By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
For over 40 years, Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton have been bringing vital works of Korean language fiction and nonfiction to the English-speaking world. Professional translators since 1979, the married couple has made it their life’s mission to share Korean stories, history, and culture with non-Korean speaking readers. Their latest effort, One Left, or Han Myong, by Kim Soom, is the first novel from South Korea that deals solely with the subject of “comfort women,” or wianbu.
“Some books ask you, ‘Please translate me,’” Ju-Chan told the Weekly. “This book, all the pain was there, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This woman…goes to see the last dying registered “comfort woman”…The timing was perfect because we talked about the #MeToo survivors and human trafficking. Then finally somebody wrote it after 75 years, finally a Korean writer wrote this, and we wanted to translate it…it was our duty…that’s why we did it.”
One Left is not the first novel about “comfort women,” yet it is the first to come out of Korea itself, from where some of the largest numbers of “comfort women” were either abducted or falsely misled into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers during World War II. The Fultons were clear during their conversation with the Weekly, and during a recent Town Hall Seattle presentation, that they did not take on the novel with the intention of Japan bashing, but with an appreciation for the brave work done by Soom and an intention of healing—for all.
“Those of us who study Korea, we can’t help but gain some knowledge about Japan. It’s no secret that, over the centuries, Japan and Korea have had a very contentious relationship,” Bruce said on the colonization of Korea by Japan from 1910 to 1945.
“But…what the novel is really about is the cooptation of the female body, which has a long history in Korea, a long history in Japan, and is developing a long history in the United States.”
“This book is very liberating and triumphant, with a happy ending, and that’s what we were looking at,” Ju-Chan said. “If it was just a miserable and unhappy ending, probably we wouldn’t [translate] that.” Bruce, who teaches Korean literature at the University of British Columbia, added, “By all means, healing on both sides was one of the underlying reasons for our selection.” During their Town Hall talk, Bruce explained, “As for trauma, this year seems to be an especially important time for considering our work in light of social justice, truth, and reconciliation. To give voice to these women…is something we consider a necessary dimension of addressing the historical outrages that modern Korea, no less than any other nation, and perhaps more so, has experienced.”
During World War II, 360,000 to 410,000 “comfort women” were forced into sexual service by the Japanese. The term itself—“comfort woman”—is a euphemism distasteful to many as it disguises the true nature of the tragedy, and the Fultons make sure to keep it in quote marks. The number of women cannot be accurately determined because, with the exception of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, regimes do not usually keep track when they are abusing and murdering people. While the majority of “comfort women” were Korean or Chinese, other nationalities were also represented, including Japan itself, and Europe in particular, Dutch female prisoners of war.
Males of colonized Korea were also conscripted for labor in mines and factories. To date, Japan has not owned up to these wartime crimes in a manner that has been acceptable to the survivors. “What remains a sticking point in Korea, in our understanding, is that the Japanese government seems to have delegated the reconciliation part of the truth-reconciliation process to a non-governmental organization,” Bruce explained, referring to an Asian Women’s Fund that has been set up to distribute some compensation to “comfort women.”
We can wait for governments to make amends, and that day might never come, but we can still heal as individuals. One of the aspects that the Fultons most liked about One Left was that it gave the “comfort women” a strong sense of individuality. In the novel, the protagonist, as Bruce described to the Town Hall audience, “makes the fateful decision to visit the last surviving registered Korean “comfort woman” in a university hospital. She undergoes an epiphany in which, for the first time, she remembers and echoes her given name…a name that she has not been used for 70 years. In doing this, she is reclaiming her identity…who she was before she was taken one day from the marsh where she was gathering snails, loaded into a truck and taken with other girls to a train station…and from there a multi-day rail journey to Manchuria.”
“The ending of Kim Soom’s novel convinced us that this could…emphasize that we’re not talking about an atrocity that happened to a group of people. This happened to more than 200,000 [Korean] individuals, the same way we think the ending…about one individual reclaiming her identity, could be magnified to the national level,” Bruce told the Weekly.
“We thought that she’s the bravest writer in this subject,” Ju-Chan added, while elaborating on the fact that in Korea, as in most countries, shameful incidents of the past are often glossed over. “I finished my university in Korea. I am an educated person. But we were never taught that in school…People my age agree it was never mentioned…Only in the late 1990s did they start talking about ‘comfort women,’ a kind of movement, so this book really helped me understand.”
The process of finding a publisher was not easy, with the Fultons reaching out to 32 outlets before coming to an agreement with the University of Washington. The couple was told, “We don’t need another sensational [topic]” or “Everybody already knows.” “I had to argue, ‘Really? It’s news to me!’” related Ju-Chan. “I only knew the tip of the iceberg. I think, in a way, Koreans have ‘comfort woman fatigue.’ They want to avoid [the subject]; they hear about it a lot. Once you start reading the book, you know what that means, how these voices of individuals come out.”
Bruce and Ju-Chan aspire that, on their next trip to Korea, they will be able to meet one of the “comfort women.” Many of the survivors are now in the work of helping other victims of sexual violence, young girls, thereby facilitating their own healing by assisting others to do the same.
The Fultons’ translation of One Left can be purchased at Elliott Books and other booksellers. A recording of the Town Hall Seattle presentation on One Left can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=Bn1zkcKjYSI&feature=youtu.be.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.