Every Wednesday since January 1992, an indefatigable group of halmonis (Korean for “grandmothers”) in their 70s and 80s have led a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. More than half a century after being forcibly conscripted as sexual slaves by the Japanese Army during World War II,
these former “comfort women” demand a formal apology and monetary compensation from Korea’s colonizer. Even though the United Nations Human Rights Committee is finally conducting a long-delayed investigation (it has been more than a decade since the first comfort women came forward in the eighties), Japan has yet to give in on either demand. And to this day, most of the historical documentation of this tragedy of war remains undisclosed–in Japan as well as the other countries that took part in the Pacific campaign.
Korean-American author Chang-rae Lee adds to the growing, but limited, body of fiction on the exploitation of thousands of women by the Japanese military, of which Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman (1997) and Paul West’s The Tent of Orange Mist (1995, set in China) are notable. These authors’ fictional retelling of the plight of the comfort women guarantees that their stories will not be forgotten, as much as the Japanese government may want them to be. Stifled memories about one woman in particular haunt the septuagenarian narrator of Lee’s wondrous second novel, A Gesture Life. Franklin “Doc” Hata, a “retired supplier of home medical goods, expatriate and war veteran and now suburban lap swimmer nonpareil,” has led a seemingly exemplary life in the affluent New York City bedroom community of Bedley Run. But after an accidental fire at Hata’s precious, stately Tudor Revival home–his physical manifestation of the American Dream–the past begins to prey upon the former Japanese Imperial Army medic, after almost an entire lifetime spent forgetting.
In Lee’s acclaimed Native Speaker (1995), second-generation Korean-American Henry Park discovers the common experience of every immigrant: “When I get here, I work. I work for the day I will finally work for myself. I work so hard that one day I end up forgetting the person I am. I forget my wife, my son. Now, too, I have lost my old mother tongue. And I forget the ancestral graves I have left on a hillside of a faraway land, the loneliest stones that each year go unblessed.” Loss and suppression are benchmarks of A Gesture Life as well, as Lee expertly reveals in the intertwining narratives of the faux doctor’s two most important relationships–that with his adopted, mixed-race daughter, Sunny, and the aristocratic Kkutaeh, the Korean comfort woman he tried to protect in a remote Second World War outpost in Burma.
Hata has spent his life in a state of self-imposed virtual amnesia–from denying his birth as a member of Japan’s outcaste class (the burakumin) in the ghettos of the southwestern harbor town of Kobe to his love for Bedley Run widow Mary Burns (“the sort of person who was always kinder to people than they were to her”), whom he never married and let die of cancer without ever saying goodbye. He even tries to put his own daughter out of his mind after, as a teenager, she leaves town in a cloud of disrepute: “I wanted to hide the real depth of the trouble, put it away not (as Sunny always contended) for the sake of my reputation or standing but so I could try to forget she was my daughter, that she had ever come to live with me and had grown up before my eyes.” For Hata is the ultimate outsider, whose ethnic Korean tanner father and ragmaid mother gave him up to the wealthy Japanese Kurohata family in hopes of a better life for their only son. Even with his newly found pedigree, he can never shake the stigmatization of his outcaste birth–from the overt discrimination he experiences during adolescence, in which classmates treat him no better than a “stray dog,” and through more subtle means, which Lee hints at, during his service in the army. The opprobrium even follows Hata to the United States after the war, albeit in a self-imposed, internalized form, despite his accumulation of all the totems of success.