Goldsmiths, University of London
There once was a beautiful, virtuous girl named Shim Cheong. Her mother left the world the day Shim Cheong came into it and her father went blind. Her father would only regain his sight if he made an offering of 300 bags of rice to Buddha. The devoted daughter desperately worked night and day for the bags of rice.
But it was not enough.
Just as she was about to lose all hope, she saw a notice promising any price for a virgin girl who would be a sacrifice to the river god – the great Dragon King who lived at the bottom of the Han River. Shim Cheong pleaded with the sailors who had put up the notice to take her as their sacrifice. Touched by Shim Cheong’s devotion to her father, the sailors agreed to pay the 300 bags of rice to Buddha. Shim Cheong told her father she was going to work as a maid for a family in the city and held her tears as she kissed him goodbye.
They set sail. When the time came, without hesitation, Shim Cheong jumped into the river. The Dragon King was so moved by this filial daughter’s selflessness that he gently tucked her into a great lotus blossom and returned her to the surface. Her father found the blossom and when he touched its soft petals, it bloomed. His sight was restored and he saw his beautiful daughter for the first time.
When I was an ignorant child of five, I enjoyed the stories told by the Korean servant. He would come into the room I shared with my older brother and whisper the stories to us in his halting Japanese if my father was not home. My father did not approve of folk stories. Japan was spreading its rays of power as the Land of the Rising Sun. We had to be focused, ready and willing for the greatest destiny of a Japanese man in this time of expansion: to die honourably in the Great Emperor’s holy service during this holy war.
As a boy, I preferred the servant’s stories to the past tales of the great samurai my father clung to. How naïve.
These stories filled our heads with nonsense.
Sometimes I can still hear Umma’s voice telling me Shim Cheong’s story, trembling like the very last time I heard it. It was the morning I had to leave and Umma was brushing my hair. She kept saying she was so proud and grateful that I was such a good daughter - volunteering to go work in a textile factory. She was scared that no one would look out for me. I was scared too. But at the same time, I was so excited that sometimes it was hard to hide it from her. I was thirteen and had never left Ulsan before, this would be a different world. A whole new country. Not only would I be leaving Ulsan, but I’d be leaving Korea as well. Even she had never stepped foot outside of Korea. There were other girls from our village going, I reminded her. It would only be for two years and when I got back, we’d have enough money to open our own shop. We could pay off the debt Ahba left when he disappeared. No more begging, no more starving. Two years working in China. That’s all. She hugged me so close that her tears wet my hair and said that I was braver than she could ever be and even more devoted than Shim Cheong. Surely, the Dragon King would have a great reward waiting for me when I returned to Korea.
My father’s words remain seared in my memory, as prominent as the scars he left on my arms whenever I refused to fight. A man must fight. Once the sword is drawn, it can never be returned to the scabbard without first drawing blood. No surrender. Never surrender to the enemy or you will bring eternal shame upon your family. Kill yourself and bring honour instead. He mimed seppuku. Die in noble sacrifice to the Emperor, he will remember and reward you in the after world.
The day I turned ten, I caught the Korean servant speaking in Hangul rather than Japanese. My father smiled, patted my shoulder and granted me a reward – beat the servant to bring him back into the Emperor’s fold. When I did not move, my father inhaled all of the air in the room, leaving me with none. He called me a traitor.
How dare you show sympathy to the enemy? These Koreans had nothing. Nothing until the Emperor in his kind mercy took them under his wing and showed them how to create a strong country. Yet, they were ungrateful and refused to pay their landowners their rightful share. We taught them our superior language and they resisted! Such shortsighted, ignorant beasts. He turned me around to face the servant who had fallen on his knees in front of my father. These barbarians took your mother when she tried to help a Korean boy who had fallen in the street. The mob thought she had tripped him and beat her until she died. He is of those people.
Air refused to pass through my throat, into my lungs. It was the first time my father spoke of my mother’s death. My father picked up the reed broom the servant had dropped and placed it in my hand. I let it slide from my fingers and sat down next to the servant, remembering the warmth found in him, absent in my father. My father’s stare bore into me as he picked up the broom.
A boy who does not serve the Great Emperor is not my son. He slapped me across the face with the broom. The sting of the reeds drew blood from my cheek. If you do not beat him, you bring shame to your mother, to your family and to your country.
