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The Woman's Dilemma

This is one of the first stories I wrote for the Year of Short Stories, but I've put off publishing it until now. During the late Fifteenth Century, Japan invaded Korea in hopes of conquering China. Thanks to the Koreans, the Japanese failed. Like all times of war, rape was common. Some of the women were forced to become comfort women for the Japanese, much like in the 20th century. 

After the Japanese left, scholars from Seoul decided to make a list of the Most Worthy Women - those who resisted the sexual desires of the invaders. Most of these women committed suicide in order to escape. Those who, for whatever reason, succumbed, were considered unworthy. 

In a society where honor is more important than life, these "unworthy" women lived with the knowledge of the dishonor they brought to their families. Added to the horror they surely had to live through as victims of rape, they had the added discrimination from arrogant, self-important of men who decided to list others as more worthy. 

The women huddled together weeping. All they had done for the past year was weep, it seemed to Yong Ji, daughter of one of the scholars in the Jeollanam-Do. All the women of the town ever did was cry. They had survived not being attacked by the Japanese; their sons had lived, their daughters saved, yet all they did was weep.

Well, Yong Ji had to admit, some of their daughters had survived. In a town of roughly two thousand, all the families had some daughter, granddaughter, niece, sister, aunt or cousin who had been taken by Japanese troops. If they didn’t, their neighbors or friends did. Twenty girls had been taken from the village - only five returned.

One of them, Yong Ji herself, walked the streets, feeling every dagger glanced her way, biting remark whispered in another’s ear, or the gestures given. She was despised by the women, by the men. She survived because she lived.

She twisted the band around her wrist. She couldn’t remove it. She had been slender when the band was shoved onto her wrist - a mark she belonged to someone. Her life counted as nothing. She had survived long walks through dark forests; battles and countless other atrocities because of that band.

“Why don’t you just die?” One of the women screamed, spittle splattering on a random man who happened to be crossing the wrong path. “Why did you live, and my daughter died?”

Yong Ji continued to walk. Of the twenty captured, half killed themselves than become the mistresses of the Japanese. Out of the other ten, another seven died from wounds sustained after their rapes, or because they couldn’t live with the knowledge of their rape anymore. Of the three who lived, one had escaped thanks to Yong Ji and another woman from another village. The girl who escaped was all of ten years. After she escaped, she went into a village where she eventually returned home. Eun An, the other girl who survived, like Yong Ji, took matters into her own hands.

“Let them talk, Yong Ji,” Eun An now said to her, looping a free arm around Yong Ji’s arm. “Let them bluster and cry. It’s all they’re fit for.”

Yong Ji straightened her shoulders and stepped forward. “Have you heard?”

“I have,” Eun An agreed.

They had no need to say what the topic was - everyone in the town spoke of the arrival of the magistrates. Leaders in Seoul had decided to compile a list of the worthy women in Korea. A bunch of busybody males who had nothing better to do than to make lists about women was what it amounted to being. The worthiness of a woman's virginity which to many counted more than her life.

“What are we going to do about it?” Eun An asked.

“Nothing we can do,” Yong Ji answered. “Everyone here knows what we did. It doesn’t matter what happened, we will not be one of the worthy ones. For these self-serving men who care only about how the men look, we are unworthy. Better to have died keeping our precious virginity intake for another man than to offer it to the highest bidder.”

“Even if it was the only way to save our lives?”

“Especially because it was the only way to save our lives.” Yong Ji sighed. It was better to die a virgin than to live defiled according to many. Her own grandmother had accused her of being worse things. It mattered little that the choice came after her virginity had been forcible taken from her. She had had no choice in the matter. Only later did she barter her body for safety.

Still few were those who understood the situation. For those who felt this list important, it only clarified how impotent the men had been. Only those who had done nothing other than whimper and whine would think of something like this.

In the streets, the women walked confidently; in their private chambers they were able to talk freely. “If he were to come back for you, would you go?” Eun An asked once inside Yong Ji’s family home. Eun An touched the band around Yong Ji’s wrist.

“No,” Yong Ji answered. “There would be no point of becoming his bed warmer. I doubt if I would be much of anything to a samurai.”

“At least he might love you.”

