Cai and Her Ten Thousand Husbands

“Cai and Her Ten Thousand Husbands” appeared in Apex Online‘s issue for February 3rd, 2009. You can read the story here, or pick up the anthology in which it was republished, titled Descended From Darkness: Apex Magazine Vol. 1, edited by Jason Sizemore and Gill Ainsworth.

This story received an Honorable Mention in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 2009 (Vol. 2), and in Gardner Dozois Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection.


“This is a vivid, engrossing tale, told in wrenching detail. Its subject matter is brutal, but its heroine rises above her situation with a strength and grace that is apparent in her voice from the beginning.”
— Kimberly Lundstrom (@ The Fix)

This is a story which grew from a very short flash piece I wrote during Clarion West in Seattle, when I found myself unsatisfied by my handling of the same theme in a historical setting.

The fact is, you cannot live in South Korea and not encounter, at some point, the “Comfort Women” issue. (The name is out of currency in Korea, where it is considered politically incorrect, but I use it here as it’s the best-known term in English for these women.) Hearing the most common Korean version of the story first–tales of evil Japanese kempeitai (military police) driving into towns and abducting girls, and recruiters tricking girls into thinking they’d be working as nurses or in factories (and then turning them over to the military to become sex slaves), you cannot help but feel a sense of horror that never really dissipates no matter how long you study the subject.

And then, when you look closer at the history, for example by reading books like Comfort Women Speak: Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military by Sangmie Choi Schellstede and Soon Mi Yu and The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War by George L. Hicks, you come to see plenty of blame to go around. Not only did Western troops end up using Asian girls in the same way, during the lingering military presence that followed the war in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere, but, worse is the complicity of  some Koreans in the enslavement of these women, and of many Koreans in these womens’ sufferings in the decades after their emancipation which many of these women spent as social pariahs and outcasts, until more than a small portion of Korean society decided to publicly acknowledge and protest the horror, long after many of the women had died and when the remaining ones all had white hair.

Even the contemporary political use of these women’s victimization–and the relationship, discussed in the Hicks especially, between contemporary Korean feminist groups and the surviving “Comfort Women”–is profoundly disquieting. Still more disquieting is the special status given to this particular form of exploitation of women, differentiating it profoundly from the larger pattern of misogyny and exploitation of women that prevailed in Asia both before and after World War II.

This is an era when at least some female children were so unappreciated as to be named things like “Hunam” (“After this, a boy!”) and “Seopseop” (“Disappointment”). Some women named these names are still alive today, though the preference for boys seems to be on the decline. The pattern of exploitation of women stretches quite far back, in Korean history, and it continued energetically after the war, not just in Japanese “kisaeng” (“geisha”) tourism (discussed briefly here) as a means of economic growth. (If you have access to JSTOR, ahem, there’s an interesting article from a critical Japanese woman’s point of view here which in part questions why the Korean government promoted postitution in this way, and also, interestingly in 1977, criticized the enslavement of Korean women, thirteen years before anything like a public movement arose in Korea regarding the issue).

In “villes” near military camps that were set up to “service” the American troops stationed in South Korea, women were also, according to men serving at the time, restrained against their will, sometimes by local police under the conceit of their being indebted to their “bosses.” Here’s a dated piece in Time about it. These days, it comes as little surprise that everyone is busily denying any involvement, but eyewitnesses tell a different story.

Not just in those forms did exploitation persist: a certain percentage of Korean women were always sexually exploited, and most heavily by their own countrymen, a fact that was always kept to the side, and which remains true even today;  in fact, it’s been claimed the trade escalated after widespread “crackdowns” on prostitution in recent years. And now, the exploitation has spread to that of women from other backgrounds: the trafficking of foreign women into Korea and of Korean and other women abroad, for example, is a growing problem, and as outgoing tourism explodes in Korea, Korean sex tourism is also on the rise in places such as Cambodia, Mongolia, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, the mail-order bride industry in Korea continues to grow at a stunning rate, with some — not all, but some — cases being depressingly exploitative. This is provoking interesting reactions abroad, including a sharp decline in Korea’s reputation in these places.

[I should note, however, that despite some occasional horror, a number of foreign wives, while finding life in Korea difficult, do not perceive themselves as exploited or as victims, even if there is a degree of “rational exchange” involved in their marriage. More here. Indeed, not all prostitutes see themselves as victims, or dream of liberation from their circumstances, either, else they would not have hit the streets and demonstrated against the crackdowns. (Photos and a brief discussion also here, in the context of other unusual protests in Korea.) It’s a complex situation, is what I’m saying, and part of a larger context of systematic exploitation and disempowerment.]

To acknowledge this in a critical manner isn’t to excuse the terrible acts of Japan: nobody can or should ever try to excuse that. It’s just that those actions aren’t the whole story: they’re part of a bigger context which is often ignored in contemporary South Korean (and North Korean!) discussions of the subject.

But the discussion is rarely framed that way, in a historical context. To reframe it in discussions that way, if you are a Westerner, is sometimes to invite pretty harsh responses. Not always, mind you: I’ve had some really sensible discussions and debates, and learned a lot from those discussions, too. But some people just refuse to be–or are incapable of being–rational and resist reframing the “Comfort Women” in their larger historical context. Still, it leaves me leery of dealing with the subject too directly in a piece of fiction, although I have plans to do so at some point.

