Tomoe Suzuki reacts to the sculpture symbolizing "comfort women" in the War & Women's Human Rights Museum in Seoul, South Korea.
As a child, Eunsoo Kang heard all the reasons why Koreans should not trust the Japanese. But as a teenager, pop music began to suggest an alternative reality. When the Korean pop star BoA released her song “Merry-Chri” in 2004 (the title is short for Merry Christmas), she sang two versions, one in Korean and one in Japanese. That a celebrated K-pop diva would cross over into the Japanese market seemed to shrink the world a bit for her Korean fans like Kang. The song’s lyrics, which were of course about love, might also have broken down some walls that history had built between the two countries: “Because we’re under the same sky and feeling the same moment, we’re becoming more like each other ... Now that painful wound is healing. Because you’re by my side I’m free.”
Japan and Korea are not far apart geographically, but Kang, who’s now 25, says it was a struggle to accept her Asian neighbors.
“My parents’ generation doesn’t like the Japanese, and I learned in school that our history with Japan was bad, so I struggled with my feelings toward the Japanese,” she said. “As I grew older and finally met some Japanese, I found them to be good people with open minds. Now I just want to be their friends, despite our history.”
That history is long and troubled, with Koreans usually coming out the losers. Certainly in the 20th century, with Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to the end of World War II, Koreans have reasons to resent Japanese brutality.
A major symbol of that mistreatment is a group of several dozen aging Korean women who were forced into sexual servitude by Japan before and during World War II. Dubbed “comfort women,” more than 200,000 women from several Asian countries were forced to become sexual slaves to Japanese soldiers. The vast majority of the women were Korean. Of the 238 Korean women who came forward in recent years to identify themselves as former comfort women, only 44 remain alive, and their average age is 89. They continue to demand an official apology and reparations from the Japanese government.
Such historic tensions have a widespread effect on interpersonal relationships. So when Kang told her parents last year that she was going to participate in a United Methodist Women-sponsored peacebuilding seminar with young women from Japan, they panicked.
“They were concerned about me being with the Japanese, and they kept asking me if I was OK. When I left for the seminar, they told me they would pray for me every day,” she said.
Kang not only survived her encounter with her Japanese counterparts, she found new common cause in the struggle against sexual abuse and human trafficking.
“I’ve decided I have to do something for the comfort women and women in similar situations in other countries. I want to be a missionary and work with women who are survivors of sexual violence,” she said.
“Don’t marry a Korean!”
The peacebuilding seminar has taken place for several years but has always included participants from the United States. According to the Rev. Hikari Kokai Chang, a United Methodist Women regional missionary based in Japan, in 2016 sponsors decided to include just Japanese and Korean women as a way to target the specific history the two countries share.
“These two countries are so close, yet we don’t know each other well enough,” said Chang, who was born in Japan and admits that ignorance and enmity have long combined to discourage breaking down the walls of division.
“Growing up in Japan, I didn’t know anything about Korea, much less what happened to the comfort women. As a student we did not learn about the Japanese army invading Korea. We were taught simply that World War II happened and we needed to move on,” she said.
“Then I met the man who became my husband. He is Korean. I wasn’t sure the marriage would work, because there is so much prejudice and misunderstanding. All my friends said, ‘Don’t marry a Korean!’ But I wanted to know more about Koreans, so before I accepted his proposal I went to Korea to study the language and culture. And I came to realize that we are very similar. Although the language is different, the mannerism and culture are similar. We are almost cousins,” said Chang, who went on to marry her Korean husband. “And I felt God calling me to foster at a larger level what we had come to embody in our own family.”
When Chang, who directs the Wesley Foundation in Japan, began leading the seminars six years ago, she encountered considerable resistance from Japanese participants.
“When the Japanese came to Korea for the seminars and began to hear others’ stories, there was strong resistance from some people. They refused to believe it, said it never happened, because Japanese people don’t do such bad things. One woman resisted and wanted to go back to Japan right away,” Chang said.
