“Comfort Woman” and an Uncomfortable History The Arts of Diplomacy [IV]
More than 200,000 girls and women from Korea and other parts of Asia were kidnapped from their homes, trafficked, and held captive at front-line brothels by the Japanese army during World War II. These women and girls were given the euphemistic name “comfort women”. They were sexual slaves who endured rape, cruelty, and inhumane living conditions.
Only after Kim Hak-sun, a comfort woman victim, gave her first-ever testimony about her ordeal as a Korean comfort woman in 1991 did these crimes receive widespread notice. Due to this testimony, the topic gained international attention.
In this vein, the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan came up with the concept for the “Statue of Peace” – a memorial stone to be placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to honour the suffering endured by comfort women who were subjected to sexual slavery by the Japanese imperial forces.
The story behind “Comfort Woman” statue
“Comfort women”, also known as “military comfort women”, generally lived under conditions of sexual slavery during Japan’s militaristic period that ended with World War II. It was said that the number of victims was approximately 200,000, but the actual number may have been even higher. Women from Korea, China, Taiwan and other parts of Asia – including Japan and Dutch nationals in Indonesia – were involved in this tragic long event, the majority of them being Korean.
During 1932-1945, in order to enhance the morale of Japanese soldiers and ostensibly to reduce random sexual assaults, “comfort stations” were established where comfort women were held. The Japanese military lured some of the women by making false promises of employment, leading to a massive human trafficking scheme. Many others were abducted and sent against their will to comfort stations. They lived in harsh conditions, where they were subjected to continual rapes and were beaten or murdered if they resisted.
The Japanese government wanted to keep the soldiers healthy, therefore, the women were regularly tested for sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Many of the comfort women were executed at the end of World War II, as it was specified in several reports, including a study sponsored by the United Nations in 1996. The women who survived often suffered psychological illnesses, physical maladies (including sterility), and rejection from their families and communities. At the end of the war, many survivors in foreign countries were simply abandoned by the Japanese and lacked the income and means of communication to return to their homes (Lynch, 2022).
Honouring the victims
The Wednesday protest began in 1992 and, almost 20 years later, the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, came up with the concept for the Statue of Peace. The bronze statue was placed in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul on December 14, 2011, making this suggestion a reality. The married design team of Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung created the Statue of Peace. It shows a young woman with small hands and short hair wearing a chima jeogori, which was a hanbok modification popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seated and gazing at the Japanese Embassy in the heart of Seoul (Chuang, 2017).
The outfit of the statue recalls a period before World War II. The girls’ and women’s horrific kidnapping is shown by their hair being cut off. The lifted heels and fists depict a life of humiliation and isolation even after the person has returned home, as well as a strong will to keep going no matter what. The bird perched on her shoulder is a symbol of freedom, peace, and the connection between the living and the dead. The figure of an elderly woman may be seen in the statue’s shadow, which is depicted as a mosaic imbedded in the floor slab. It emphasizes the passage of time and the protracted search for justice. The white butterfly represents rebirth and the desire for unreserved apologies from the guilty. The vacant seat urges us to sit down next to the girl and experience the victims’ emotions. It embodies the pledge made by all upcoming generations to remember and work for a peaceful world. According to the creators, there are currently dozens of these sculptures in Korea and six elsewhere, including the US, Canada, and Australia.
The Statue of Peace honours these so-called comfort women’s suffering. It pays tribute to the survivors’ bravery for speaking out on August 14, 1991, and for working to stop similar horrors from happening again anywhere in the world.
Old issues reignited between South Korea and Japan
More than three dozen women’s groups in South Korea gathered in 1990 with the purpose of establishing the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan after the Japanese initially denied the responsibility. This council asked for an admittance of culpability, apologies, a memorial, and financial compensation for victims. It asked as well that Japanese textbooks be appropriately altered to reflect the realities of sexual slavery. However, the Japanese government denied evidence of obliging comfort women and rejected the calls for compensation, saying that all outstanding matters had been settled by the 1965 treaty between Japan and South Korea.
In 1991, the problem of Comfort Women gained international awareness when a class-action lawsuit was filed by a group of survivors against the Japanese government – suing for compensation on the grounds of human rights violations. In addition, a historian from Chuo University in Tokyo, Yoshimi Yoshiaki, published a report based on what he discovered in the archives of Japan’s Self-Defense Force showing the link between Japanese wartime military and government and the maintenance of the comfort-women system.
In 1991, it was publicly admitted for the first time by the Japanese government that comfort women stations existed during the period of World War II. Later, the government acknowledged its involvement in the recruitment and deception of those women and it apologized. However, the Japanese government denied any legal responsibility for the sexual assaults.
On numerous occasions, Japan has demanded that the statue be taken down, but Seoul and the victims in particular have persistently resisted these demands, claiming that the Japanese government has never formally acknowledged the direct role of its military in the comfort women issue. In reality, the Japanese government acknowledged this in 1992.
In order to resolve the comfort women issue, South Korea and Japan came to an agreement in 2015. As a result of this agreement, South Korea agreed to address the statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul appropriately and acknowledged that Japan was concerned about it. Since South Korea pledged to handle the statue issue but failed to do so, Japan declared in December 2015 that it would not pay $1 billion in compensation unless the Statue of Peace was removed from its location in Seoul. Busan had a second statue built. After that, Japan called off high-level negotiations and recalled two South Korean ambassadors. On November 21, 2018, South Korea likewise cancelled the 2015 agreement.
This effectively closed the comfort women foundation, sponsored by Japan, which was established to pay the settlement. Japan asserts that while the agreement is still enforceable, the placement of the statue is unlawful.
It has been challenging to stop the Statue of Peace from being damaged in South Korea up to this point because it hasn’t been designated as a public sculpture. By approving the necessary ordinance on June 30, 2017, the civil congress of the city of Busan established the legal framework for the statue’s defence.
The need for understanding
It is not certain that the “Comfort Woman” Statue will remain in its current spot in Seoul. Nevertheless, its message to Japan is clear – despite the official apology of Japan, more should be done to acknowledge the victims. For the Japanese government, the statue represents a provocation, while for hundreds of thousands of women, it is an immovable symbol of rebellion (Blakemore, 2017).
For sure, “Japan needs to understand the pain and grief caused by its colonial rule in Korea and its lingering effects, whereas South Korea needs to understand that post-war Japan has adopted pacifism not only as a state-ordained policy but as a ‘way of life’ for its people” (Dutta, 2022). It remains to be seen how the historical issue of the “comfort women” will be resolved taking into consideration the future generations.
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Blakemore, E. (2017). “Comfort Woman Statue Stokes Old Tensions Between Japan and South Korea”. Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/comfort-woman-statue-stokes-old-tensions-between-japan-and-south-korea-180961628/.
Chuang, C. (2017). “The Statue of Peace”. The Lily Project. Available at: https://thelilyproject.wixsite.com/home/project-1.
Dutta, A. (2022). “Comfort Women issue and its impact on Japan-South Korea relations”. ORF. Available at: https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/comfort-women-issue-and-its-impact-on-japan-south-korea-relations/.
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Lynch, A. (2022). “Comfort women”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/comfort-women.
Park, J. (2015). “A Statue of a ‘Comfort Woman’ Is Testing a Landmark Agreement between Japan and South Korea”. Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/comfort-woman-statue-testing-landmark-agreement-between-japan-south-korea-2015-12.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.