Kang Il-Chul: The Korean comfort woman behind ‘Spirits’ Homecoming’ film

GYEONGGI Province, South Korea – In 2016, director Cho Jung-rae’s crowd-funded film “Spirits’ Homecoming” was released in South Korea, premiering at No. 1 at the box office.

“Spirits’ Homecoming” is about Korean girls taken by Japanese military and they were forced to become comfort women, a euphemism for sex slaves by Japanese troops before and during World War II.

The making of the movie was saddled with lack of funding but with donations from 75,270 people from around the world, it was completed. It sold 3.58 million tickets and grossed $23.56 million in South Korea, according to the Korean Film Council (KOFIC).

“Spirits’ Homecoming” was based on the true story of Korean comfort woman Kang Il-Chul, who was taken by Japanese military in 1943 when she was only 16, and is now one of the only 20 surviving Korean comfort women who came out to tell their stories. Korea was under the Japanese from 1910 to 1945.

Kang Il-Chul is one of the 20 last surviving Korean comfort women who came out to tell their stories (Photos by Jonathan Hicap)

Kang Il-Chul is one of the 20 last surviving Korean comfort women who came out to tell their stories (Photos by Jonathan Hicap)

Manila Bulletin and other Asian media under the Kwanhun-Korea Press Foundation Press Fellowship met Kang at the House of Sharing, a housing and museum facility where she and five other Korean comfort women live, located in Gwangju City, Gyeonggi Province outside Seoul.

“I was taken by Japanese military and I ended up in China. Japanese government needs to give legal compensation,” a frail Kang, now 92, said. She is spending her time at the facility by doing different activities including jigsaw puzzles and receiving visitors.

Kang, who was born in 1928 in Sangju, North Gyeongsang Province, lamented that at the time, “Japanese people, they took everything, everything that was valuable to us, even rice. Rice was valuable at the time because we didn’t have enough food. Japanese people destroyed everything.”

It was in 2002 when Cho visited the House of Sharing to perform as a musician and there he met Kang.

According to Jo Entertainment Korea, which produced the film, during an art psychotherapy in 2001, Kang drew a painting called “Burning Virgins” that showed comfort women being burned in a pit.

The painting was based on Kang’s own experience. During her ordeal as a comfort woman, she was afflicted with typhoid fever and soldiers decided to dispose her along with others by throwing them into a fire pit.

A scene from 'Spirits’ Homecoming' (Jo Entertainment/KOFIC)

A scene from ‘Spirits’ Homecoming’ (Jo Entertainment/KOFIC)

With the help of the Korean Independence Army, she was able to escape death. She stayed in China after the war and permanently resided in Korea starting in 2000.

Cho saw the painting that became his inspiration to make “Spirits’ Homecoming.”

House of Sharing

Thousands in Korea, the Philippines, China and other countries were forced to become comfort women at Japanese military brothels, known as comfort stations. Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941 and the country was under Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945.

Korean comfort women are demanding an apology coming directly from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“They are very old but they are still very active because they want to recover their honor,” said House of Sharing Director Ahn Shin-kwon, who visited Manila last May where Korean and Filipino comfort women had the chance to meet.

Ahn said in Korea, 240 women came out to reveal that they were comfort women during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Currently, only 20 are alive and six of them live at the House of Sharing.

A photo of the late Filipino comfort woman Maria Rosa Luna Henson (bottom) is on display at the House of Sharing

A photo of the late Filipino comfort woman Maria Rosa Luna Henson (bottom) is on display at the House of Sharing

The House of Sharing compound has a housing facility for comfort women, and the Museum of Sexual Slavery by Japanese Military that houses the stories of comfort women not only in Korea but in different countries, evidence, memorabilia and photos. The former comfort women are housed in a building where they each have their own room.

Also displayed in the museum are photos of Filipino comfort women Maria Rosa Luna Henson, N. Gertrude Balisalisa and Remedio Valencia. In 1992, Henson was the first Filipina to publicly tell her story as a comfort woman.

Visitors can watch a video clip of “Spirits’ Homecoming” before going to the museum.

Its museum displays hundreds of photos, documents, and testimonies of comfort women. A replica of a “comfort station,” where comfort women were brought by Japanese troops, is also on display. The complex also has a gallery where works of comfort women are displayed. At the back of the compound is a memorial for comfort women who passed away.

A report by the Philippine government on the implementation of the Assistance to Lolas in Crisis Situation Project stated that there were about 1,000 comfort women in the Philippines during the war.

All in all, “the estimate ranges from 80,000 to 200,000, about 80 percent of whom, it is believed, were Korean,” the report added.

“It is estimated that there were 200,000 comfort women in Korea. We have to rely on the testimonies of comfort women. There are only 240 comfort women who claimed that they were victims. The number is so small because most of them got killed during the war and most of them killed themselves because they felt so humiliated. Most of them were not brave enough to say that they were victims because they knew how the Korean society would see them,” Ahn said.

Kim Hak-sun was the first comfort woman in Korea to come out in public and testify about her ordeal on Aug. 14, 1991. She and other victims filed a lawsuit in Tokyo against the Japanese government in December 1991 to demand an apology and compensation. She died at age 73 in 1997.

Director Ahn Shin-kwon shows the bust sculptures of Korean comfort women at the House of Sharing in Gwangju City, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea

Director Ahn Shin-kwon shows the bust sculptures of Korean comfort women at the House of Sharing in Gwangju City, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea

Her testimony encouraged other former comfort women in Korea, the Philippines and other countries to come forward.
The issue of comfort women has led to a weekly demonstration, also known as “Wednesday Demonstration,” in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul since January 1992, an event that has been going on for the past 27 years.

In December 2011, the Statue of Peace of a girl in hanbok representing Korean comfort women, was installed in front of the embassy. Since 1992 up to present, the Wednesday Demonstration has been held more than 1,400 times.

In 2015, Korea and Japan agreed to settle the comfort women issue and the following year, the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation was established.

The Japanese government provided 1 billion yen (about $9.2 million) for the foundation to help Korean comfort women and their families. A number of Korean comfort women and their families accepted compensation from the foundation.

The foundation was dissolved by the Korean government under President Moon Jae-in last July after consulting with the victims.

About the 2015 Korea-Japan agreement, Ahn said “comfort women did not accept the apology because both governments did not ask their opinion and they didn’t agree with it.”

“What the comfort women want is an official apology and legal compensation. Official apology means the prime minister of Japan should apologize officially. About the legal compensation, it’s not about the money,” he said.

He said they want the comfort women issue beyond the perspective between Korea and Japan.

“We want to take this to women’s rights issue but Japan always wants to limit this by saying that this is just a Korea-Japan relationship issue. We don’t care. We want this to keep going. We want to collaborate with people who have goodwill and interest in the US and Europe. That is why we are not stopping making peace statues, we are not stopping making movies about this issue,” he said.

Ahn added, “The Holocaust is a widely-known issue because of movies and documentaries. Our issue is not known by people around the world that is why we are still making peace statues and also through movies and literature, we want people to know about the (comfort women) issue.”

In 2017, a statue was unveiled in San Francisco, depicting three girls from the Philippines, South Korea and China holding hands beside a statue of the likeness of Kim Hak-sun. A similar statue was erected at Namsan Mountain in Seoul last August.
“This is a very big issue for women’s rights. We think international cooperation is very, very necessary. That’s why we need to resolve the issue. Of course, there should be no war in the future. But if there is, there should be no women who will become victims of the war,” Ahn said.