Saturday, December 18, 2010

House of Sharing (나눔의 집)

Sunday I had an amazing opportunity to visit the House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do province, about 45 minutes from Seoul. This is a house where women, who survived sexual slavery by the Japanese military during Japan's military expansion into the rest of Asia before and during World War II, have come to live together. The Japanese term for these women was "comfort women" but their position was far from comfortable. Today we refer to them either as sex slaves or simply Halmoni (Korean for grandmother).  Estimates of how many Korean women were conscripted into this brothel system are between 50,000- over 200,000. Many died or were killed as they served the Japanese, and most of those who survived were left behind in the various foreign countries where they served, stranded, unable to get back to Korea. While many of them eventually made it back to Korea, years later, the shame of the ordeal kept them from telling the public about what they endured. The world was ignorant of their suffering until 1991 when the first Halmoni came forward and talked publicly about her experiences. Many people, even Koreans, refused to believe, but her courage has allowed 220 more Halmoni to come forward and declare themselves as former sex slaves to the Japanese. Many others, though, remain in silence, either not wanting to relive memories of the past, or discouraged by families who feel ashamed to have this scar on their family's history.

These women, despite their age, continue to fight for official recognition and compensation from the Japanese government, which continues to claim that they were uninvolved in the brothel system.

The House of Sharing is a place for the Halmoni to live together and heal the wounds of the past while educating the future generations of the suffering they survived.

Before you enter the museum, you will pass two sculptures. This sculpture represents what the Halmoni dreamed of before they were conscripted into the brothel system. They dreamed of love, happiness and having families of their own. 

This represents their mind after becoming sexual slaves. Their dreams shattered, pierced with bayonets. 

As you enter the museum, you are greeted by the hands of Kim HakSoon Halmoni, one of the survivors of the brothel system. Her message as you enter the museum is this: "우리가 강요에 못이겨 했던 그일을 역사에 남겨 두어야 한다" which means: "That which we were forced to do must be recorded in history." You can learn more about Kim HakSoon Halmoni from this interview I found online.

It's hard to see on this map, but if you can make out the tiny dots marked about the map, they represent the locations of all the known and suspected sex slave camps set up by the Japanese military throughout their empire in East Asia and Southeast Asia from 1932-1945 when WWII ended.

Actual photos of the "comfort women" and Japanese soldiers at the brothels.

The Japanese soldiers paid for their stays with the "comfort women" with the Japanese military currency (left side) but the women never saw any of this money. Each woman was issued one condom which she needed to wash between clients. Some women saw up to 40 men per day. Those who complained about the conditions or tried to escape were beaten or killed to make an example for anyone else who had similar thoughts.

The women, who were 80-90% Korean, were given Japanese names, usually flower names, and each woman's name was placed on a wooden placard on the wall which is quite similar to menus in a Japanese restaurant. When a woman was unavailable for a day due to illness or other reasons, the placard was turned over, just as a sold out item would be in a restaurant. It really goes to show how the women weren't even thought of as humans. The reason why the actual number of women who were coerced into this trade is unknown, is that when more women were required they were ordered on military supply requests along with ammunition and other supplies.

After you pass through the rooms of the museum explaining the history of the sexual slavery, you come to a room which shows the present. You can see photos of all the Halmoni and how they came back to Korea. You can see Japanese and Korean textbooks, neither of which touch upon the subject of the sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation. Above, you can see many gifts which have been bestowed upon the House of Sharing. Many have come from Japanese visitors who do not follow their government's line of thinking in that the Japanese government and military were not responsible for the brothel system.

An art therapist has helped the Halmoni to come to terms with their suffering and express their emotions through art. Some of the paintings are on display in an upstairs room of the museum.

As you exit the museum, you can place your hands in the hand prints of the Halmoni.

Finally, visitors may have a chance to meet some of the Halmoni that reside in the house. We decided to make a banner with the Halmoni. Actually, none of the Halmoni actually painted with us, but they seemed quite content to watch us. Some people talked to the Halmoni, but I'm much to shy for that. But, I had a nice time painting. Above you can see my creation :-)

English tours are only offered about once a month by the International Outreach Team so you'll have to plan in advance if you want to come here. You can visit the English website or email the International Outreach Team ( for more information. The next tour will be held on January 15th, 2011. You need to email to sign up, but you can also check out their facebook event.

