This Is Where I’ll Die, by Maija Rhee Devine

About this post:

In 2008, the UN Security Council classified rape as a weapon of war, describing sexual violence as “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group”.  In the words of Major General Patrick Cammaert, Former UN Peacekeeper, “It’s a very effective weapon, because the communities are totally destroyed.”

To women all over the world, the UN acknowledgement confirmed what was already common knowledge; sexual violence and humiliation  has been a war tactic throughout history. During WWII, the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy captured women from Korea, China, Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere, and forced them to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers. These “comfort women” serviced about 20 men each day, and 40-50 on weekend days.

Writing for Peace Adviser, Maija Rhee Devine, has actively sought to document this historic tragedy, translating and telling the stories of Korean Comfort Women, raising awareness, and sharing the work of the Korean Comfort Women Museum (Nanum eui Jip: The House of Sharing in S. Korea). This is the story of one woman, Lee Yong-nyeo, how she became a sex slave to the Japanese Imperial Army, how she survived the ordeal, and how it affected her life.

This Is Where I’ll Die

The story of Lee Yong-nyeo, a former Korean comfort woman, Testimonials of Korean Comfort Women, Vol. 1  (Han-wool, Seoul, Korea, 1993) (Interviewer: Koh Hye-jung).

Translated from Korean into English by Writing for Peace Adviser, Maija Rhee Devine.

Reprinted with permission from Mr. An Shin-kwon, director of The House of Sharing, the museum of Korean comfort women in Kyonggi-do, S. Korea.

Biographical information:

Lee Yong-Nyeo, This is Where I'll DieBorn in 1926 in Yojoo, Kyonggi Province to a poor family, Yong-nyeo was hired out as a domestic worker when she was eight.  At eleven, she moved to Seoul, where she worked in factories or as a domestic until she turned fourteen.   Then she was “sold” to a woman running a wine house, where she ran errands and waited on customers.  In 1942, when she turned 16, the owner persuaded her to move to a new work place without revealing where the new job would take her.  As it turned out, via Busan, Taiwan, and Singapore, she landed in a mountainous region of Burma.  In that rugged terrain, her life as a comfort woman began.

Story:

Born the second of five children on February 10, 1926 at Booknae-meun, Yojoo-gun, Kyonggi Province, I had a brother who was five years older than me, but among girls, I was the oldest.  Originally, our family lived in Yangpyong where we owned some land, but my father gambled it away and left us too destitute to send me to school.

A domestic worker at the age of eight

The house where I was hired out to as an eight-year-old belonged to a well-to-do family in Yojoo.  I remember washing floor-mopping rags at that house.

As we had no land to farm in Yojoo, we subsisted on the rice we bought on credit.  Soon, unable to pay the debt, we packed up and went to Seoul, where my father’s sister lived.  At first, we crammed into one of the rooms at her house, but after a while, both my older brother and I were hired out.

I worked at the home of Mr. Im, who ran a textile business.  Everyday, I carried the family’s baby on my back all day, and often the baby wet the clothes on my back, leaving me with heat rash in the summer.  In the winter, I washed diapers in freezing water, which caused my skin to dry out, crack, and bleed.

After migrating from one rental to another, our finally built a tent shanty behind what is now the Ahyun Elementary School in Seoul.  While we were on the verge of starving, my mother gave birth to a child who was tiny because of Mother’s hunger during pregnancy.  Grandmother said to me, “Even if you have to beg, you’ve got to find food for your Mommy.  She can lose her mind if she doesn’t have food in her stomach.”  So, I took a sack and a basket and begged door to door and kept Mother and the baby alive for the next six months.  In rich neighborhoods like Sajik-dong, the ladies of the houses asked me to work for them.  But I had to answer, “My mother and her baby are starving, and I must find food for them.  So, I can’t work for you.”  Sometimes, they gave me food, sometimes, money.   At that time, a bag of sugar cost 5 jeon.  I fed the baby with a little sugar added to the porridge.

Sometimes we bought the dregs left from making rice wine and boiled that to  make meals.  I also stopped at a potato noodle factory, where I collected the noodles that fell out of the cooking pots and rolled in the dirt.  I brought these home, where I cooked and seasoned them for our meals.

For a while, my father sold vegetables in the market.  Naturally, we ate a lot of vegetables, but we got sick with parasites.  When my face turned brown, and I was near death, my father told me that if I worked for a Japanese family and ate good food, I would be cured.  So, I went and worked for a Japanese family.

After I got better, I returned home and continued to feed the family by begging.  I also carried water up the hill to our shanty every day.  My father made me do all the work.  He said, “Carry some water.  Go get some sugar.  Make some porridge for the baby.”

