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Baring the Scars of Shame

In 'Hanako,' playwright Chungmi Kim gives voice to the plight of Korean 'comfort women' who still cannot talk about their World War II ordeal.

April 04, 1999|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Usually, when it comes to conducting interviews, a tape recorder is merely a tool of the trade. In the case of South Korea-born playwright Chungmi Kim, however, the inexpensive little machine placed on the table at Du Par's, tucked between the playwright's healthy plate of fresh fish and her interviewer's slab of pie, triggers a surprising flood of emotions.

The tape recorder reminds Kim of an interview she did--or rather, tried to do--with an older woman in Korea when Kim returned to her homeland in 1995 to do research for her new play, "Hanako." The drama will have its world premiere Wednesday at the David Henry Hwang Theatre in downtown's Little Tokyo, presented by East West Players.

Kim wanted to interview the woman about her experiences as one of the "comfort women," a deceptively delicate term used for as many as 200,000 Asian and European women, about 80% of them Korean, who were coerced or abducted to serve as sex slaves for soldiers in the Japanese Imperial Forces from the 1930s until the end of World War II in 1945.

Kim says that "slave" is the only word for women who were systematically transported as military supplies and tortured and raped by as many as 40 men per day. Many were killed; many others killed themselves.

"She was a good person, and she was in great pain. I wanted to get the story out of her, and she wanted to tell it," Kim remembers. "We were sitting in her small room, and I said, 'Do you want to talk?' And she tried, she really did, but after two meetings and many phone calls, she still couldn't do it.

"Finally, I gave her the tape recorder and said: 'Keep it for yourself--talk to yourself, into this tape recorder, and keep it for yourself. Let go of the memories.' "

The woman, a survivor of multiple failed suicide attempts, could not talk, even alone in her room, to a tape recorder. She insisted on returning the machine.

Ultimately, Kim decided that the tape recorder, or what the woman would have said to it, didn't really matter. After several attempts to interview former comfort women, she found that as a writer she was less interested in logging the details of camp life and individual atrocities than in examining the emotional scars of women who had survived 50 years of shame.

"They suffered during the war, they were tortured, beaten up, starved--and they survived," Kim says. "And yet, when they came back to Korea, to their own country, they were ignored, neglected. They had to hide their identity. . . . That suffering is, I think, more tragic than the deaths.

"In this society, we have sexual freedom--somewhat. If a woman is raped, she doesn't have to live with the shame, [victims] sue people, they speak up. But at that time, Korea was a Confucian society, and chastity was more precious than life itself."

The story of the comfort women was not generally known until 1991, when one survivor came forward and told her story to a Korean newspaper, confirming a truth that the Japanese government had long denied. Other women followed her lead, and, in 1991, six women brought a class-action suit against the Japanese government, demanding redress and monetary reparation.

In 1995, Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued an apology to the former comfort women, and the Japanese government initiated a special fund, to be made up of individual and corporate donations, to collect enough money to pay each woman who had served as a sex slave slightly less than $23,000--a sum close to the amount paid by the United States to citizens of Japanese descent who had been placed in internment camps during World War II.

Through the fund, Japan paid about $760,000 to former sex slaves, but many refused to take the money, believing that the private funding arrangement allowed Japan to sidestep its official responsibility. Then, in April 1998, a Japanese court ruled that the government must pay compensation of $2,272 to three South Korean sex slaves. One of the plaintiffs, 79-year-old Lee Sun Dok, called the amount an "insult," and attorneys for the three women plan an appeal.

In Los Angeles, community interest in the comfort women led to the 1994 opening of a memorial library in Koreatown, under the aegis of the Los Angeles-based Coalition Against Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a group dedicated to continuing the campaign for justice and reparations.

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