A Gift of the Emperorby Therese Park
A Gift of the Emperor is the poignant fictional account of real-life atrocities inflicted upon more than 200,000 Asian women by the Japanese military during World War II. This haunting story is narrated by Soon-ah, a Korean schoolgirl whose life is shattered when Emperor Hirohito's soldiers abduct her from her village and ship her and her schoolmates to a "house of relaxation" in the South Pacific. Here, on an island with surreal beauty, Soon-ah is forced into prostitution as a "comfort woman" to the Japanese military. This scorching account of one woman's endurance of sexual degradation and the unspeakable horror of war provides compelling testimony to the strength of the human spirit, the power of love over hate, and the ultimate triumph of hope over despair.
Rita Nakashima Brock, co-author of Casting Stone: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States wrote:
"The searing horrors of history come alive in stories that add flesh and blood to the dry bones of evidence and news reports. Therese Park has given us such a vivid story... Her intelligent, nuanced and humane work paints a portrait of human courage, hope, love, and survival under conditions most of us cannot even imagine..."
Soon-ah's father, a Presbyterian minister, is murdered by the occupying Japanese, her mother is raped, and her elder brother is drafted and sent to fight in the Pacific. Then the 17-year-old Korean schoolgirl herself is dragged from the cellar where she's been hiding. Like her classmates, she is chosen to be one of "the Emperor's special gifts to the soldiers," a cynical euphemism for a cruel reality. Within days of their capture, Soon-ah and her friends are transported to a Japanese troopship bound for the Pacific war zone. Soon-ah, who narrates her own story, vividly describes the mass rapes by the drunken soldiers on board; the numbing life of bad food and daily multiple sexual encounters once at the camp; the outbreak of one disease after another; her own aborted pregnancy; and her growing friendship with Sadamu, a war correspondent, who interviews her so that he can expose the actions of the Japanese military. Eventually, Soon-ah is moved to a brothel that services only officers, and where conditions are slightly better, but Sadamu, now in love with her, suggests they escape. The two take a boat to a tropical island, but even it has been contaminated by warthey find and bury bodies of US Marines recently killed there. After the US Navy rescues them, the couple must part: Sadamu joins the OSS, and Soon-ah stays in Hawaii. At war's end, she's repatriated to a now-divided Korea for a bittersweet reunion with her remaining family.
War crimes against women are memorably described here, but, sadly, by characters that seem more like one-dimensional witnesses than vibrantly complex fictional creations.
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Read an Excerpt
A Gift of the Emperor
By Therese Park, Farrin Jacobs
Spinsters InkCopyright © 2005 Therese Park
All rights reserved.
On the front wall of our high school classroom hung a huge portrait of Emperor Hirohito. Sitting on his dazzling white horse, looking at a distant mountain, he seemed divine, as though he could rise into the sky like a real crane. He considered himself a crane, the symbolic bird of divine grace. We bowed to him every morning with devotion and sang "Kamigayo," the Japanese national anthem, as loudly as we could.
When the bowing and singing were over, we felt sanctified. We feared Emperor Hirohito, our Imperial Majesty, as much as we feared God. For him, we girls in Dong Myung Girls' High School in Sariwon would be glad to sing, dance or perform a play at any time of the day or night, just as we had on his son's last birthday. That day coincided with Japan's triumphant victory in the rubber-producing countries in Southeast Asia, and we received a gift from the Imperial Majesty himself — a rubber ball. Afterward, Miss Lee, our only Korean teacher, joked that if Japan had conquered Arabian countries, we would each have gotten a bucket of oil instead.
Japan became our fatherland in 1910 when it abolished the Yi dynasty, forcing King Kojong to retire, and annexing our country as its colony. Although my father taught me and my brother Wook that the Japanese had murdered Queen Min, poisoned King Kojong, took the crowned prince and princess to Japan as hostages, and robbed the Korean people of everything, at school we learned to worship Emperor Hirohito and his gods. We had to. Otherwise, life was too dangerous.
One day, soon after I turned seventeen, I discovered who Emperor Hirohito really was: he was neither a deity nor a lord but a man deranged by power, a man who believed he could give life to his soldiers by giving us, the girls in his colonized country, death. Like the Korean timbers, which the Japanese chopped from our mountains and hauled to Japan to build warships, we were taken from our homes under the pretense of being trained as nurses and factory workers and sent to the military brothels surrounded by barbed-wire fences.