At fourteen, I went to work at a cookie factory located near the crematory in Hongje-dong.  About a year later, my father sent my younger brother to fetch me home.  When I arrived, I found a plump woman wearing gold jewelry and a Korean style overcoat.  She said if I’d go with her, I could do well not only for myself but also provide for my parents.  My mother kept her back turned toward her, saying nothing, but my father urged me to go.  So, I followed her.  Later, I heard my father received a sum of money from that woman, which he said he planned to pay back in installments over the next year.

The story behind this deal had to do with the housing dilemma we faced.  Those of us living in tent shanties in Ahyun-dong had been forced to pack up our tents and move further up the Hongeun-dong hill.  At that time, Hongeun-dong hill was barren except for graves.  We were told to dig up dead bodies, burn them, and build our homes.  So, we tore up our tent home in Ahyun-dong and moved it up the hill.  However, we needed more lumber, which we obtained on credit.  But when we couldn’t pay the debt, we were forced to either turn our house over or pay what we owed on the lumber.  This was the reason my father made a deal with the woman to give him a sum of money in exchange for my employment with her.

Deceived by the owner

The woman took me to a large wine house called Youngchun-ok, which stood by the Sudaemun West Gate jail.  I set tables for wine-drinking customers and ran small errands.  After a year of working there, the woman asked me if I’d like to get a good job in Japan that paid a lot of money.  Since there would be many other girls also going there to work, she said I didn’t need to be afraid.  I had no idea how to get there, but the hunger for a job that would provide me with good food, clothing, and money was too powerful for me to resist such a miraculous opportunity.  She gave me a packet of Chinese medicine to take home, brew and drink and told me to wait for a word from her.  The medicine, she said, would cut the seasickness in the boat to Japan I would board.  She gave me some pocket money, too.  How much, I can’t remember.  I do remember buying with that money an outfit each for my little sister and younger brother.

Back at home in Hongeun-dong, I took a break for about two weeks.  During that time, I told my friends, “I’ve been promised a good job.”  Hearing this, two of my former co-workers at a cookie factory, Duk-sool Kim, two years older than me, and Hok-geun Kim, a year older than me, decided to join me.

Soon, I received a word to come to a meeting place.  It was 1942.   I had just turned sixteen.  I wore the white short-sleeved dress I got at the Young-chon-ok Wine House and wore a pair of white high heels.  When I arrived at a Chinese restaurant in Myong-dong below the South Mountain, there were several dozen young women waiting there.  My father accompanied me, Duk-sool, and Hok-geun there, and then he left.   For lunch there, we ate sweet-and-sour pork, fried rice, and so forth.  For the first time, I had a dish with sea cucumbers.  After lunch, we boarded a train to Busan.

Arriving there at night, I couldn’t tell what was what.  We stayed at an inn located at the Hot Springs of Dong-rae for seven or ten days.  The day after we arrived there, when I asked if I could walk to the ocean, I was told the road in front of the inn would take me straight there.  But I was also told to stay in.  We were being led by a Korean man and several women.  In the evening, we took baths in the hot spring and feasted on good food, but we were never allowed to venture outside.

When we boarded a huge ship—possibly a transport or military—in Busan, several of the Korean escorts disappeared.   About sundown, pointing at a land across the waters, someone said it was Japan.  There were hundreds of women in the ship, and from the Japanese soldiers, I learned we’d work as comfort women.  I didn’t know what that meant, although I knew some Japanese because I once worked for a Japanese family. Despite having been told we were heading to Japan, we bypassed it and headed south.  I suffered seasickness so badly that I couldn’t eat and stayed stretched out.  Soon, we anchored in Taiwan, but we were not allowed to leave the ship.  I remember lowering my hat to the sellers on the dock and buying fruit that way.  When we sailed again, the ship stopped briefly in the middle of the ocean, where the sun rose right out of the water and later dropped into it.  We were all seasick and lay down, and whenever we hit big waves, we groaned in unison.  Finally, we stopped and anchored.  This time, it was Singapore, but again we were confined to the ship.

 This is where I’ll die

A month after we sailed from Busan, we arrived in Rangoon, Burma.  From there, we took a train to a small village.   Here, my life as a comfort woman by the name of Harata Yo-o-jio began.  When that happened, I said to myself, “Ah, this is where I’ll die.”  The comfort station was a two-story building standing by the side of a road.  The floor was white plaster, and there was a basement, to which we escaped whenever the air raid siren wailed.

The comfort station was at a distance from the village where locals lived, and I didn’t know where the army compound was, but at night, soldiers streamed in from who knows where.  During our stay in that village, I became close with a military support person named Dachewoochi.  He supplied us with rice, other food items, clothes, and various sundries we needed.  Living just outside the military compound, he lived on a property that looked civilian, and he wore civilian clothes, including a white shirt, which he asked me to starch and iron for him.

One of the women who worked with us committed suicide by overdosing on soju and opium.   The soldiers made a wood pile and asked us to come and watch the dead woman being burned.

