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A filmmaker’s six-year journey filming with Asia’s ‘comfort women’

‘The Apology’ writer and director Tiffany Hsiung was drawn to tell the stories of Japan’s surviving ‘comfort women’ [Tiffany Hsiung]

In 2009, a trip to Asia would change my life forever. That’s when I first met “The Grandmothers”. Prior to that trip, I knew very little about the atrocities that occurred during the second world war in Asia – specifically, the institutionalised sexual slavery system that held captive about 200,000 girls and young women.

When I asked the elders in my family to tell me stories about the past and what it was like during the war, they would shake their heads slowly and somberly say, “没有什么好说的, 不好听”, which means: “There’s nothing good to say, nothing good to hear.” And that was the end of my history lesson.

As a “CBC” (Canadian Born Chinese), I often felt conflicted culturally. The North American approach is to speak out against injustice, while the Chinese way of dealing with hardship is to “吃苦”, which literally translates to “swallow the bitterness”. And of course, one must always “save face” to preserve pride and honour. I was first confronted with this dilemma as an eight-year-old, after being sexually assaulted at home by a so-called family friend. I was paralysed by the choices I could make but, either way, I felt that my world had already been shattered.

I chose the temporary comfort and safety of keeping silent and, like the women of generations before me, I just learned to “swallow the bitterness”. Fast forward 17 years later, and I would meet these remarkable women in my film, The Apology. History refers to them as “Comfort Women” – a term used by the Japanese Imperial Army to describe the girls and women they forced into sexual slavery. But to me, they are the Grandmothers.

What started off as a journey to uncover this dark history of human atrocities soon turned into an exploration of perseverance. When Korean survivor Kim Hak-Sun first spoke out publicly six decades after World War II, in 1991, she set off a chain reaction. Other women in their respective countries started to speak out too, and the world would hear testimony after testimony from hundreds of women describing unimaginable crimes against them – all with the hope that justice would soon follow. Twenty-eight years later, their fight continues.

After the first few years of spending time with Grandma Cao in China, Grandma Gil in Korea, and Grandma Adela in the Philippines, it was clear there was more to this chapter in history, more than just the sexual slavery, more to these women that people weren’t seeing. I came to learn about their lives after the war, and how they had survived. They had incredible resilience, made tremendous sacrifices, and ultimately displayed the true power of the human spirit.

Over the course of six years, each of the communities we filmed demonstrated the importance of camaraderie. Knowing that you aren’t alone and that you will be supported after disclosing your past can make the difference between speaking out and living the rest of your life in silence, or carrying the burden and pain of what you experienced as a victim. Society has perpetuated a culture of shame that has resulted in decades, or even a lifetime of silence for survivors of sexual violence.

These days the “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements are sparking a global dialogue that de-stigmatises and reframes what it means to be a victim of sexual violence. The Grandmothers have taught me that although my past does not define me, the journey to come to terms with my past makes me who I am today. Discovering why I wanted to make this film was extremely difficult because I thought it was a story I wanted to tell when, in fact, it became a story I always needed to tell. It’s a story for the eight-year-old girl within me that struggled to tell her own family about the abuse. It’s a story for all the courageous Grandmothers who survived months and years of sexual slavery. It’s a story for every survivor that never had the space to be known outside the ugly crimes committed against them. It’s a story that brings to light the millions of untold stories of sexual violence that continue to go unheard.


By Tiffany Hsiung, Aljazeera


Japan’s ‘comfort women’ cannot be eradicated

IN December 2017, a memorial was erected along the Roxas Boulevard facing Manila Bay. It commemorated the Filipino comfort women who were forced to work as sexual slaves in Japanese military brothels during World War 2.

In late April 2018, after Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was “extremely regrettable” that such statues were erected, the Philippines’ Department of Public Works and Highways removed the statue. As Japan has an important role in infrastructure investment, President Rodrigo Duterte suggested the statue could be placed on private property.

On December 28, another statue for the former comfort women was installed in a Catholic-run shelter for the elderly and the homeless in San Pedro, Laguna. After the Japanese embassy in Manila stated such statues were “extremely disappointing, not compatible with the Japanese government,” the statue was removed two days later.