On a brilliant spring morning in 1942, I walked to school, as I always did, watching our neighbor's cattle grazing on our soybean field, where grass and weeds grew taller every time it rained. Since my brother Wook had been conscripted as a Japanese soldier a year ago and my father murdered by Japanese policemen four months later, our soybean field lay without soybeans, attracting neighborhood cattle that methodically cropped the grasses and weeds. Soon it would be auctioned off and the Japanese farmer who had acquired most of the soybean fields in our area recently would buy it at a ridiculously low price.
During the past two years, the Japanese had taken most of our property except for the house we owned. When my father couldn't pay the harvest tax because the price of soybeans had plummeted under new Colonial Policy, the Japanese soldiers took away our cattle. After my father died, my mother sold our last two pigs to keep me and my younger brother Chin Soo in school. The only things left with us were about two dozen hens.
In spite of the gloom in my head, my feet carried me along the narrow road and across the bridge. I walked into the two-story building that had a vertical sign "Dong Myong Girls' High School."
Miss Yamakawa, our homeroom teacher, greeted me and my classmates with an uncharacteristically broad smile. I became suspicious. She never liked any of the Korean students. She was especially strict with us about speaking Korean. Whenever one of us accidentally said something in Korean, she picked up her thin bamboo stick and lashed our palms until red marks appeared and tears welled up in our eyes. When a student spoke Korean more than three times in a month, she sent her to the principal. In a severe case, the parents were labeled "thought criminals" and turned over to the police. We spoke only Japanese.
"I have good news for all of you today," Miss Yamakawa announced when we had finished bowing and singing to our Imperial Majesty. "Two special delegates are visiting our school to deliver an important message from our Imperial Majesty. Isn't it exciting? Be extremely courteous to them, girls! Show your loyalty to your fatherland!"
Delegates from the Emperor! My heart fluttered with fear and excitement. "Another gift, maybe?" we whispered to one another. "What would it be this time?" I wanted a pair of socks or a towel, but my friend Kyung Hwa wanted a cosmetic box with a mirror inside.
Socks and towels were rare. Our town of Sariwon in the northwest region of Korea became poorer and poorer as the Japanese recruited all working men to the battlefields and stole our grain and livestock. More and more farmers gave up their farmland when they couldn't pay the harvest tax, and more and more Japanese became our landlords. Necessary items such as rice, towels, socks, sugar, flour, canvas shoes, and underwear were rationed according to the number of people in a household, but we never got enough. Many young daughters of farmers left for big cities to look for wage-paying jobs, but such jobs were impossible to find, and they settled for room and board.
The thud of boots halted my thoughts. Two soldiers with many decorations on their chests walked in and bowed their heads to the picture of the Emperor, then bowed to Miss Yamakawa. One of them, a slightly built, pale-looking man, took the podium, locking his hands behind him.
"My beloved Korean sisters! Today I have a very special message from our divine Emperor," he said in Japanese. "Our Imperial Majesty needs your help. He has been worried about our soldiers fighting all over Asia and in the Pacific. Every wounded soldier breaks our Emperor's heart. That's the reason he sent us to talk to you, my sisters. As the divine nation, our fate is to help other Asian countries discover their strength and resources and liberate them from the Westerners, don't you agree?"
"Yes!" we chorused.
"But the Westerners are killing our soldiers with their deadly weapons. We can't lose our brave soldiers, can we? That's why our Imperial Majesty wants you to join his mission to tend the soldiers' wounds, talk to them, and entertain them with your talents. You will be the Emperor's special gifts to the soldiers! He promises that you'll be treated with respect. You will have clean rooms, three meals a day, and wages. He will send you home for New Year's Day and the August Full Moon Day. Do our Imperial Majesty a favor, and he'll return the favor to you. Thank you for listening, my sisters. Now I want you to welcome my comrade." The soldier saluted the Emperor's portrait again and stepped down.
Miss Yamakawa clapped. We all clapped.
