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RELIGION / Exploring issues, answers and beliefs

An Exhibit That Unites Faiths

Works by former sex slaves of the Japanese army are part of the healing process, one artist says. But the art, which is on display in L.A., also has powerful religious implications.

October 14, 2000|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

She is small and frail, her shimmering pink hanbok dress cloaking a darkness in her heart that others will never be able to fully comprehend.

Soon-Duk Kim does not like speaking about her memories. But she has drawn them. The portraits that convey the pain of her capture and use as a military sex slave by the Japanese army during World War II are vivid and disturbing.

They have also been a part of healing.

In ways Kim never imagined, an exhibit of her art and that of others, which will open Thursday in Los Angeles, has helped calm the chaos in her heart, heal relationships with the Japanese people and bridge religious differences in the Korean American community here.

The "comfort women" exhibit is one of the few causes--famine relief to North Korea is another--that have been able to move the community's strictly divided Christians and Buddhists to cross faith lines, according to Eun Sook Lee of the sponsoring organization, Young Koreans United of Los Angeles.

Lee's organization was so worried that Christians would not attend an exhibit if it were in a Buddhist art gallery that it hesitated for months before accepting the invitation of the Lotus Art Gallery to display the art.

On the fliers announcing the exhibit, the group was careful to list the English name of the art gallery rather than its Korean name, Kwan Um Sa, which is instantly recognizable to Koreans as a Buddhist association.

"The Christian community can be very strict about not, in any way, supporting or mixing with non-Christian beliefs, including Buddhist," Lee said. "We were really afraid we wouldn't get cross-denominational support."

But as word of the exhibit spread, so did support for it. Young Koreans United, an organization that promotes peace, democracy and social justice, was able to raise more than $4,000 to support the exhibit from Buddhists, Catholics and other Christians--including Wilshire Presbyterian Church, Valley Church of Praise, St. Gregory Catholic Church, the Korean Buddhist Federation and Buddhism Peace Temple.

"The issue is love of the motherland, which transcends all religious barriers," said Won Sub Park, an elder with Young Nak Presbyterian Church, the largest Korean American congregation in Los Angeles.

There is no need, really, to ask Kim to retell and relive her horrors. The details of her ordeal are included in a lawsuit recently filed by her and other former comfort women against the Japanese government in a Washington, D.C., federal court. Whenever she is asked to recount her experiences, she said, the memories are revived and the nightmares and flashbacks that have gradually faded come back--of the first time she was raped by Japanese soldiers, of the chaos and confusion in her mind.

It is easier to skip straight to Kim's art, which speaks more freely and powerfully.

"Unblossomed Flower" depicts her innocence. In 1937, at age 16, she was recruited with other girls for what she was told would be factory work for Korea's colonial masters in Japan.

"Kidnapped" shows a young girl, startled eyes and mouth agape, being yanked from her Korean homeland by the uniformed arm of a Japanese soldier.

"At That Time, at That Place" shows a naked girl cowering in a fetal position, hands covering her face, as three uniformed men approach her. For three years, Kim was raped by as many as 40 soldiers a day at her "comfort station" outside Shanghai, China, before a high-ranking officer issued permission for her to leave because of her poor health.

There are more pictures by Kim and five other artists who created them as part of art therapy at the House of Sharing, a home for former comfort women outside Seoul, South Korea. Hyejin, the Buddhist monk who started the house and has accompanied Kim on her U.S. tour, said many of the women suffer from lifelong medical problems and psychological turmoil.

Faith and Art Help Banish Inner Demons

But the art therapy, Hyejin said, seems to have helped them exorcise some of their inner demons. So has religious faith: Although the 11 women in the house follow various religious paths--including Buddhism, Christianity and shamanism--the Buddhist monk said he guides them to focus on compassion for others. In the last few years, the women have raised $120,000 for the poor, victims of the Vietnam War and North Korean compatriots suffering from famine.

"The pain in one's mind cannot be eased by hatred," Hyejin said.

How the deeply religious Korean community should resolve the lingering hatred against the Japanese militarists and overcome the han, or stored bitterness, is a question that provokes mixed responses.

"We preach the message of forgiveness, but when we file lawsuits, we're contradicting that," said Pastor Jim-Bob Park of Young Nak Presbyterian Church. "It's a touchy subject."

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