After a year there, we were moved away by truck.  On the drive, we saw a hot spring.  Soldiers poured the water into large drum cans and sat in them, but we women didn’t.

I lost my mind with homesickness

We drove all day to arrive at sundown at a small village in a mountainous area that had only a military hospital.  Our station was located across a small stream from the hospital.  All the soldiers coming to us seemed to be associated with that hospital.  For the first time, we received a proper physical examination.

The station building had been empty.  So, we cleaned it when we arrived.  The building was square shaped with rooms in a row on both first and second floors.  The building’s roof was high and with inside staircases on both sides.  It was a well-built structure and surrounded by many Buddha statues near the front gate.   On the second floor alone, there were about twenty rooms, one of which was mine.  The sign “Comfort Station” hung on the front of the building.

The Korean couple who had escorted the fifty of us Korean girls left us after assigning a room to each of us.  Each room was numbered and showed the names of girls, but, being an illiterate person all my life, I don’t know what my number was.  The room had wood floor and contained a bed and a wash basin.  Not having a drain, we threw used water over the railing to the ground.  The cafeteria downstairs was small and dirty.  Three Chinese men cooked for us with the rice provided by the military.  For clothing, we wore Western outfits that arrived through the military.

Because I didn’t eat well, my body became weak.  About two years into the life as a comfort woman, I contracted malaria.  I took quinine, which caused jaundice.  Through this ordeal, none of the other women gave me any assistance, which worsened my homesickness.  Eventually, I lost my mind and for about six months, I wandered around—even at night.  I kept looking at the moon and stomped around.  Once, I fell and rolled a ways on the ground.  I still have scars from that fall.

One time, I wore the military uniform of the man who fell asleep in my room and tried to sneak into the hospital.  When a security guard saw what I was doing, he aimed a gun at me.  When he realized it was me, he took me back to my room.  Soldiers often took me to the hospital, gave me tranquilizing shots, and returned me back to my cubicle.  At night, I went to a pond and rode a piece of log, saying I was heading home.  As soon as people pulled me out of water, I went right back in.  I heard these stories after I came out of my trauma.

During this period, a military doctor, a lieutenant, provided me with much care.  Toward the end of my ordeal, he gave me glucose shots and comforted me with warm-towel massages.  He visited me two or three times a week and sometimes force-fed medicine.  After I recovered, he often spent nights with me.

We received weekly examinations for sexually-transmitted diseases.   When a disease was diagnosed, the afflicted woman’s door was tagged with a sign “vacation,” signaling off-limits to soldiers.  The army hospital staff provided us with disinfectants, which, when mixed with water, turned pink to dark brown depending on the amount of water.  We washed our private parts with that mixture.  It was, if ingested, potent enough, to kill a person.  The soldiers brought condoms, but if they didn’t, I had a supply, and I made sure they were used by putting them on the soldiers myself.  But my military doctor friend did not use them.  He came to me for over a year, until the war ended.

Upon entering a woman’s room, the soldiers handed over their tickets, which were about the size of business cards.  We averaged ten to twenty cards a day, but some women collected as many as thirty.  We were told savings accounts were kept on our behalf, but I never saw mine, nor did I dare to ask.  Again, the army doctor was an exception; he did not present to me any tickets.

There was an office downstairs, but I don’t remember who worked there.  One day, the Korean men and women who brought us to this place disappeared, without saying as much as a goodbye.  Later, I believe, soldiers worked there.

Soldiers could enter any of the women’s rooms not occupied by another soldier.   Those on leave came during the day.

While I never used make-up, I received from the hospital basic goods such as a clothes chest, a box, and a mirror.  During my days of deep depression, I laid these out in the middle of my room, or so I was told later.

Three or four of the women committed suicide.  Some women left with officers, with whom they set up housekeeping.  Some died of diseases, while others ran away.  All in all, the number of women dwindled to about twenty.  With permission, though infrequently given, we went on outings.  But, because the surrounding area was mountainous, and the locals were foreign to us, we did not dare to run away for fear of getting caught and killed.  Once, we were told to come and see the corpse of an American pilot whose surveillance plane was shot down.  So, we went and saw a white man who had only his thighs and buttocks left—no head, body or arms.

 Shortly after that, soldiers stopped coming; they had all left the area.

The end of the war and the military doctor

The war ended, a year after I suffered my bout with depression.  The doctor disappeared, too—without a word.  I had never heard a single gun shot the whole time we were there.  Even at the previous place, when the bomb siren went off or bomber planes flew low, we hid in the bomb shelter, but we were never bombed.

Then, out of nowhere, Korean men appeared and asked us to go with them.

We walked in the rain and heat until our feet swelled and blistered.  We crossed a body of water that reached up to our necks, carrying on our heads only rice, red pepper flakes, and salt.   Once, we cooked rice in water red with mud.  After we walked ten days, resting an hour here and there, we reached Rangoon.  There, we learned we would head home, at which news I lost my mind once again—this time with joy.