A short, broad-shouldered man took the podium. "My beloved sisters!" he said in Korean. We were stunned. He was Korean, not Japanese! We looked at each other, then at Miss Yamakawa. But Miss Yamakawa was smiling as if she hadn't noticed anything unusual. How curious, I thought.
"Whenever I look up at our Emperor's portrait, a lump rises in my throat and tears gather in my eyes. Our beloved Imperial Majesty, a gentle and noble man, is grieving for our deceased soldiers and worrying about the injured ones. He feels pain and anguish because he loves every one of them just as he loves each one of you. After all, my sisters, we are a big family! We must fight together for the world's reunification. Think about our young and brave soldiers fighting at this very moment!" The soldier's voice suddenly got louder. "Can we merely sit by and watch them? Can we let those barbaric Westerners ruin the world? No, my beloved sisters! We must fight them! The time has come and we Asians must unite to drive those barbarians out of our territory. Let us join the Emperor to save our own people!"
Miss Yamakawa abruptly stood up, throwing her arms into the air and shouting, "Long live the Emperor! Long live Japan! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!"
We all stood up too and yelled at the top of our voices, "Long live the Emperor! Long live Japan! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!"
The soldiers shouted too, "Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!"
Miss Yamakawa sat down and we all sat down.
The soldier smiled broadly, showing his bright teeth. "I am truly moved by your love and devotion to your fatherland, my beloved sisters! I know you all want to help our Emperor. Those who want to help the Emperor, raise your hands!"
All hands went up.
"Very well! I am proud of you. Because you are so kind and caring, our Emperor wants each of you to have a very special gift. Come forward and receive his gifts!" He lifted a large box from the floor and set it on Miss Yamakawa's desk.
Immediately we formed a line, chattering excitedly. When my turn came, I looked in and saw the box was filled with white handkerchiefs with a red sun painted on them. I picked one out and put it in my pocket.
Two weeks later, four solemn soldiers with stethoscopes on their chests and black leather bags in their hands walked into the classroom. Four folding-screens were brought in for each corner of the room and all of the windows were covered with curtains.
Miss Yamakawa announced, "Girls, the military medical crew is here to give you physical exams. Take your clothes off and stand in line."
We were terrified. We had never had a physical exam at school before and didn't know why we needed one now. When we asked this, Miss Yamakawa replied, "Because you're going to join our Majesty's brigade. Hurry, girls! Our soldiers don't have all day!"
Soon I stood naked before one of the soldiers who was only a little older than my brother Wook. He pressed his stethoscope against my breasts and my rib cage, listening intently. Then he looked at my navel and my abdomen and ordered me to turn around and touch the floor. While scribbling something on his writing pad, he asked, "Do you know if anyone in your family has syphilis or gonorrhea?"
"What do you mean, sir?" I asked.
"That's all," he said.
When I got home, I told my mother for the first time about the Emperor's delegates and the physical exam I had had that day. I hadn't told her about the delegates for fear that she would scold me for wanting to leave home.
She became hysterical. "You know what you're doing?" she yelled. "They're going to take you to a brothel, you stupid girl!"
"It's not the same thing, Omma," I said apologetically. "I'm only going to be a helper for the Emperor. I will be tending the soldiers' wounds or entertaining them, you know, singing and dancing."
"You don't know anything!" she yelled again. "How can you volunteer to go away without asking me? I heard at the Food Distribution Center that the Japanese want virgins to join the Women's Army of Great Japan. Don't you know what that means? To hell with the Emperor! How dare he use schoolgirls as whores! Damn the Emperor! Damn the Japanese!" My mother turned around and spat.
I didn't say anything. I thought she was losing her mind talking like that. She could be taken to the police station and tortured or imprisoned or both. But my mother continued cursing, "Every Japanese in this country deserves to be shot and buried in a pile of feces! But even pigs wouldn't go near them. Know why? Because they stink worse than pigs, much worse!"
"Omma, someone might hear you," I cautioned.
But she didn't hear me. "Remember Auntie Shim's second daughter, the girl with a wart on her neck? She died in a brothel in Manchuria. It's true. Her cousin came back and told her mother that the soldiers cut her belly open because she got pregnant. And you know the barber's daughter who came back with a baby? She killed herself. You don't believe me? Her parents kicked her out when the baby wasn't yet a month old, and later they found her body floating in the lake, face down. No one knows what happened to her baby. I think she killed it and buried it somewhere in the woods."