This time the Duterte government noted that the statue was “dedicated to peace and women’s empowerment,” used private funds and was built inside private property. It was freedom of expression. Lila Pilipina, an advocacy group for Filipino comfort women, said the Japanese government was demanding that we “forget its war crime.”

The removal of the second statue fosters a perception that there is a systematic effort by the Shinzo Abe government to eradicate public statues for comfort women. By the same logic, all Holocaust memorials should be taken down, along with other memorials dedicated to historical atrocities because they all are inconvenient reminders of the past. Yet, the German government has a very different stance toward the Nazi era. Mental lobotomy does not prevent real-life tragedies.

Until 1993, the Japanese government had denied the history of the comfort women. But that year, after a government study, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono recognized that the Japanese Imperial Army had forced comfort women to work in military-run brothels during World War 2. In 2015, Kono reaffirmed the statement.

So, why is the Abe administration revising history? The reasons are historical — and perhaps personal.

Sexual slavery, Nobusuke Kishi and Cold War
The number of Japan’s wartime sex slaves has been estimated at 200,000 women, although Chinese scholars in Shanghai, where a Japanese “comfort station” was established already in 1932, put the real figure at 360,000 to 400,000.

In revisionist Japanese history, the role of these women has been downplayed. The very term comfort women is a euphemism for the Japanese Imperial Army’s sex slaves. Most women were from areas occupied by Japan, particularly China and Korea, but also the Philippines. There were comfort stations in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, East Timor and elsewhere. There were also hundreds of “comfort women” from the Netherlands and Australia.

Unlike his predecessors as prime minister and head of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe has far-right views about history. He belongs to the ultranationalist Nippon Kaigi, which seeks to re-militarize Japan and to revive Imperial Japan and which, among other things, vehemently denies Japan’s comfort women history during World War 2. That’s why in the late 1990s, he led the controversial Japanese history textbook reform, which downplayed Japan’s war crimes, including crimes against comfort women.

But there is also a more personal reason. Abe comes from a political family dynasty. His grandfather Kan Abe and father Shintaro Abe were prominent politicians. His mother is the daughter of the highly controversial former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Starting in 1933, Kishi praised Nazi Germany as Japan’s model. In 1937, he signed a degree calling for the use of slave labor in Japanese puppet state Manchukuo. The enslavement of men paved the way for the exploitation of Chinese, Korean and other women as sex slaves in Japan’s occupied colonies in Asia.

Due to Kishi’s brutal rule in Manchukuo and his participation in the Tojo War Cabinet during World War 2, he was imprisoned for over three years as a Class A war criminal. In Germany, Nazi leaders were prosecuted, but not in Japan. When Washington launched its Cold War against the Soviet Union, it needed Japan as a key ally in Asia.

That’s when many Japanese war leaders were freed and enlisted by the United States to suppress Japanese communists and socialists. The most notable of them was Kishi, “America’s favorite war criminal.” who played a key role in the “1955 System,” which made the Liberal Democratic Party the dominant political force in Japan and America’s key ally until today.

Rising stakes in international debate
Wartime sex slaves are not “just history.” While Abe’s reformers have tried to open the economy to more women, his politics promotes a remilitarization that most Japanese oppose. And while Japan is one of the world’s major economies, it ranks only 110th worldwide in the Global Gender Report, far behind Myanmar and India. The lingering imperial fantasies contribute to Japan’s economic decline.

Forced silence about wartime sexual slavery is not acceptable in the rest of Asia. In December, 2015, Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was later impeached for corruption, agreed to settle the “comfort women” dispute. Tokyo would pay a paltry $8.3 million to a fund supporting remaining victims. South Korea would remain mum about the issue and remove a memorial statue for the victims.

South Koreans criticized the odd pact. After the imprisonment of Park, Seoul began to demand recognition for its victims, along with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The UN human rights commission (OHCHR) also called on Japan to acknowledge its violation of the human rights of comfort women, take legal responsibility and punish responsible individuals.

