January 18, 2019

Comfort Women

During World War II, the Japanese army forced as many as 200,000 women and girls from mostly Asian countries to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers and officers. About 80 percent of these “comfort women,” as the Japanese euphemism of the time termed them, were the daughters of mine workers and farmers in Korea, which was under Japanese occupation.

The women and girls — some were as young as 11 years old — were brought to military brothels and forced to serve as many as 30 men each day. Those who refused were beaten, tortured or killed.

After the war, the women kept silent, ashamed of their experience or fearing the reaction of their traditional society. Many are believed to have committed suicide. The first Korean woman to come forward was Bong-kee Pae, who told her story to a Korean newspaper in 1991. Since then, a handful of books have documented what certainly stands out –even among tough competition — as one of the war’s most horrific chapters. Confronted with testimony from about 160 of the estimated 1,000 comfort women believed still alive, the Japanese government at first called the women prostitutes and denied such a practice ever existed. Since then it has paid out about $760,000 in reparations, though it has not formally apologized.

In her new play, “Hanako,” Korean-American playwright Chungmi Kim tells the story of one comfort woman, the title character. Hanako experiences the terrors of life as a comfort woman, the aftermath of shame and alienation, the power of revealing her hidden past.

“Hanako” is emotional, its language and situations often graphic. Though it took decades for Korean society to come to grips with the tragedy of its comfort women, Kim believes Jews sensitive to their own history of persecution will instantly relate. “If anybody can understand this, Jews can” the intense, soft-spoken playwright said during a visit to The Journal offices. “We call this, ‘the Pacific Holocaust,’ along with the Nanking massacres.”

Kim’s previous plays and screenplays have garnered several awards, including first place in the Writer’s Guild West Open Door Writing Competition. Her one-act play, “The Comfort Women,” was a finalist for the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in New York. Though born and raised in Seoul, she didn’t hear about the comfort women until 1993. Now she hopes her work will make more people aware of the abuse women are often singled out to suffer during wartime. “Even now in Europe it’s still happening,” she said, referring to reports of rape following inter-ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia. “I think people really need to learn what this kind of injustice and violence does to people.”

The Korean American Coalition is planning to join with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish organizations to present a special program surrounding “Hanako.” Details will be announced at a future date.

“Hanako” will run from April 7-25 at East West Players, 120 N. Judge John Aliso Street, Los Angeles. Tickets are $20-$23. Call (213) 625-7000 for information and reservations.