Omma threw herself on the mat and cried bitterly, her chest heaving. Between her sobs, she said, "I wouldn't let you go even if my eyes were covered with dirt! Aigo, Soon-ah ya, don't leave me, you hear? You and Chin Soo are all I've got. How can I live without you? The Japanese are taking every thing from me, my husband, my oldest child, and now you...."
I cried too. I was afraid of becoming a gift of the Emperor after all.
Later that afternoon, my mother put my long, sleek hair up into a bundle and fastened it on my crown with a chopstick. This was how married women wore their hair, and it indicated that I was a married woman, not a virgin. Then she locked me in the underground shelter my father had dug a year earlier. It was covered with a large board with many holes punched through it. I was glad to see small patches of sky through the holes.
Sitting in the dark shelter hiding from the Japanese, I was puzzled: who was my enemy? We had dug the shelter last year when the Japanese ordered us to, saying that the Americans were going to bomb the entire country. Several nights a week a siren went off, and we moved into the shelter, shivering in the dark. But not a single bomb had been dropped on our village as long as I could remember. My mother stored sacks of grain and bushels of potatoes in the shelter because it was cool in summer and warm in winter.
But instead of hiding from Western barbarians, I was now hiding from Japanese. What does this mean? Then I remembered General MacArthur's promise.
A month ago, an airplane had appeared in the sky, dropped a large dust-ball, then flew over the mountain, its silvery wings glittering like knife blades. As we watched, the dust became thousands of white flyers. All the neighborhood kids chased them. I too chased and grabbed one on the hill behind our house and rushed home to read it to my illiterate mother. To my surprise, it was written in Korean. It said: "Dear Koreans: I, General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of American Forces in Asia, solemnly declare that the Korean people are not our enemies and that America will not bomb Korean towns and villages. We will make every effort to deliver freedom to you as well as to other countries in Asia. I urge you to trust us and cooperate with us in any way you can." It was signed by both General MacArthur and Mr. Syngman Rhee: the one in English and the other in Korean.
My mother wept when I finished reading. Although she didn't say anything, I knew why she was crying. My father would have been happy reading such a flyer.
My father had been a Presbyterian minister. Our house was next to the church, and I used to hear a carriage stopping in our courtyard in the middle of the night and footsteps running toward the church. I heard my father slipping out the back door like a shadow to meet them. One early morning, seven armed Japanese policemen marched into our courtyard and ransacked our house. This was after Liberation Army members killed a Japanese policeman who had tortured and killed many Korean activists.
When they couldn't find anything, the policemen bound my father's hands with a rope and made him kneel on the bare dirt. A policeman with a mustache yelled at my father, asking where the Liberation Army people were hiding, but my father didn't respond. It seemed he had been expecting this, for he was wearing his white silk Korean outfit which made him appear radiant in the morning sunlight.
The soldier barked at him, "Speak, Chosenjin!" Korea was called Chosen then. "Where are the traitors?"
My father didn't answer.
The soldier struck him with the butt of his rifle, barking, "You want to die, you stubborn mule?"
Still my father didn't respond.
The soldier hit him again and again. With each blow, my father sank further into the dirt, spitting blood and swallowing dust. I bit my own thumb. I couldn't watch him, and yet I couldn't close my eyes, for fear that he might die when my eyes were closed. My mother cried, sobbed, howled, tearing her hair out.
Suddenly, my father lifted his blood-stained face to the sky. "Dear Heavenly Father," he said solemnly in Korean, "if Thou art ready to receive this worthless servant, let Thy will be done! In Thy mercy we live and die. Come, Lord Jesus, speak to these men to open their eyes and see Thy powerful presence...."
I heard a sharp, metallic thud, and he fell forward, struggling to breathe. I remember blood soaking the dirt and the saber next to him glinting in the sun. I was numb. I don't remember much after that except a dozen neighbors mourning at the burial.
Excerpted from A Gift of the Emperor by Therese Park, Farrin Jacobs. Copyright © 2005 Therese Park. Excerpted by permission of Spinsters Ink.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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