I stood up and looked my father in the eyes for the first time. Hate surged through my blood. I grabbed the broom and began to beat the servant with abandon.
Show mercy to your enemies and you insult the Emperor and your people. The servant clutched at his heels. He kicked the servant’s face and then satisfied, left the room.
That night, I sobbed into the coarse tatami mat on the floor of my room while my brother mocked my weakness. I vowed to grow strong. To be worthy of the Emperor’s service. I would make my Emperor proud.
My father was on his deathbed when I joined the Imperial Army the day I turned eighteen. He told me he would celebrate with my mother in the after world.
Now it is 1942 and the Great Emperor’s reign extends from New Guinea to Manchuria, to Burma and covers everything in between. The rays continue to spread. The Land of the Rising Sun will not be stopped. His Holiness has destined it and I am his faithful soldier. He is my master, father and god.
The sound of heavy boots in the hallway wrench me away from Umma’s voice and forces me back into the grey cell. The same colour as the ahjusshi’s glasses. I was so stupid to believe that old Korean man, going from village to village, collecting girls. His eyes behind those dirty glasses could barely open as he explained to Umma how working in China was a once in a lifetime opportunity. When I came back, we’d be rich! I can’t believe how I had thought that he was a kindly old man. Now the colour of these walls remind me of that disgusting, money grabbing pervert who betrayed his own people and collaborated with the Japanese. We trusted him and followed blindly.
They may have my body but I refuse to co-operate.
It’s finally starting to work. My body is hollowing out; it’s feeding on itself. Soon, they won’t be able to control my body. The emptiness in my stomach makes me smile as the curtain lifts and the soldier’s silhouette fills the doorway.
She is facing the wall when I walk into the room, letting the curtain fall behind me. Her long braid leads like a snake from her small head over the side of the thin mattress coming to rest on the concrete floor. The bruises on her back are healing. They are green now instead of the bluish purple they were last week. It is curious. Why do they turn green instead of red? An unnatural colour for human skin. I lean my sword carefully against the chair next to the door.
She does not stir when I sit down next to her. Taking off my boots, I massage my feet. The tip of my second toe is black. Another unnatural colour for skin. The cold in Wuhu is taking their feeling. In the Philippines the heat and humidity could weigh down on a man heavier than any sense of guilt. However, here in China thick socks are necessary. I must remember to find some tomorrow.
There is a curious sound coming from the girl - like a newborn kitten’s meow - but she remains motionless. The sound is odd in this world of war. I fold my khaki pants and place them neatly on the chair, careful not to disturb the sword. Only once have I ever let my sword fall. It was during my first year of military training and I had left my sword against the wall. It slipped and clattered to the floor just as the commanding officer entered the room. He beat me until my teeth dug into my cheeks and my face was barely recognisable. By disrespecting my sword, I had insulted my Emperor who had entrusted me with it.
I move towards the mattress. It is there I notice the small pair of canoe shaped Korean style rubber shoes. They appear unusually tiny. They do not look as though they belong to a sixteen year old. Yet the others insist that this one is actually sixteen. Perhaps her mother is also in this comfort station. That would be a fortunate coincidence for the two of them, serving the Emperor together.
The music started very quietly in the beginning. The first notes floating into my ears at the end of the first day I stopped eating. It was a week after they took Ah Reum’s body outside and dumped it into a pit so shallow that over a month later, the dogs are still digging up pieces of her. She did what none of us were strong enough to do. Only seventeen, she had saved her malaria pills. She even managed to convince the Korean-Japanese doctor who foolishly fell in love with her to give her more, saying she was forever losing them. She collected them, few by few until she had over fifty. When they dragged her naked body out, the blood was still flowing out of her nose and ears, even her eyes.
They made us clean it up. I sat on my heels and uselessly scrubbed at the bloody trail left by Ah Reum. The concrete floor of the narrow corridor had already absorbed a lot of the blood. The rag I held mocked me. Made from an old skirt, it’s girlish pink had turned a dirty grey and was now crimson with blood. I couldn’t help but feel jealous. Her nightmare was over. I needed to find an ending for mine.