Today’s youth may have greater access to information because of the Internet, she said, but their views “are nonetheless still distorted because inside Japan we only hear the Japanese side of the story. So some of them think that the comfort women willingly cooperated, that they were so poor that they willingly agreed to sexual exploitation without being forced by the Japanese. Some people actually believe that. So our seminar is one opportunity to open their minds and their eyes to real history. It’s on them how they will react to that. Our job is just to present them with the experiences of real people.”
Chang says Koreans and Japanese were drawn closer by pop culture over the turn of the century, but as conservative politicians took over—current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first took office in 2006—the country took a turn toward xenophobia. Some Japanese politicians even claimed the comfort women were willing prostitutes who grew rich from their services. Such fact-free rhetoric conveniently allowed the Japanese to shake off any sense of national shame or guilt.
“We began to see hate speech against the Koreans and Chinese living in Japan. More and more people began talking the same way some do in the United States, that we had to make Japan great again. They said we had done it once, so we could do it again,” she said. “We have to teach our young people to listen to many views, not just what they’re told by one strong leader.”
Girl’s statue bothers Japanese embassy
As human rights advocates pressured for some kind of resolution before the last of the comfort women die, in late 2015 the Japanese and South Korean governments announced a diplomatic resolution. Abe offered remorse for “immeasurable and painful experiences” but did not acknowledge the extent of official Japanese military involvement in the forced prostitution program, nor did he detail the specific atrocities committed by the Japanese military. And while the agreement committed Japan to pay $8.9 million to a foundation to support the surviving victims, it was termed a donation rather than any sort of official compensation. The surviving comfort women were outraged, and many Koreans accused their own government of once again giving in to Japan.
Japanese officials also insisted that the agreement required Koreans to remove a statue of a comfort woman that had been installed across the street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Yet the bronze teenage girl, seated on a chair with a small bird on her shoulder, has remained there, day and night, bearing silent witness to the horror that many women experienced in wartime. When a similar statue was installed late last year in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan, Japan responded in January by recalling two diplomats in protest.
In Japan, the government said the 2015 agreement closed the books on a difficult chapter of history. Chang, however, was outraged by the announcement.
“It was just a small item in the newspaper. We were told that the two governments had agreed and there was no longer any need to talk about it. They said that the money was not compensation for any wrongdoing but rather just a way to help those women. There was no official apology. It was obvious that the governments did not listen to any of the comfort women or their advocates. It was a diplomatic solution that solved nothing,” she said.
Chang says that within Japan’s churches there has been minimal attention to the issue, except among the congregations of Koreans living in Japan. These are the third and fourth generations of Koreans to be born in Japan, but because their grandparents or great-grandparents were brought by force to Japan to work as slave laborers, they have not been granted Japanese citizenship.
This treatment of Koreans inside Japan is another motivating factor for the peacebuilding workshop, according to Chang. She says Japanese participants return home each year to make presentations in their schools and join advocacy efforts about comfort women coordinated by the country’s YWCA. But she also hopes they return more open to the non-Japanese living in their midst.
“Today there are many foreigners living in Japan. How can we open their hearts and minds to these people? Japan is part of a globalized world, not a specially set-aside place. We are part of one big human family,” she said.
More than M.A.S.H.
The Rev. Hea Sun Kim, who directs the United Methodist Women-sponsored Scranton Women’s Leadership Center in Seoul, agrees that many Japanese have a blind spot when it comes to their attitude toward Koreans.
“They like to talk about how they are the victims of the nuclear attacks by the United States, attacks that killed hundreds of thousands of people, but they have told me that what they did to Korea and other Asian countries doesn’t appear in their textbooks,” she said.
Koreans have their own problems with history, Kim says.
