Tuesday, December 20, 2011

129: The Self-Empowered Woman: Korea's Comfort Women

Dear Followers,

There has been a lot of media attention focused on North Korea the past few weeks because of the death and state funeral of dictator Kim Jong Il, and the new ruler, his son, Kim Jong Eun. But today's blog is about a situation in Seoul, South Korea that, unfortunately, is receiving far less attention.

The photo above is of several elderly women and a bronze statue (named The Peace Monument) that sits on a street in central Seoul. The life-size statue was paid for with donations from South Korean citizens, and is strategically placed so that its eyes are directed across the street to the Japanese Embassy. Every Wednesday since January 8, 1992, a group of elderly women wearing yellow vests (former "Comfort Women") gather in silence to protest the actions of the Imperial Japanese Military during the 20th century.

From 1910 until 1945 Korea was under Japan's colonial rule, and one of the unspeakable side effects of this occupation was that thousands (estimates vary - depending upon the historian - from 20,000 to 410,000) of women in these territories were forced into sexual service at military "comfort stations." Today, the Japanese military admits that the women were coerced into serving at these stations, which in reality were military brothels.

Scholars have discovered that three quarters of the comfort women died, and most of those who did survive were left infertile due to either STDs or sexual trauma. One former Japanese soldier, Yasuji Kaneko, recalled his days as a soldier with these words "The women cried out, but it didn't matter to us whether the women lived or died. we were the Emperor's soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance."

While Korean women may have comprised the bulk of the area's comfort women, many came from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and other Japanese-occupied territories. Even ten Dutch women were taken by force from prison camps in Java in 1944, and held in a Japanese comfort station. One of these Dutch women, Jan Ruff-O'Hearn, testified to a U.S. House of Representatives committee in 1990 about her experience as a war "sex slave."

The elderly Korean women who were forced to be comfort women during World War II want the Japanese government to pay reparation, rather than receive "hush money" from private donations. In addition to the fact that the interest level in World War II events is low, another problem is that time is running out for these quiet protesters. Twenty years ago, 234 Korean women were willing to set aside their shame and embarrassment to publicly protest the atrocities they and their peers suffered during the Japanese occupation. Today, only 63 protesters are available to gather in front of The Peace Monument each Wednesday.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

128: The Self-Empowered Woman: Margaret Thatcher

Dear Followers,

Later this month, a new movie (The Iron Lady) that is already generating Oscar buzz and stars Meryl Streep in the role of Margaret Thatcher, will be released. Those of you who know me well, are already aware that I have both a personal and professional (i.e., emotional) connection to Mrs. Thatcher. The late Sir Gordon Reece, who was an intensely dear friend of mine, was instrumental in transforming her from a Conservative member of Parliament to the legend she later became. Margaret Hilda Roberts Thatcher is the first and only woman to have led a British political party, the first female Prime Minister in the English-speaking world, as well as the longest-serving British Prime Minister (of either sex) since British women were granted the right to vote (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Thatcher was born on October 13, 1925 in Grantham, in the East Midlands of England. Her father was a grocer who had two shops in Grantham, and was also a Methodist lay preacher (3: Belief in the Unbelievable). Their home life as a family that lived "above the shop" was full of reminders that hard work, education and discipline were the keys to success. Margaret and her sister were required to read two library books each week (and one of them had to be non-fiction). The family attended church twice each Sunday, and Margaret was an enthusiastic and admired member of the choir (9: Music).

Alfred Roberts (her father) also served as an alderman (a now discontinued form of local politician), and passed his love of public service to Margaret, his younger daughter, who as a little girl often went to political meetings with him (2: An Early Sense of Direction). Since there were no sons in the family, Alfred channeled all of his ambition into Margaret. At his urging she developed into a gifted student who became the first member of her family to attend college and - unlike her peers - managed to win a place at Oxford. As one admirer noted "Her father drove her to it. He may have been a Victorian patriarch, but he was no sexist" (4: Supportive Someone).

In 1949, at only 23, she was adopted as a Conservative Parliamentary candidate for the first time. Three years later, she married Denis Thatcher, who was ten years her senior and had been previously married; they soon had twins, Carol and Mark, and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in London. Even though her training was in science, she became a member of Parliament at age 33, which highlighted her natural tendency to be self-critical (10: The Critic Within). From her teeth to her weight to her clothes and even her voice, she worked hard (with Gordon's guidance) to be the best that she could be. Her staff and aides were often driven to the point of exhaustion by her perfectionist revisions and rehearsals whenever there was an important speech or event on the calendar.

Nicknamed "The Iron Lady" because of her fearless ability to take an unpopular stand (her decision to fight for a poll tax, go to war over the Falkland Islands, fight the unions and revamp the country's economy), she was often unpopular at home even though she was admired abroad (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest). Lately, there have been a number of articles arguing that Mrs. Thatcher's decisiveness and economic realism is exactly what's needed in light of the global financial meltdown. After all, in nine tears she lowered the top rate of income tax from 98% to 40% and reduced "work days lost to strikes" from 29.5 million to 1.9 million. And these changes brought with them massive, controversial social upheaval.

Thatcher claimed that her leadership skills came from the lessons she learned as a child: "...an honest day's work for an honest day's pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police." She observed that "In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman." Mrs. Thatcher reluctantly left office in November 1990, when she realized that her own party - after she had been at 10 Downing Street for eleven years - chose to support John Major rather than her. She was deeply hurt and felt betrayed when she learned that the locks to her personal office door had been immediately changed after the vote. She made no secret of the depth of her sense of loss (12: Hard Times).

These days, she is known as "Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven," and it is rumored that when the 86 year old former Prime Minister dies - because she achieved more than any other peace time Prime Minister of the 20th century - she will receive a state funeral. It is an honor usually reserved for monarchs.

Looking forward to your comments...