April 28, 2017

It was just one of the thousand times we had hung out together, but this day was different. We had lunch in Japantown, and while browsing in a nearby bookstore, she asked the store assistant if they had any books on gardening.

My Korean grandmother speaks perfect Japanese.

I’ve heard her speak Japanese before, but it was only a handful of times in the 30+ years I’ve known this woman. That day, it just struck me a little differently. My halmoni survived not one, but two wars in her lifetime. I’ve known bits and pieces, but wanted to dig deeper – we spent Sunday evening talking about her experience during WWII.

My grandmother was born in the year 1931 (Japanese colonization lasted from 1910-1945)

What was life like overall? We had very little. The Japanese soldiers came into our homes and took everything. All of our brass. All of our treasured belongings. We had little to eat, but where I lived in Yeosu, we were more fortunate than other parts of the country. Many people died from famine and I would hear of people being so hungry that they peeled the barks off trees to survive. We had some rice fields in our area, but the soldiers took all of our rice and barley. I remember my father hiding rice underground in the fields so that we could have some. We ate soybean scraps because once the Japanese squeezed the oil from them, they would give us the leftovers to eat.

What was school like during the war? I was given a Japanese name Raiko Emoto. For as long as I can remember, we were taught Japanese in school. We were not allowed to speak or write in Korean, and if we did, we would be physically punished or our grades would be penalized.

What was your worst memory of the war? My friends that were taken away to the comfort stations that I never saw again. I was too young to be taken because I was in elementary school, but I had many friends that were old enough that never returned to their families. I only had 1 friend come back, and hearing her recount what happened to her was unbelievable. She saw women kicked to death when they became pregnant. These women were literally stomped on until they died, because pregnant women were useless. They killed both the mother and child.

I stopped the questions there, because I could see the heaviness that last question brought to my grandmother and wanted to talk to her more about the Korean War at another time.

It’s a lot to process, but I wanted to document her stories because the more I find out about “comfort women” and how their brutal experiences are being white-washed in history books, the more livid I become. No, the majority were not “volunteers” or “prostitutes” – let’s be clear. The term “comfort women” alone is maddening enough because let’s call it what it is, sexual slavery. These were women not just from Korea, but Japan, Taiwan, China, Philipines, and Indonesia to name a few. The first woman to come forward wasn’t even until 1991, and though it is 2017 the apologies are still controversial.

When stories of WWII are recollected, the least we can do to honor these women is to tell these stories straight. Let’s not nuance or make light of the suffering they endured.

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