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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 17: 29 Jan. 2023
Poem Sequence: 675 words [R]
By Tanya Ko Hong

Comfort Woman


14 August 1991, Seoul, South Korea:

A woman named Hak Soon Kim [Kim Hak-Sun,
1924–1997] came forward to denounce the Japanese
for the sexual enslavement of more than 200,000 women during World War II. They were known as “Wianbu”
in Korean and “Comfort Women” in English.

Lotus Blossom


1991, Seoul, South Korea

The voice on TV is comforting, 
like having a person beside me 
talking all the time 
while I eat my burnt rice gruel. 

Suddenly in Japanese: 
But we didn’t—
Those women came to us 
for the money. 
We never forced—
I dropped 
my spoon into my nureun bap. 

On the screen 
a photograph of young girls 
seated in an open truck 
like the one I rode with Soonja 
over the rice-field road years ago. 

3 a.m. 
Waking in a cold sweat 
I gulp Jariki 
bul kuk 
bul kuk 
but my throat still burns. 

I reach for a cigarette 
and the white smoke spirals 
like Soonja’s wandering soul... 

They called me wianbu—
a comfort woman—
but I had a name. 



1939, Chinju, South Kyangsan Province

We are going to do Senninbari, right? 
No, Choingsindae, Women’s Labor Corps. 
Same thing, right? 
Earn money 
become new woman 
come back home soon—

Holding tiny hands 
bong soong ah 
balsam-flower red 
colored by summer’s end 

Ripening persimmons 
bending over the Choga roofs 
fade into distance 

When the truck crosses the last hill 
leaving our hometown in the dust 
Soonja kicks off her white shoes 



1941, That Autumn

Autumn night, Japanese 
soldiers wielding swords 
dragged me away 
while I was gathering pine needles 

that fell from my basket 
filling the air with the scent 
of their white blood 

When you scream in your dream 
there’s no sound 

On the maru, Grandma’s making Songpyeon, 
asking Mom, Is the water boiling? 
Will she bring pine needles before 
my eyeballs fall out? 

I feel pain 

They put a long stick between my legs—
Open up, open, Baka Chosengjing! 
they rage, spraying 
their sperm 
the smell of 
burning dog 
burning life 

grunting on top of me 

Under my blood I am dying 



1943, Shanghai, China

One night 
a soldier asked all the girls 

Who can do one hundred men? 

I raised my hand 
Soonja did not 

The soldiers put her in boiling water 
and fed us 

What is living? 

Is Soonja living in me? 



1946, Chinju, Korea

One year after 
I came home 

Short hair 
not wearing hanbok 
not speaking clearly 

Mother hid me 
in the back room 
At night she took me to the well 
and washed me 
Scars seared with hot steel 
like burnt bark 
like roots of old trees 
all over my body 

Under the crescent glow 
she smiled when she washed me 
My baby! Your skin is like white jade, dazzling 
She bit her lower lip 
washing my belly softly 
but they had ripped open my womb 
with the baby inside 

Mother made white rice and seaweed soup 
put my favorite white fish on top 
But Mother, I can’t eat flesh 

That night in the granary 
she hanged herself 
left a little bag in my room 
my dowry, with a rice ball 

Father threw it at me 
waved his hand toward the door 

I left at dusk 

30 years 

40 years 



bury it with me 

They called me wianbu—
I had a name 



1991, 3:00 AM

(That night 
the thousand blue stars 
became white butterflies 
through ripped rice paper 
and flew into my room 

One hundred 
One thousand butterflies—

Endless white butterflies going through 
the web in my mouth 
into my unhealed red scars 
stitching one by one 
butterflies lifting me 
    heavier than the dead 
butterflies opening my bedroom door 
        heavier than shame) 

I stand. 



Baka Chosengjing: stupid Korean

Bong soong ah: a traditional Korean plant dye used to color fingernails

Jariki: drinking water placed at bedside

Maru: traditional Korean floor made of wood

Nureun bap: scorched rice re-boiled with water

Songpyeon: traditional Korean rice cake for Chusuk holiday

—Poem sequence and footnotes are from the author’s most recent book, The War Still Within: Poems of the Korean Diaspora (KYSO Flash Press, 2019), and appear here with her permission. Two poems from the sequence were published previously in Beloit Poetry Journal (Volume 65, Number 1, Fall 2014): “1943, Shanghai, China” and “1946, Chinju, Korea.”

Front Cover of The War Still Within, by Tanya Ko Hong

Book reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
in North of Oxord (May 2020)

Publisher’s Notes:

The image on the front cover of The War Still Within is a cropped and tinted version of a black-and-white photograph, public domain, in the U.S. National Archives. Photo caption in the Archives Catalog refers to “Japanese Prisoners” that were taken by the Chinese 8th Army, but the image actually shows four Korean “comfort women.” They were among the few survivors of sexual slavery forced upon an estimated 200,000–300,000 women by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. The original photograph was shot by Charles H. Hatfield (U.S. Army 164th Signal Photo Company) on 3 September 1944, after the Chinese troops had captured the women from the Japanese.

The young pregnant woman in the foreground was Park Young-shim (Pak Yong-sim, 1921–2006). In December 2000, fifty-six years after that haunting photograph was taken, she testified at The Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo, about the atrocities she and others suffered during WWII.

To learn more about her, see “Some Concluding Thoughts” in the article by Philip Charrier, Associate Professor of History at the University of Regina (18 September 2017): “Comfort Women” at Songshan, China, September 1944: A Picture Story

See also this related article by Kim Hyang-mi in The Hankyoreh (19 February 2019):
Original photographs of comfort women made public for first time: Seoul exhibits photos to celebrate centennial anniversary of Mar. 1 Movement

Tanya Ko Hong
Issue 17 (29 January 2023)

is a poet, translator, and cultural-curator who champions bilingual poetry and poets. Born and raised in Suk Su Dong, South Korea, she immigrated to the U.S. at the age of eighteen. She is the author of five books: The War Still Within (KYSO Flash Press, 2019); Mother to Myself, a collection of poems in Korean (Prunsasang Press, 2015); Yellow Flowers on a Rainy Day (Oma Books of the Pacific, 2003); Mother’s Diary of Generation 1.5 (Qumran, 2002); and Generation 1.5 (Korea: Esprit Books, 1993).

Her poetry appears in Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Entropy, Cultural Weekly, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly (published by The Feminist Press), Lunch Ticket, great weather for MEDIA, Califragile, the Choson Ilbo, The Korea Times, Korea Central Daily News, and the Aeolian Harp Series Anthology, among others.

Tanya was one of two writers to receive the inaugural Yun Dong-ju Korean-American Literature Award in 2018. Her work was also a finalist in the 2018 Frontier Digital Chapbook Contest, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2015, her segmented poem Comfort Woman received an honorable mention from the Women’s National Book Association. Her poems have been translated into Korean, Japanese, and Albanian. In 2015 and 2018, she became the first person to translate and publish Arthur Sze’s poems in Korean.

Tanya serves on the Board of Directors of the AROHO Foundation (A Room of Her Own), is pursuing a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and holds an MFA degree from Antioch University in Los Angeles and a Sociology degree from Biola University. She lives in southern California.

Author’s website: https://www.tanyakohong.com/

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