And so, we went, via Panama, as you do, because you cannot on a commercial airliner, fly direct from the USA. How odd this is when you think seriously about it and how entrenched the squabble is, when after all, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. I’ve been to Berlin and to the Stasi Museum which is a whole other story.

We flew the 11 hours to Los Angeles, and transited there, which required a full body scan (I’m a grandmother now, so what do I care) and then we flew to Panama, another six hours. Panama is a fascinating place all by itself and perhaps worthy of a separate blog. It was exciting to be there because it features large in many Kiwi lives during the 60’s and 70’s en route to the big OE and the UK. I came home in the mid seventies via the Suez Canal (which had just re-opened), but did not go to England via the Panama. And so it felt like some sort of belated rite of passage, standing there, watching the locks rise and fall.
But, our destination was Cuba.

Oh Cuba. Where do I begin? I think the photographs that I am going to post will probably speak louder than anything I can say. These photographs are the work of John Rainey-Smith, my partner in life and I’m delighted to share them with you. There is so much to say about Cuba and I don’t think anything could really capture the spirit, the colour, the delight, but I think his photographs are indeed eloquent.

Enough to say, that we were enchanted, and you know how it is, sometimes when you have wanted for a long time to visit somewhere and the imagination is greater than the event – in this case, it was not so. Cuba is colour in every sense, and Cuba is history in a crazy time warp. Cuba is testament to the madness of the United States foreign policy, a study in intransigence – how silly can we be. But Cuba triumphs too. Of course, Fidel is not blameless and I’m not a political analyst, just a tourist. Oh what a dream that a doctor from Argentina had… Che; immortalised on tee-shirts and billboards, a rally cry to all young radicals, his memory somehow woven into the Cuban psyche.

We stayed in Havana, at the Hotel Nacional (home of the Mafia really in those heady early days).

Oh, the incongruity of Cuba, the crazy dichotomies of grandeur, of passion, of salsa and sleaze, of social reform now on ice and melting, like the daiquiris that Hemingway sipped.

I can remember with vivid clarity, where I was when the Cuban Missile Crisis impacted on the world in the sixties. I recall standing in my Waimea Intermediate gingham red and white all in one button-through frock, wearing my Panama hat (except now I know that actually it was an Ecuadorian hat that people wore in Panama)… my hands were on my bicycle handlebars and I was looking down the asphalt driveway towards the bike sheds with fear in my heart… I had left home that morning after the radio broadcast and my parents conversation – that possibly, just possibly, Word War III was about to begin. (Yes, we lived sheltered lives back then and just as McCarthyism was rife in the USA, we too were terrified in the working class suburbs of New Zealand).

At the airport, en-route to Cuba, I was looking for a book about Cuba which I could not find, and on impulse I grabbed instead, with no real intent or knowledge, ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ by Sebastian Faulks. It is a tender, terrific love story based in the United States during the McCarthy years. And of course, there are very few writers of Faulk’s ability who can render love and history in such a compelling fashion. It turned out to be the perfect book to be reading really while travelling through Cuba, caught in a sixties time-warp. It seems inevitable me that the USA must, sooner, rather than later, open the door to Cuba and what a travesty if Coca Cola and McDonalds begin to colonise Cuba. For the past fifty years, the Cubans it seems have farmed organically, being unable to afford the chemical fertilisers or indeed the mechanisation (we saw men ploughing fields by hand and with bullocks pulling ploughs) – imagine if Trader Joe’s in the USA could buy fresh organic produce from Cuba – black beans for starters, strawberries, fresh lobster…

Our trip was booked through Intrepid Travel, although intrepid is perhaps an exaggeration. We were entirely comfortable, well fed and safe, for the entire journey and apart from miserly squares of tough toilet tissue that you have to pay for at most local toilets, everything else was probably quite luxurious in comparison to what I had imagined. Our accommodation was a mixture of flash hotels (think Mafia style palatial) and home-stays (humble, yet spotless and welcoming Casas). And of course for a writer, Havana is so much fun.

I’d heard of Fidel, of Che, but not of José Martí and so I found on-line a translation of his poem ‘A Sincere Man’ and these following lines of the translation seem particularly pertinent.

And seen butterflies emerging
From the refuse heap that moulders

I shall be seeking out more translations of José Martí’s poetry.

And now, my own poem and John’s amazing photos…

Dear Cuba;
I love your faded glory
your broken cobbles
the pink, pink and green of you
and too, the blue
your crumbling
the Malecon
where cool winds
speak of Cuban love
at night
star-bright on old Habana
mint in our Mojitas
Hemingway on our mind
music in our hearts.

the Casa Tamargo
a blind singer and salsa
the way we danced each foreign beat
from three to five
to rest on four
facing full length mirrors
on a dusty floor.

your square
the rotunda and
El Palatino, outside
where I danced
with a drunken old man
seduced by his toothless
and a Pina Colada.

with your crazy cave disco
hinting at grandeur
thumbing your nose at decay
setting grand tables
visible through shuttered windows
lace and linen
fine wine even
cobbles worn to slippery
our suitcases
sliding on marble

Santa Clara;
here, where
an Argentinean doctor
who believed
he could change the world
piece by piece
(beloved friend of Camilo)
is buried.
an eloquent star burns
bright in your tomb
a light
for a dream
frozen in time…

José Martí; a sincere man
on your white horse
in your black jacket
defiant to the end
the seeds of
in your legend

Cuba, I love you
the heart of you
the music in you
the colour of you
you are
art among the arts

I feel John’s photographs are the real highlight and so I’m going to open a gallery for those of you who wish to take a peek at Cuba.
Some lovely candid people shots (he mostly asked permission!) – scroll through and enjoy.

<<a href=””&gt;