Yong Ji shook her head. “No; better to wait.” She sank onto a nearby bench. “Besides, we have more important things to discuss. What will happen when your betrothed discovers what happened?”

Eun An’s betrothed lived in the capital. He was a minor government official, but he had high morals. He had been with the king and court, and had not heard anything from home. In fact, Eun An’s father had made it a point to not send word to him, hoping that the marriage could happen before anything was discovered. With the busy tongues of the women, it would prove nearly improbable.

“Father is taking me north,” Eun An said. “We’re to marry there with his family.”

“What about the blood?”

She shrugged. “I’ll be fine.”

Yong Ji grasped her friend’s hand. They had traveled through horrible times together. Before, they had known each other, but had not been friends. Now, through fire, their friendship had been forged - stronger than iron and more flexible than a bow.

“What of you, though, Yong Ji? You had no betrothal before everything. Who will agree to marry you?”

“Most likely someone outside the town.”

“A very strong man.”

Yong Ji shrugged. “That is not my concern. I’ll be fine. I work alongside Father, and he says I’m worth three sons. Yong Sun is still young, and is just now starting his studies. Father needs me to help manage everything, so I’ll work alongside him as an assistant. A doctor needs someone to keep the records.”

“Have people stopped coming?”

“A few, but others continue to come. Hai Su’s family especially. After I helped save her, nothing is
too small for them to do.”

“Their family is enough to make up for any lack from others.”

“They are, but they are unable to influence many others. The important members of the town disregard anything the family does, but I’m thankful they continue to come.” Yong Ji shaded her eyes from the sudden arrival of sunlight in the cloudy day. No matter what happened in the coming days, it would be difficult to continue down the path she led. On one hand, attempting to hide what happened while she was among the Japanese would prove futile. Everyone in the town knew.

On the other hand, admitting it could prove a problem for her father’s business. Who would trust a woman who had been defiled? Her worth was based upon her virginity. Her father’s reputation was blackened because of what happened.

“It’s bad enough to have all this happen to us,” Yong Ji said, finally. “And to have it criticized by women who mourn their daughters is bad enough. To have these scholars come from the capital and rank us upon our worth, when they did absolutely nothing to help us, is horrible.”

“And just what can we do about it?”

“Well, personally, I think we should give them to the Japanese and let them see how they would respond.”

Eun An stared at Yong Ji a moment before coughing then falling forward in laughter.

“Well,” Yong Ji sniffed, “I expected a response, but not helpless laughter.”

Eun An waved her hand. “It’s imagining what they would do, if one of the Japanese told them to drop their pants.”

Yong Ji coughed. “It would prove interesting.” She wiped a tear away. “Are we cruel for wishing these things on people we don’t know?”

“I believe it must be a natural reaction, Yong Ji,” a man said from behind.

“Father!” Yong Ji jumped. “How long have you been here?”

“Long enough,” Choi Sun Yong answered. To Eun An, he said, “Your father has arrived. Say your good-byes.”

The two girls embraced, wished each other luck, and waved as Eun An departed.

“What will happen, Father?”

“This world spins in the ways it always has. Simple people need something to boost their appearances, to make them look important. It isn’t right, but it is the way it is.”

“Why do you accept what happened when others cannot?”

“Because you did what I taught you to do - use whatever means you have to survive because living is always worth the pain.”

“I don’t see how this pain inside will ever be worth it, Father. It’s been a year since everything happened, and anytime any man comes near me, I flinch.”

“Even me?”

“At times. People wonder who will ever take me as a wife since I’ve been defiled. I wonder if I ever want to marry.”

“Time enough for those questions. What do you want to do about the list?”

“I am no longer ashamed of what happened to me, specifically. It hurts and having to repeat the events scares me, but the list means nothing to me.”

“Very well. We do not hide what happened, and we take the problems as they come. I think you have chosen wisely, daughter.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“Now, for the pain and the heartache. Maybe you can reach others who experienced what you did. You and Eun An have helped each other, but I heard of two girls in a nearby village who have not fared as well as you two.”

“I don’t know if there is much I can do, Father.”

“Listening helps.”

Yong Ji clasped her hands together. “Then lead the way.”


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