It is odd that the room is not cold. There is no heating in here but it is warm. Like in a sealed tomb, the air is heavy and still. It must be the heat that comes from bodies in motion. The smell of the last man still lingers. Soon a similar scent will emanate from me and join the smells of the thousands of other men who have been in this room. The first comfort station I visited in 1938 did not have this smell. The government had just established them. At times I long for the cleanliness of a new comfort station. Nevertheless, I continue my visits here because sexual tension leads to ineptitude. Others, much more superstitious than I, believe sleeping with a woman before going into battle will protect them. The women who fill these stations are also servants of the Great Emperor. They are a tactical necessity for the Imperial Army.
Alright, now that my clothes are neatly folded, I am ready.
I turn her around. Her eyes are directed at my face but are looking elsewhere, flickering back and forth. She lies flat on her back, with no resistance. This suits me today. Sometimes it is interesting when a girl challenges you or screams at you or tries to hit you. I like to test out my reflexes and there is a feeling of great strength that flows over me when I overpower a challenging girl. New girls even run in a futile attempt at escape. Some days I enjoy observing these girls, running about in the tiny room. They do not yet understand the vital role they are playing in the Great Emperor’s plan. In any case, today I am tired. Too tired to restrain a girl. I am pleased that this one is lying still. I want to release my tension and then go eat dinner.
She is a small girl. I like petite frames. Perhaps that I why I have come back to this one. Her ribs are showing through skin that is almost translucent. I touch one of the bruises on her breast. Hisashi once told me how he liked to suck on a nipple until it bled. He liked the taste of blood. I do not derive pleasure in the same way as Hisashi. In any case, the breasts on Korean girls are too small. The breasts of the Filipina comfort women were much more interesting. But here in Wuhan, they have mostly Korean girls. The Chinese girls are sent to the front. These bruises are recent, beginning to turn purple. They are like delicate flowers in bloom. The girl moves slightly when I press on one but there is no protest. I press harder, seeking to instigate a reaction. Nothing.
The first time the soldiers came, there was no music. Even if there was, my screams and the cries of the girls around me would have blocked it out.
Nine other girls from my village met me at the train station in Ulsan. When our truck arrived, there were already five girls in it. The girls from my village all said they were going to work in factories in China, those already in the truck said they would be working as maids in Japan. There was just one girl - with an eye that was swollen shut - who said she only remembered being hit on the side of her head and waking up in the truck. Her eye made us all very nervous. The stink from the canvas that covered us in the bed of the truck stuck to our clothing and hair as the unending journey continued. We rarely stopped and when we did, they never let us out. We had to relieve ourselves in the bed of the truck, like animals. I planned to jump out and run as soon as the tarp was taken off. But when we were finally let out, all I could see was a single story house in the middle of small and twisting streets. How would I ever get home? How would I ever find my way through this maze? Where would I go? I stayed with the other girls. We clung to each other, staring at what would become our prison. The grey walls looked impenetrable. The few windows were filled in with concrete. There was nothing alive. Not even grass. We looked to each other for comfort, but everyone was so scared. Then they started pulling us apart. We screamed and clutched at each other’s hands and skirts. Easily overpowered, I was thrown into a room with no toilet, just a bucket, a chair and a thin mattress on the floor.
When the first officer came in I fell on my knees and cried. I had done nothing wrong; there had been a mistake. I shouldn’t be in this prison, please sir, if you could help me. I told him I was only thirteen and had been promised a job in China. Please sir, I said in Japanese, I am a factory worker. I begged him to be a decent man, to help me find my mother in Korea. He just laughed and started to undo his belt. I touched my head to his feet, bowing low to this monster. I said I could be a good servant. I could cook and clean. In response he kicked my face with his boots, knocking out two teeth. My screams joined the screams filtering in from the other rooms, as he pulled my braid and dragged me to the mattress. I struggled, kicking and biting whatever I could. He laughed and hit my head against the concrete wall, then shoved me onto the mattress, using his weight to hold me down. My cries for mercy turned into curses before my voice went hoarse as he stripped me and laughed, his saliva dripping down into my mouth. I spit and cried. The pain intensified with every thrust. It burned.
