Listening to a person’s story gives people the benefit of distance. They’re able to analyze the tale from from every angle and from a multitude of perspectives. Grass is such a story, related by Lee Ok-sun, a surviving Korean “comfort woman” and illustrated by cartoonist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim in this intriguing manhwa (a Korean graphic novel). Ok-sun shares her experiences of being forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during Japan’s occupation of Korea and the events leading up to World War II. Granny Lee Ok-sun’s tale is a brutal account of human cruelty and theft of personal identity.
Out of respect, I’ll refer to Lee Ok-sun as Granny Lee for the duration of the review as Gendry-Kim takes to calling her this over the course of this story. Granny Lee’s life is a harsh one; at fifteen years-old she was “adopted” by a childless couple who owned an Udon shop with the promise of food and an education, only to discover she’d been sold into domestic slavery. The owner explained if she worked hard enough she’d be able to attend school. After an altercation with one of the guests the Udon shop owner tells her it’s not working out and sells her off to a brothel.
Granny Lee’s situation worsens since she’s beaten for even the smallest of transgressions. Even sneaking an egg because she’s hungry is reason enough for her to receive a savage beating, all because she wanted something extra to eat. While running an errand Granny Lee is kidnapped by two strange men, tossing her onto a train with several other girls her age and taken to an army outpost. It’s only then she learns she and the other girls are considered “comfort women” to be used by the Japanese soldiers.
Granny Lee is one of only a few surviving comfort women who reside at the House of Sharing in Korea, a nursing home for surviving comfort women founded in 1992. During the Japanese occupation of Korea women were often taken by troops through promises of employment, threatened, or just snatched away, sometimes from their own homes. These women were forced to stay in places called “comfort stations”, usually on military bases, where soldiers would come, in Granny’s words, to “be serviced”. These women didn’t have a choice in the forced intercourse, or, more accurately, rape.
Gendry’s Kim’s bold brushstrokes showcases the austere atmosphere of the reality Granny Lee endured during this period. Being a comfort woman, people started to chip away at her personal identity one shard at a time. The Udon shop owner from before lied to her about the school enacting a new policy for girls to have short hair in order to attend. The braid Granny Lee’s father made for her was chopped off as a result. When she arrived at the comfort station she and several other girls were given Japanese names in place of their native Korean ones. Age didn’t matter, kidnapped girls would be anywhere from 18 to 13 years old when they were forced to service soldiers.
If that wasn’t enough, comfort stations were referred to as the “public toilet” for soldiers to use. When troops wanted to be serviced they simply had to pick the name of a comfort woman off the plaque affixed to the wall.
These actions dehumanized the comfort women and were a form of control that’s commonly used to keep people in line and distance them from others. By doing this, the soldiers no doubt would be less likely to see Granny Lee as a fellow human being suffering because of their actions. If they’re not “human” it makes it “okay” for the suffering to take place or to lessen the blow of the effect such cruelty has on another person. The other women with Granny Lee at the time were often beaten and forced to service troops at all hours.
During my research for this review I listened to a chilling account given by the late Granny Kim Bok-Dong, another comfort woman who survived this period, describing that due to being raped several times a day she couldn’t walk properly because her lower body was in so much pain. Some women mentioned being raped up to 30-40 times a day. Granny Kim passed away earlier this year on January 28th, may her soul finally rest in peace.
Granny Lee didn’t survive with just mental scars from her ordeal, but also physical ones. Despite being told to use condoms, soldiers refused to use them and she contracted syphilis – and even then was still pressed into servicing them. Only when her genitals were so swollen from an untreated sexually transmitted disease she couldn’t service the troops anymore was medical treatment given. This meant exposing her privates to boiling mercury to cure the disease, and while she did get better, this left her unable to bear children.
Grass tells harsh truths about the casual and overt cruelties people like Granny Lee and Granny Kim Bok-Dong suffered through. I appreciate both women coming forward to share their stories so they can go on record for human history. Her illustrations of Granny Lee’s experiences are breathtaking, transitioning from the past to the present day where the two are talking giving real weight to the account being told. Gendry-Kim’s approach to the subject left me bitter, though I suspect no disrespect was meant on her part. It’s just that sometimes her approach towards the material felt flippant at times, in some cases even ignorant.
During the part where Granny Lee is on her way to the Udon shop, Gendry-Kim cuts in with several pages of looking for the House of Sharing. While finding out how an idea for a project is intriguing, here it breaks the flow. During another moment when Granny Lee is talking about how a soldier gave her a watch with the promise to take her to Japan with him, only to later send a friend back to retrieve it instead, Gendry-Kim laughs. This solemn moment should have been treated with respect, not mocked.
Granny Lee herself states she never experienced a moment of happiness once she’d come out of her mother’s womb. And this holds true for the majority of the story, there are small moments of happiness, but even these are few and far between. Besides Gendry-Kim, we’re given the impression even into her advanced age Granny Lee doesn’t get many visitors. I hope at least in her golden years she had some happy moments, despite the injustice done to her and other women.
The estimates for how many women were forced into sexual slavery during the war is anywhere from 20,000 to 400,000. The numbers are often debated since women from other countries were also taken to be used in military comfort stations, including the Philippines, China, New Guinea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaya, Burma, Dutch East Indies, Portuguese Timor, and of course Korea. 240 comfort women were officially registered according to the House of Sharing, but that number has since dwindled to 20. The few remaining survivors are now in their 80s and 90s, but have continued to face each day.
Personal accounts like Granny Lee’s need to be told because it brings to light the atrocities that happened during the war. Real people suffered, and with the numbers mentioned above makes it difficult to establish a connection with fellow human beings overcame such adversity. Some chose to take their own lives rather than continue dealing with the daily pain of enduring one more day. While nothing overly graphic is shown, there’s a violence to Gendry-Kim’s art style that conveys Granny Lee’s story well. When describing how she was raped for the first time in front of her friends, several panels are jet black with the last page being an uneasy picture of Granny Lee’s young face bursting through.
To be fair, the framing execution of Grass isn’t always ideal and there were moments when Gendry-Kim didn’t appear to be well-informed about the subject matter. While I understand showcasing the creation of a comic work is a popular feature, given the severity and emotionality inherent in this particular story, perhaps a bit more resistance on her part would have benefited the overall production. Still, the plight of Granny Lee, and the other comfort women who suffered these unimaginable horrors, is a critical part of history that should be recorded, remembered and respected. It’s a story everyone needs to hear.