Posted by: Matt Kelley | 4 October 2008

The House of Sharing


Former Korean sexual slaves at a press conference in Washington, D.C. in July 2007 (Photo by Ahn Young-joon/AP).

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on October 4, 2008.)

About 45-minutes southeast of Seoul in Gyeonggi Province is a special place called the House of Sharing. Built in 1995, the house is home to seven elderly Korean women between the ages of 77 and 86. But the house and the halmonis (할머니), or grandmothers, who live there have painful stories to tell. During World War Two, they were what many called weeanbu (위안부) or “comfort women”, survivors of the Japanese military’s systematic sexual enslavement of as many as 200,000 girls and young women from all across Asia.

The largest number of them were Koreans. And after being coerced or kidnapped to serve the Japanese military’s soldiers, they endured systematic rape and venereal disease, and many emerged from the war alone and impoverished, traumatized by their experiences and physically unable to have children.


Korean “comfort women” after finding refuge in Lameng, China (1945).

But even after the War, threats of shame and abandonment compelled most of Korea’s former sex slaves to keep their torture stories a secret, even to this day. But in 1991, Kim Hak-soon became the first halmoni to publicly testify her experience as a sexual slave. Her courageous coming out helped expose the ongoing suffering of the halmonis, and helped spark an international movement. A member of my own family, Jan Ruff O’Hearn, is an outspoken, former Dutch-Indonesian “comfort woman.”


The first Korean “comfort women” did not come forward to tell their stories until the early 1990s, when they came out of the shadows and demanded apologies from the Japanese government.

Thanks to the efforts of Kim Hak-soon and others, in 1992, a home in central Seoul was established to care for a handful of these frequently-ill elderly women. In 1995, the current House of Sharing was built on a quiet piece of land donated by Korea’s Joggye Buddhist Order located on the outskirts of the Gyeonggi Province city of Gwangju.


The museum includes a life-size, recreated “comfort station” cubicle. Outside the door are rows of wood blocks with the Japanese names given to the sex slaves. If a woman was unavailable, due to venereal disease, her block was turned over.

In addition to living quarters for the halmonis, the House of Sharing includes a lecture hall, an outdoor entertainment stage, and the Museum of Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Military. The museum, which was built in 1998, includes wartime photographs, a life-size, so-called “comfort station” cubicle, art by the halmonis, and documentary evidence proving the Japanese government’s role.

Despite the irrefutable evidence, as recently as March of 2007, then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused an international uproar when he suggested that the women were willing prostitutes. The ensuing furor helped encourage passage of the United States House of Representatives Resolution 121, which asks the Japanese government to formally apologize and to teach Japanese students about their country’s past crimes. The resolution was introduced by Representative Mike Honda, himself an American of Japanese heritage.


One of the many gifts to the halmonis from Korean and Japanese school children, which highlight the fragile but growing rapport between the two nations’ people, despite the Japanese government’s refusal to atone for its war crimes.

Honda isn’t the only person of Japanese descent who cares about the halmoni. For me, the most touching part of the House’s museum is an alcove full of posters, paper flowers and gifts, most of which are from Japanese school children. And furthermore, the House was built, thanks to funding from the Korean government, as well as from Korean and Japanese individuals. I guess it’s just more evidence of the power of person-to-person relationships, even when governments refuse to accept responsibility.


When I visited the House of Sharing last year, we watched a tape of this halmoni’s testimony. Although quite small and shy, she had a powerful presence, even via the television. I checked the Web site recently and she’s no longer there.

Visiting the House of Sharing is a moving experience. If you want to go, Korean, English and Japanese language tours are available. Usually, English tours occur about once a month, and groups meet in Seoul for the bus and taxi trip out to the house. Once there, if you’re really lucky, one of the halmonis will sit with your group and share her story. But, due to their advanced age and failing health, usually a videotaped account of their experience will be shown instead. Sadly, time is running out for these courageous survivors.

You can learn more about the House of Sharing on their Web site.

Getting There:
→ Take subway line 2 to Gangbyeon Station, then walk to the bus stop in front of the Technomart. Take bus #1110-1 to Gwangju City Hall. From there, take a taxi to Nanumae-jip. 5,000 won (students: 3,000). English-language group tours are available one Sunday per month. Upcoming dates here. Open 10:00-17:00 (closed Mondays).

→ Each Wednesday afternoon, several halmonis and their supporters protest outside the Japanese embassy in downtown Seoul. To go there, take subway line 3 to Anguk Station (exit #6), then walk 250 meters west and turn left as you pass the Somerset Palace building. Walk 100 additional meters and the embassy will be on your right. Wednesdays 12:00.

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Responses

  1. Wonderful web site…I can not get enough of your writings.

  2. Hi Mimi,
    Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m glad you are enjoying the site. Feel free to let me know if there are places you would like me to cover, or any questions you may have!


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