One other way to participate in their struggle for recognition from the Japanese government is to attend a Wednesday protest. Every Wednesday, no matter what, the Halmoni go to the Japanese embassy in Seoul to demand that the Japanese government accept involvement in their suffering. Any are welcome to join the Wednesday protests and having a western face present shows the Japanese that it's not only Koreans, but the whole world who are aware of this stain on Japan's past.


  1. I heard about this place but never actually visited. If you don't mind, I will link from my blog.

  2. Of course you can, Korean. I'd be honored.

  3. Wow, thank you so much for sharing this.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. Next time were in Korea (this summer I think) I may attend one of the Wednesday protests. Thanks again.

  5. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. This is very nice piece, very well-written and very well-done. You've managed to shed a bit of light on a topic that is essentially very dark, and you've done so with clear eyes and no intention ignore the dark nature about it.

  7. Very special post, Jo-Anna! I would like to visit this site, but I wonder how accepted older MEN night be, all things considered.

    OTOH, I have always been welcomed the three or four times I've been to the Wednesday protest--please point out it begins at NOON, just next to the Somerset Hotel.

    Koreans aren't the only ones to suffer under Japanese barbarism that history is trying to re-write, take a look at "The Rape of Nanking" by Iris Chang.

  8. Well, I think that thinking keeps a lot of men away from the place, but we had a few men on the tour and there were at least two male volunteers there. I think it's important for men to be there and learn about this stuff too. I think you should definitely check it out. You won't regret it!

    I knew that it was at noon, but I didn't know the location of the Japanese Embassy, thanks for that! (ps, where is the somerset hotel?)

    It's funny you mention the Rape of Nanking. The guides mentioned that many of these brothels were made because of of the bad publicity the rape of nanking made for the Japanese. So, you know, provide some women (who were technically Japanese citizens since Korea was a colony at the time) for them to rape instead of raping the locals. It's much better for the public image, don't you know?

  9. This is a great post, I will have to visit myself

  10. This post was linked on a site called metafilter and became an overnight hit. Some folks left some comments there (and I wish they had left them here instead) about this post and I wanted to share them:
    A lot of my students volunteer there and some have produced oral histories of these women's lives. Amazing women, and Japan should be clear about this to put it in the past where it belongs.
    posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:34 PM on December 17 [1 favorite]

    Very sad that these women have been living with this psychological trauma for almost sixty years and have so few outlets for letting their voices be heard or processing the events.
    posted by threeants at 6:48 PM on December 17

    Thank you for this post. I only knew the vague outlines of the ordeal these women had been through--it is amazing to know that the Halmoni at The House of Sharing continue to fight for recognition and acknowledgment of what happened to them. I hope one day they get it.
    posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:45 PM on December 17

    Very nice post. Thank you.
    posted by bardic at 9:44 PM on December 17

    Actually, threeants, they're pretty celebrated here in Korea, and the House of Sharing takes a lot of visitors. And for the record, one of the main caretakers in the H of S is a Japanese ex-pat!
    posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:26 AM on December 18

    Anyway, I'm glad people are talking about it somewhere because of me. Threeants brings up a good point that these women have been keeping this a secret their whole lives and now are trying to deal with their suffering. It doesn't matter how famous they are now, there are many more who still feel shame who haven't come out and don't have outlets to deal with the pain. Not to mention that Koreans still don't want to talk about the subject of sex in any manner and don't go to this museum and don't talk about this subject with their kids.

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  12. Thank you for sharing this. I have felt sorry and guilty for the pain of the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery. Today, I attended the free screening at Dongguk University with my niece, who has been a freshman for three weeks. I respect all the volunteers that are dedicated to the redress for the lost justice. I am thinking of visiting the House of Sharing during the break. :D

  13. I am making a lesson plan about comfort women and it will be publically accessible. May I use the photo from the top of your blog post? I will give photo credit.