“Some Koreans know as much of their own country’s history as people in the United States know from having watched the television show M.A.S.H,” she said. “People in the Korean government are still arguing about what should be put into the history textbooks, and some people are simply ignorant. There are many Koreans who say that the north never attacked the south, that it was the United States who drew them into the war.”
Until they traveled there with the peacebuilding seminar, several of the young Korean participants had never visited the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.
“Too many young people today don’t know about the war, they don’t know about the armistice and the DMZ, nor do they understand the lasting effects of the war and how we’re facing even more dangerous times with the U.S. military buildup in the region and the expansion of the Chinese military presence. As China and Japan, a U.S. ally, argue about whose island is whose, there is greater potential for military conflict, and Korea as always will be stuck in the middle,” she said.
Against this background, Kim said the seminar focused on equipping women to understand the complexities of building peace in a tense region. “For young women to be peacemakers in Asia, they need to understand that it’s not just a matter of politics. Peace is related to the behavior of multinational corporations and has significant economic and environmental aspects,” she said.
Churches in Korea are energetically sending missionaries to other countries in the region, but Kim says that whether the young women leave home to be Christian missionaries or tech entrepreneurs, “They need to be educated about the blessings of diversity and how we can create peace together.”
“My heart wasn’t big enough”
The 2016 seminar, held at Seoul’s Methodist Theological University, brought eight young women from Japan and eight from South Korea along with several staff members from the Wesley Foundation in Tokyo and the Scranton Center in Seoul. Over five days, they read Scriptures together, looked at the two countries’ long history with each other, visited the DMZ, toured a Seoul museum dedicated to comfort women, participated in an every-Wednesday demonstration in front of the Japanese embassy to demand an apology for that government’s policies, toured a former prison where independence activists were tortured and visited Ewha Womans University, a school founded by a Methodist woman missionary in the 19th century that has grown into the country’s largest university for women.
Just as Kang, the Korean participant whose parents were worried about her hanging out with Japanese, some of the Japanese participants in the seminar faced their own fears in the gathering.
“When I came to Korea I tried to hide the fact that I am Japanese. Even at the Wednesday demonstration, I didn’t speak in Japanese because I didn’t want people to stare at me and wonder why a Japanese person was there. I tried to speak only Korean or English, but not Japanese, because I was scared,” said Fuyuka Kiyonaga, a 21-year-old university student from Tokyo.
Kiyonaga says she discovered that Koreans can distinguish between ordinary Japanese and their government. “When I was younger, I thought all Koreans hated all Japanese, but then when I went to the museum about comfort women where things were so shocking that I felt like my heart wasn’t big enough to take it all in. And I realized that they don’t hate the Japanese people but instead hate those people who started the war and who herded the women around like animals during the war. They hated our military,” she said.
Kiyonaga doesn’t understand why her government can’t apologize for the military’s wartime crimes.
“That’s totally messed up,” she said. “Even if they apologize, the hurt won’t go away, the wound will still be there, but the victims will feel more dignity. When the government approved the money last year but refused to apologize, that was our top leaders speaking. If the younger generation had a right to speak about this, we would decide differently.”
Another Japanese participant, Yue Takada, wants to work in her country’s diplomatic service after university, and she said her experience at the seminar in Korea, especially the disgust she says she felt at the museum about comfort women, makes her more determined than ever to look for ways to end war.
“Wars turn people into brutes, and women get treated like animals,” she said. “But our government is too proud to admit any of that, to admit that Japan did bad things to our enemies. And our politicians don’t know much about our own history. I don’t think Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has studied history much. Otherwise he would see what needs to be done to build reconciliation with our neighbors in Korea.”
In the absence of her government’s response, Takada says it’s up to her to make change.
“God calls us to practice love toward one another, especially where there is animosity. God calls us to hear one another’s stories, especially the painful ones, and then work to restore life where there is death, and trust where there is lack of understanding. That’s my call as a peacemaker,” she said.
Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He blogs at kairosphotos.com.