When he was finished, he tugged my braid again, telling me his daughter had the same hairstyle, got dressed and left. The blood was still bright red on the mattress and I was desperately trying to cover myself with my torn clothes when the door opened and another officer came in, unbuttoning his uniform. I tried to tell him I was in too much pain but my voice lost its sound. I screamed silently as he pulled my torn clothes away, turned me over, beating me until I was on my hands and knees, and increased the pain started by the first officer.
Two years later, I have very few teeth left. 30 to 40 soldiers come into my little room every day. They still give me a lot of pain, but now, when the soldiers’ footsteps approach, I hear the notes. The Dragon King sends his music to guide me to his underwater palace every time the soldiers visit. The less I eat, the louder the music becomes. The abuse, the grunts and groans are left on the surface and I sink with the gentle melodies. Cool water soothes my bruises and cleans my wounds as I drift gently down to the Dragon King’s underwater kingdom.
Being an officer, Hisashi has priority visitation rights over the new comfort girls. The first time he went to this one, she begged. Then she fought. He chuckled as he described how they fought in the past, how she tried to bite him. Once she kicked him in his vulnerable area and he stabbed her. He was the cat and she the mouse. Hisashi enjoys these games with the new arrivals. When he takes their virginity he views himself as a victor. If they protest or become annoying, he throws them against the concrete or takes out his sword and stabs them. Never to kill or maim, but enough to leave a scar. I dislike using my sword on these girls. Blood spilt on the battlefield is tenfold more beneficial to the Emperor. Hisashi is one of the men who believes it is good luck to sleep with a woman before going into battle. He ceased his visits to this one when she stopped fighting and it became less amusing to him.
Her breathing is very shallow and she does not protest when I lower myself into her. Her arms are limp and her eyes are flickering left to right. It is strangely disconcerting. Nevertheless, I am focused on my body and begin my rhythm.
There is a gentle rhythm to the music that is clearer than ever. It is the same lullaby Ahba used to sing to me before he disappeared. That was before Umma had her breakdown and took me out of school. I didn’t like school much anyhow. They gave me a Japanese name and I refused to respond to it. I would come home with bleeding hands and bruised knees from the punishments, even the Korean teachers used to punish me. Umma used to ask why I couldn’t just go along with it like everyone else. That was before Ahba was taken away and never brought back. Before she needed me to sleep next to her.
I think of her sleeping by herself now. Do the distant cries of hyenas coming in through the rice paper doors still scare her at night? The only sound reaching me now is the music of the Dragon King. The notes fall like giant raindrops in this dark cell - purifying water, muffling all cries and screams. They come one by one, refreshing bursts, landing on my hair and face. Now they’re all over me. In my eyes, filling my nose and ears. The men with their disgusting smells are far away and the music carries me deeper towards his palace.
I’ve always seen just the tops of the Dragon King’s palace on the other side of the coral gates, its sloped roofs made of mother of pearl tiles spreading out like a stingray’s wings. Bright blue and red flags move softly in the water’s currents. I smile when I see that this time, the gates are open. Beautiful sea creatures play in the courtyard. Jellyfish come and caress my face with their tentacles, their translucent bodies moving in the water like the skirts of angels. Playful sea horses dart around my feet, flashes of red and yellow and pink. The music holds me in a gentle embrace, bringing me through the gates into the Dragon King’s courtyard. He’s waiting at the top of the palace steps with his arms held out to me. His long white beard flows down to the bottom step and his bright red robes dance lightly around his body. The music sets me down in front of him. I bow low, pressing my forehead to the pearl steps. There is warmth in the hand that he places on my shoulder. I look up to see a gentle and kind face, beckoning me to rise. He leads me into his palace and says, Welcome home my filial daughter.
Her eyes are on me now. But they are vacant. I am not finished and am annoyed with myself for letting this vacancy disturb me. I grab her hair, pulling with force, looking to discern even a hint of a reaction. There is none. I am pulling so hard that her head is nearly touching her left shoulder. She keeps the same empty look in her eyes. Still inside of her, I let go of her hair and slap her across the face. Her head jerks to the right and does not move from where it lands. I feel my annoyance increase and my rhythm is interrupted. Stepping off the mattress I examine her. She has stopped her shallow breathing and there is no pulse. Dissatisfied, I pull on my uniform and yell for someone to take her to the pit outside.
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