For this story, part of my solution for dealing with this is to having set in the future within a greater historical continuum of sexist exploitation, depicting it elsewhere (but not too far away), involving racial groups foreign to the debate in Korea, and linking it all to radical technological/social changes to show that show this is not just history, but a deep-seated issue that has persisted and mutated through radical cultural and social upheavals in Northeast Asia.

In any case, the story as it stands owes particular credit to Nick Mamatas, who knows who to write an instructive rejection letter; to feedback from several of my friends from Clarion West; and to help with Chinese terms (even if I ignored some good advice) from my long-lost friends Huang Xue (Faith) and 黄 绪 (Lisa).

8 thoughts on “Cai and Her Ten Thousand Husbands

  1. Not only did Western troops end up using Asian girls in the same way, during the lingering military presence that followed the war in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere, but, worse is the complicity of some Koreans in the enslavement of these women

    Back in the 1990s when this issue first came prominently into the public eye (not just in Korea but around the globe), I had some heated discussions with a few native Koreans (all men) who, in my opinion, were seeing this as nothing more than a Japan-versus-Korea issue. No, I insisted, it’s at the very least a gender issue (or whatever I would have called it then).

    That it became stuck as an us-versus-them issue was largely because the Japanese government denied any culpability. Then, when forced by Japanese historians to acknowledge government involvement, Tokyo chose to shirk responsibility by saying all was covered in 1965 (when both Seoul and Tokyo did wrong by those women). I mentioned a little about it in the last three paragraphs here.

    At any rate, the discussion in Korea is by no means uniform. There are loads who get it, and loads who don’t. Same in Japan, where there are lots of people who actively pursue the right thing on this issue.

    1. Kushibo,

      Yeah, the confusion of it as a nationalist (ie. anti-Japanese) issue, and divorced from it being an issue of brutal sexism and misogyny shared across national borders and cultures, is exactly what frustrates me the most. To see young people use it as an excuse to express well-rehearsed lines about how bad “Japan” is is depressing, especially considering how many Japanese are vehemently angry about their government’s handling of this issue.

      I’ve asked a number of Korean students whether they’ve ever read a single thing written by a Japanese writer who criticized the Japanese use of sex slaves (Korean and otherwise) during World War II, I’ve never gotten an affirmative answer. Which is weird coming from people who claim they care deeply about the issue as a point of national dignity. (It’s not my culture, but I’ve read such things. Hell, I even linked one above. And if the issue is that this stuff isn’t getting translated, that seems very sin-of-omission to me. Purposefully so.)

      It’s a complex issue, of course, and a touchy subject, but if you’re outright ignoring what people abroad who agree with and support you are saying, it seems to me there’s some issue as to what purpose your protest and raising the issue is meant to serve. (In other words, I think Korean groups protesting this issue would get more mileage out of teaming up with sympathetic groups in Japan than they are from painting Japan (or allowing Japan to be painted) as monolithically in denial about this part of its history.

  2. Gord,

    I just finished reading your short story live at Apex Magazine. I’m completely speechless. I just had to read this when I saw it was linked for more info on the story.

    So many questions are running through my mind right now but mostly I just want to say how much I admire your research and your handling of the subject in, what I can only imagine, was a difficult story to write for so many reasons.

    You are most talented and I’m in awe. Great work. Look for an email from me. I hate to gush in such a public space but I also don’t want to look silly for the questions I’ve got for you.

  3. Just read your story in Apex and wanted to mention that I also am really impressed with your writing and research that you put into this piece.
    These are issues that are so difficult to deal with as Westerners in Asia and you’ve done a fantastic job.
    I’m an American living in Beijing and have been giving a lot of thought about how to address sensitive cultural issues and history in my own writing and I’m really impressed at how well you’ve done it.

    1. Thank you, Bridget! These issues definitely are very difficult for a Western to deal with. Scary, sometimes, in the way of reactions one sometimes gets. It’s very fulfilling to see someone else who’s thought about how to deal with such issues in her own writing to praise how I’ve approached it. So once again, thanks, and I look forward to seeing some of your writing sometime, and seeing how you approach these kinds of delicate issues…

      (PS: Your photos, over at Flickr? Good grief, how wonderful. Inspires me to pick up my camera little more often myself!)
      (PPS: The Beijing Futurists? Is that an SF writing group or something? I can only dream of starting such a group in Seoul. Hmm. Well, maybe I should try, actually. Though I’m a little scared of what might come out of the woodwork.)

  4. Thanks for the props on my photos :)

    The Beijing Futurists are more of a discussion group about future issues and the direction of technology- not a writing group per say, but we do have a few writers in the group who get ideas from the meetings. We talk about things like the “future of art” or “nanotechnology” and bring any info we can find to share about the weekly topic. We also have affiliated futurist groups in Shenzhen/Hong Kong and Singapore.
    By the way- just noticed- I know a couple of your fellow Clarionites (or Clarion Westites?)- when I lived in Seattle I was in the Writers Cramp writing group with Caroline Yoachim and I also know Julie McGalliard.

  5. Thanks for sharing your photos!

    That futurists group sounds just as cool, maybe even more stimulating than a writing club in some ways — unless it’s the right people, some of those groups can become, er, less than inspiring.

    Unlike my classmates from CW, who are constantly inspiring. It’s cool you know Caroline and Julie. Six degrees of… well, take your pick! :)

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