Marking the 1,000th Wednesday Demonstration
On January 8, 1992, former “comfort women,” concerned individuals, and human rights and feminist activists from various organizations held a protest in Seoul, the capital city of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), during the state visit of Japan’s prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa. They demanded the Japanese government’s official apology to victims-survivors for Japan’s military sexual slavery (euphemistically called “comfort women”) during World War II. Since 1992, what has become known as the Wednesday Demonstration has been held every Wednesday in various locations in South Korea. The 1,000th demonstration was held on Wednesday, December 14, 2011.[i]
I remember hoping, when I participated in the 950th Wednesday Demonstration in December 2010, that the weekly event would cease to exist before making it to the 1,000th demonstration because it would mean that the demands of “comfort women,” who are often referred to as halmoni (grandmother in Korean), had been heard. On a freezing winter day, the last Wednesday Demonstration of 2010 was held in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, where riot police were lined up. The 950th Wednesday Demonstration was held specially to commemorate eight halmoni who had passed away that year. The assortment of diverse groups of people—human rights activists, concerned citizens from all walks of life, Catholic nuns and priests, Buddhist bhikkhunis and bhikkhus, Protestant ministers, Korean Japanese children and youths, college students, foreign visitors, and residents—all participated in the Wednesday Demonstration.
Reflecting on the 1,000th Wednesday Demonstration, on the one hand, I feel uncertain about its future, primarily because it is hard to tell what it would look like when halmoni who have been an integral part of the demonstration can no longer participate in the demonstration. When the Wednesday Demonstration began in 1992, there were 234 surviving “comfort women,” but since then, 171 of them have passed away, including another death on the eve of the 1,000th Wednesday Demonstration. On the other hand, I feel compelled to share what its participants have been able to carry out over the past twenty years in the face of the Japanese government’s persistent dismissal of halmoni’s demands, Japan’s right-wing organizations’ historical denial of Japan’s military sexual slavery during World War II, and the androcentric Korean government’s irresponsible attitudes and responses to these demonstrations.
The Wednesday Demonstration has been significant in three ways. First, its political efficacy is evident in that it has raised national and transnational consciousness about the injustices which former “comfort women” have endured, and about violence against women and children during wartime. While it has condemned Japan’s militarist imperialism, the Wednesday Demonstration has also exposed the limits of a nation-state that has sought to build a so-called fraternal community in Korea, contesting its limited notion of citizenship.
Second, the Wednesday Demonstration has demonstrated that it is an embodiment of a religiously and culturally plural democratic assembly of women, or what feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls the “ekklesia of wo/men.”[ii] The Wednesday Demonstration has been both the metaphoric space where imperial discourses are debunked and an actual space where women come together to claim their full citizenship by challenging the dominant gender and sexual politics.
Third, it has contributed to transnational, feminist activisms against violence perpetrated against women during and after wartime. The Wednesday Demonstration is witness to what feminist scholar/teacher AnaLouise Keating calls “spiritual-activism”—through which we learn interdependence of one another—for spiritual-activism “insists that we all rise or sink together.”[iii] When the Wednesday Demonstration held its 930th protest in August 2010, multiple protests by concerned organizations and individuals took place simultaneously in seven cities in Japan and thirteen cities around the globe. Thus, a small, nonviolent, local demonstration has grown into a transnational movement, calling for denouncement of all war crimes against women. The Wednesday Demonstration has also shown the possibility of forming a seemingly implausible coalition across pathways of gender, ethnicity, class, religion, nationality, age, and able-bodiedness.
Reflecting on the 1,000th Wednesday Demonstration at the dawn of 2012, I invite those of us who are committed to building a better world to further strategize how we can continue various transnational, feminist, and spiritual activisms, and, simultaneously, properly mourn both former “comfort women” and those who have lost their lives due to militarist imperial violence, up to and including current wars. Although halmoni’s demands have not yet been heard even at the point of the 1,000th Wednesday Demonstration, those of us who wish to continue the work of justice even after the passing of all former “comfort women” will carry the legacy of their activism. May halmoni and all those who have died while struggling against the deathly forces of violence rest in peace.
[ii] See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007).
[iii] AnaLouise Keating, “Charting Pathways, Marking Thresholds, A Warning … An Introduction,” in This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation, ed. Gloria E. Andalzúa and AnaLouise Keating (New York: Routledge, 2002), 19.