At the refugee camp in Rangoon, which had a large yard like a school playground, we lived together with Korean men drafted into the Japanese military.  Women from various locations, about fifty in all, gathered there, and we received cooked food that occasionally featured bits of pork fat floating on top.  We were taught how to cross streets, and we even had races.  We sang the Korean National Anthem.  One evening, a stage was set up, and we had plays and sang songs.  I think I sang “Without an Address Plaque nor House Number.”  It was always hot there, and groups of us threw some mats on the floor and slept together.   We even had a dentist, and I got my molars pulled.  We could come and go as we liked, except we needed to return to the camp.

In a large ship, we arrived in Pusan in March, 1946, a year after the war ended.  But because of a person on board believed to have contracted typhoid, we could not disembark.  Then we sailed to Inchon, but we were not allowed to disembark there either.  A word that if we turned over our valuables, we would get to leave the ship circulated.  So, we took off our gold rings and other items, some of which were gifts from soldiers.  Soon we got off the ship, at which time we were given 1,000 won each.

When my friend Duksool and I landed in Inchon, her mother and older brother greeted her, but no one waited for me.  When I reached our Hong-eun-dong family home, they had moved.  How dejected I felt.  Fortunately, my father’s friend took me to my brother’s house in Eul-jee-ro.

There I learned of my father’s death.  On December 2nd of 1945, the year Korea was liberated from Japan, he passed away.  He was fifty.   Back when he sold vegetables in the market and sometimes worked as a porter, he bought small amounts of rice with the money he earned.  But he spent the rest on gambling, often letting his family go hungry.  It was so miserable for us that once I yelled at him, “Why don’t you drop dead!”   Now, those words stab my heart.  My younger brother had worked for a business run by the Japanese, but he injured his leg on the job and became handicapped.

As a twenty-one-year-old then, I held various jobs, including working as a restaurant helper and a housemaid.   To kill the pain life had dealt me, I drank heavily, gulping two or three bottles of makkoli rice wine each day.  When the alcohol hit me, I wept over my pathetic life.  Now, because of bad teeth, I cannot eat or drink hot or cold foods.  My stomach is bad, too.

I never expected to live a normal marriage life as other women did.   After the “January 4 Retreat,” (UN forces abandoned Seoul January 4, 1951 and withdrew to Pyong-taek-Wonju-Samchok line) when I went to live in Chungjoo, I met a man seventeen years older than me and lived with him.   But, as I had an aversion to developing closeness with men, we didn’t have a good relationship.  Of course, I couldn’t produce an offspring.  Five or six years ago, at the age of seventy four, he passed away.  My life has been difficult, but I have the comfort of regarding his son as my unofficially-adopted child.

My words to the Japanese government

I think I could lead a restful life, even if I live in a one-room rental, if only I could receive compensation from the Japanese government.  Since the Japanese invaded our country and did whatever they pleased with our people while living high on the hog, I am not holding my breath to strike it rich with their compensation.  I just want a payback for having had my virginity taken away by force.  They dragged us away and did with our bodies what they pleased.  Now, they spew blasphemies—that we voluntarily walked into that abject life ourselves.   Does that sound like a legitimate justification for not compensating us?   Hadn’t forcibly luring us away and holding us captive against our will been Japan’s imperial policy after all?  The Japanese government must not attempt to wriggle out of their duty to us any longer.

—  THE END  —

 

Maija Rhee Devine, Writing for Peace AdviserAbout Maija Rhee Devine

Maija Rhee Devine, a Korean-born writer whose fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, North American Review, and The Kenyon Review, and in various anthologies, holds a B.A. in English from Sogang University in Seoul and an M.A. in English from St. Louis University.  Writing honors include an NEA grant and nominations to Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Awards.

Long Walks on Short Days, her poetry chapbook about Korea, China, U.S. and other lands she has known, is available through Finishing Line Press here.

Learn more about Maija Rhee Devine here.

 

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Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jung Un unilaterally revoked the 1953 Armistice Agreement, threatening to turn South Korea and parts of the U.S. into a sea of flames. Writing for Peace Adviser, Maija Rhee Devine, remembers fleeing Seoul on foot and by train as a child during the Korean War.  The train, she said, was a boxcar, with no seats or bathroom facilities, and crammed with so many people that they hung from the handrail outside in the winter air “until they froze and dropped to death.”

Maija Rhee Devine’s debut novel, The Voices of Heaven, leads readers through an extraordinary love story that parallels the tragedies of the war. The story flows from her firsthand experience of growing up in Seoul during the Korean War, revealing uniquely Korean colors and sounds. You can purchase a copy of “The Voices of Heaven” on Amazon.com here, or directly from the  Seoul Selection site here.

 

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