Now, the 51-year-old photographer from Japan finds herself at the center of a current scandal over the treatment of women, more than three-quarters of a century after the end of the war, in which they forced to have sex. with Japanese soldiers.
In the years following its founding in 1992, The house of sharingin Gwangju, South Korea, assumes the aura of a sacred place where politicians and students come to meet dozens of former sex slaves, flowery called “comfort women”, who have found shelter there, including four who are currently in the residence.
But over the past two years, Mr. Yajima, who runs an international outreach program, along with six South Korean workers at the shelter have accused managers of letting the women, all of 90, stayed in a shoddy nursing facility while collecting. donate millions of dollars to enrich Korea’s largest and most powerful Buddhist order, Run.
Mr. Yajima and other whistleblowers said that although the money raised was donated to the welfare of women, very little was used for them. Instead, they say, managers have saved money for Jogye to expand the shelter into a luxury nursing home in the future for those who can afford it – once the women live there. have all passed away.
“It is important to preserve the House of Sharing as a site of historical and educational value, as wartime sexual violence against women continues to occur in places like Ukraine,” said Mr. Yajima. . “Their plan to turn it into a shared nursing home is a project to erase history.”
Whistleblowing leads to criminal charges. Two former managers are on trial for fraud, embezzlement and other charges. The shelter’s board members, including one of the country’s most famous Buddhist monks, were fired for negligence. Angry sponsors sued House of Sharing, demanding their money back. Donations plummeted to $35,300 in the first six months of this year, down from $1.9 million in 2019.
While they were praised for their actions, Mr. Yajima and the other whistleblowers also paid the price for what they had exposed.
The shelter’s new and former managers and those close to them have filed dozens of defamation and other lawsuits against the whistleblowers, accusing them of spreading false rumors.
As a Japanese citizen, Mr. Yajima has been the focus of much backlash. The sexual slavery of so-called comfort women is the most emotional of the many historical disputes that have strained relations between South Korea and Japan, two of its most important allies. of the United States in East Asia.
“Why is a Japanese employee hired in this place for the comfort of women?” Read Banners is hung on the wall of the Shared House building where Mr. Yajima works. As found by a human rights center, people close to the managers threw nationalist taunts at him.
Four of the seven whistleblowers quit their jobs last month, complaining of harassment.
But not Mr. Yajima, who insisted on staying.
Lim Mi-ri, a professor at Korea University in Seoul, said his campaign raised important questions for South Korea. Ms. Lim said the women were brought to conferences and protest protest where they were seen as an inviolable symbol of Korea’s suffering under Japanese colonial rule and combatant for historical justice. But few people ask how real women live behind the scenes.
“Yajima is one of the rare activists I know who focuses on comforting women as individuals while the rest of the campaign tends to see them as victims and use them for a political agenda or fundraising,” Ms Lim said.
Mr. Yajima said he became interested in feminism and Japan’s colonial era while studying history at Waseda University in Tokyo. He began visiting the House of Sharing in 2000, initially working there as a translator and photographer from 2003 to 2006.
“In my photographs, I try to show the collective image of women as victims, but also as women as individuals,” Mr. Yajima said. “If you get to live and eat with them like I have, develop a grandparent-grandchild relationship, you’ll see things that the occasional guest just can’t do. People see them as heroic warriors. But when they’re together, they can also argue like preschoolers over issues like who gets an extra candy when donated goods are divided.”
In 2006, Mr. Yajima moved to Germany, where he continued to work for the women’s cause. He helped organize speeches, photo exhibitions and invited one of the women to share his story. By the time he returned to the House of Sharing in 2019, what he saw made him extremely nervous.
When a woman fell from a broken bed, managers refused to take her to the hospital or buy a new bed, he said. When the women’s living quarters were renovated, their belongings were piled up outside, subjected to a monsoon rain. In a manager’s desk drawer, whistleblowers found foreign cash donations that weren’t properly registered in the books.
An investigation by a joint panel of government officials and civilian experts confirmed most of the whistleblowers’ allegations and more.
In the 366-page report, seen by The New York Times, the panel said Sharing House had “mobilized” comfortable women to attend fundraising events while they refused them to hang out. individual. The S impersonators abused m’s affections, threatening to “abandon them on the street.” The panel said House of Sharing raised $6.8 million in cash between 2015 and 2019. But it only used $154,000 to run the living quarters where women “live in a single room.” below-average nursing facilities”.
“Gathering donations with the promise of using them for women’s comfort, welfare and activities but not using the money for them is an act of deception to the people,” it said.
Venerable Seonghwa, a Jogye Buddhist monk appointed in May to head the board of directors of the House of Sharing made a “mistake” and “violated” the law governing donations.
But Seonghwa says the women have received enough financial support – $2,600 a month, as well as $10,810 in annual medical benefits – from the government. He said they don’t use much cash from the people.
And plans to convert the shelter into a luxury nursing home have been discussed as an option in a country grappling with rapidly aging population. But the plan was never formalized, he said. Seonghwa emphasized that the future of the shelter will be decided through consultation with the government.
“We are fixing the problems we have found and working hard to give the best care to these women until they pass away,” he said.
On recent visits, the 3.4-acre property of the Shared House looks peaceful. Bronze busts of former sex slaves greet visitors at the gate. Its museum features a reproduction of the so-called comfort station, a brothel run by the Japanese military where women are forced to have sex with dozens of Japanese soldiers every day.
“I will never forget Japan’s war crimes,” read the epitaph to Lee Yong-nyo, one of eight former residents of the facility buried in the memorial garden.
In the center of the complex is a two-story building where four of Korea’s 11 living comfort women are spending their final days. The number of caregivers has been doubled to 10, allowing round-the-clock service for women, ages 92 to 98 – an improvement made by managers after blowing the whistle.
However, women’s ability to request better treatment has been reduced, said Heo Jeong-a, a former care worker who joined Mr. Yajima.
Weak and suffering from various degrees of dementia, the women seem to be largely oblivious to the turmoil that besets their shelter. On a recent visit, a Times reporter was allowed into the women’s lounge and spoke to a few women who seemed more aware than others.
“I have food, clothes and a place to live here,” said sa id Lee Ok-sun, 95, who was brought to China to work in military brothels when she was 15 and lived there for until she was offered shelter in the House of Sharing in 2001. “It keeps me warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”
Such an answer did not surprise Mr. Yajima.
“They’ve had such a hard life in China and elsewhere that they say they’re fine with what they get,” he said. “But they deserved the best care we could provide, and we failed.”