▲ B2ST member Yang Yo Seob on Happy Together wearing a Heeum Bracelet given to him by one of his fans. Provided by kpopstarz.com
Last July, B2ST member Yang Yo Seob appeared on the TV show Happy Together wearing a rubber bracelet. The day after the show was broadcast, the Internet server selling the bracelets crashed because of the flood of incoming orders. Yang was lauded as a gaenyeomdol (an idol with social consciousness) as a result, and even received personal thanks from Nam Kyung Pil, chairperson of the Committee for the Prevention of Historical Distortion in Northeast Asia. Why? Because these bracelets are no ordinary bracelets—they are Blooming bracelets.
Comfort women were women and girls forced into prostitution to serve Japanese soldiers during World War II. Young women were abducted from their homes, or lured with promises of work in factories or restaurants. Once recruited, the women were incarcerated in “comfort stations” in foreign lands, deprived of their basic rights. Treated as little more than animals, they were forced to face several dozen men a day.
Yet the Japanese government has yet to formally apologize, or even fully acknowledge the occurrence of such atrocities. Comfort women protests have been held every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul for the past 21 years, without many clear results. Only 56 of the 234 registered comfort women victims are now alive, and the average age of these 56 survivors reaches 90 years old. The Japanese government, with their hands-off attitude toward the issue, seems to be waiting for the living evidence to die off.
Blooming Project, Blooming their hopes with you
The Blooming Project is one of the many enterprises under Enactus, an international non-profit organization consisting of university students dedicated to making the world a better place through entrepreneurial action. Its members are all students of Korea University (KU), who came together to tackle the oft-overlooked problem of comfort women.Forum for Halmuni” and established the brand “Heeum.” Using an internet website, they started selling awareness bracelets, reminiscent of Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong synthetic rubber cancer awareness wristband, so that they could not only raise money, but also raise consciousness concerning the issue of comfort women. All proceeds earned by “Heeum” go directly to the “Daegu Citizen Forum for Halmuni” to improve the well-being of comfort women.
▲ Blooming Project members Jin Se Eun, Kim Ji-Eun, Jung Hyun-min.Photographed by Chang Hae Sun
The People Behind it All
Surprisingly, though, members of the Blooming Project are far from larger-than-life history aficionados. In fact, Jung Hyun-min (’11, Business), the team leader of the project, says that it was only after he started participating in the enterprise that he was able to know the specifics and truly sympathize with the issue of comfort women. Other members cited wanting to do something worthwhile, and wanting to have diverse experiences as other reasons for joining the project.
Of course, the complexity of their task naturally takes away a good deal of their time. At the initial stage of the project, it was the members themselves that made the online shopping mall for Blooming bracelets, received orders, wrapped the bracelets for delivery, and posted them to their destinations. Nowadays, their partner organization, “Daegu Citizen Forum for Halmuni,” has taken over most of the work concerning the order and delivery of bracelets; however, the scope of Blooming Project activities has also branched out over the years, resulting in more work than ever. “We have to devote the majority of our free time to taking care of Blooming-related affairs—so naturally our grades have been impacted quite considerably,” admitted Jung with an abashed grin. He also added that since all members were mere student amateurs, dealing with business-related matters was extremely difficult. “I assume factory personnel and designers would often feel frustrated at our lack of savvy in how the trade works,” acknowledged Jung.
But their work is paying off. Originally, the promotional articles released by the KU Public Relations Agency were Blooming Project’s main method of advertisement. However nowadays, what with the celebrity power of people such as the aforementioned Yang Yo Seob or Seoul mayor Park Won Soon, word of Blooming bracelets is spreading quickly. “We have also organized ‘Heeum supporters,’ a group of mostly high-school volunteers devoted to publicizing the issue of comfort women along with Heeum’s activities,” added Jung. Thanks to such efforts, the bracelets are selling like hot cakes. Students of Hyosung Girls’ High School in Daegu even placed a group order of 1,000 bracelets. “We’re flooded by orders and delivery-related inquiries,” remarked Blooming member Jin Se Eun (’11, Classical Chinese) gleefully.
Not limiting itself to only bracelets, the Blooming Project now also sells Blooming bags and pouches. Blooming members came up with the idea to produce such products, but the actual designing was done through talent donation of fashion designer Lee Hyun Ji. She touched up pressed flower art pieces that former comfort women produced during art therapy to come up with designs for the canvas Blooming bags.
The Blooming Project has also undertaken a variety of other activities. To commemorate Independence Day last August, they organized “Bloom by YOU,” which aimed to evoke sympathy and awareness of the comfort women. Seoulites were given the opportunity to enjoy free music performances at Hongik University, make pressed flower art at Ttuksom Resort, and visit exhibitions of pressed flower art produced by comfort women.
Though the Blooming Project has contributed significantly to raising consciousness concerning the comfort women issue, it has yet to gain widespread awareness. Chung remembered his feeling of surprise upon finding out how some teenagers were uninformed about the issue. “You would think that Koreans who received history education at school would definitely know about comfort women, but even in the case of high-school students who volunteered for ‘Bloom by YOU,’ many of them said that they had first encountered the issue through the event,” he added.