As international appeals did not work, the debate moved to a new stage. Recently, a South Korean court authorized the seizure of assets belonging to Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal, after the Japanese firm failed to comply with an earlier order to compensate victims of forced labor. Last week, Tokyo called the court decision “extremely regrettable,” while South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged Japan not to “politicize the issue” and to take a “more humble attitude towards the past.”

The issue of the comfort women should not be politicized. As the Kono statement evidences, most of Japan’s political leadership and most Japanese have acknowledged the comfort women history since the early 1990s. As polls indicate, only about a fifth of the population doesn’t — and that’s Abe’s core constituency.

If the Abe administration fails to acknowledge the past, it cannot win the future that overshadows a prosperous, but heavily indebted and declining nation.

The statues to commemorate the legacy of comfort women represent historical veracity and overdue moral right. Efforts to eradicate them will ultimately fail. When one is taken down, another will be erected elsewhere – until the truth prevails.


By Dan Steinbock, The Manila Times

Comfort women’s rally marks 27th anniversary

The 1,369th Wednesday rally takes place in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Jan. 9, 2019, marking its 27th anniversary. (Yonhap)

The 1,369th Wednesday rally takes place in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Jan. 9, 2019, marking its 27th anniversary. (Yonhap)


SEOUL, Jan. 9 (Korea Bizwire) — A weekly civic rally calling for the Japanese government to give an official apology and compensation to the Korean victims of the Japanese army’s World War II sexual enslavement marked its 27th anniversary Wednesday.

The first Wednesday rally was held Jan. 8, 1992, on the occasion of then Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s visit to Seoul. The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan organized it.

Some 200,000 Asian women, mostly Koreans, are estimated to have been forced into sexual slavery at front-line Japanese military brothels during the war. They are euphemistically called “comfort women.”

“We’ve long made a seven-point demand to Japan, including an official apology, compensation, punishment of those responsible for the crime, and the establishment of a memorial and a historical museum,” the council said in a statement during its 1,369th protest in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

“But the Japanese government has yet to admit the crime and to apologize for it,” it said.

The rally has been held usually in the presence of former comfort women, but they could not attend the anniversary due to health problems.

At present, only 25 former comfort women are alive in the country.


Article from Yonhap News

For comfort women who want an apology, time is running out

Statues of former comfort women who have passed away at the House of Sharing. /CGTN Photo


Yi Ok-seon lies on her bed in a small room at House of Healing in South Korea.

At 92 she is surrounded by photographs of meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and other dignitaries, and a few of her as a young girl.

But there is a gap in this photographic history. There is no trace of her time spent as a sex slave for the Japanese army during World War II.

Yi Ok-seon says she was dragged from her workplace at the age of 15, by two men, one South Korean and one Japanese. She was sent to China where she was forced, through violence, to work in a Japanese military brothel.

Yi was a fierce opponent of the compensation sent by Japan as part of a deal struck with South Korea in 2015 and, like many former so-called “comfort women,” applauded South Korea’s decision to disband the Japan-funded foundation set up to financially assist former wartime sex slaves.

“Japan brought the money to (South) Korea to reach an agreement. That money was given to us to shut our mouths up. That’s wrong. I felt good when they got rid of the foundation,” says Yi, perched on the edge of her bed with a fierce glint still in her eye as she speaks of the events that stole her youth.

Scrapping the compensation aspect of the deal was not the only part of the agreement to break down.

One of Japan’s key complaints was the comfort women statue outside its embassy in Seoul.

Under the compensation deal the comfort women statue was supposed to have been removed. Instead, it remained and about 50 more were placed across South Korea, a move that so angered Japan that last year it temporarily withdrew its ambassador from Seoul.

“As the agreement between (South) Korea and Japan has not been scrapped, we started protesting by insisting on the abolition of the agreement. We will help the grandmothers by protesting here until the agreement is scrapped,” says Kim Sun-kyung, a student who is one of the many volunteers who spend time in a makeshift translucent tent next to the statue to ensure it is not removed.

As part of the deal Japan did offer a statement of “apology and remorse” as well as compensation, to be distributed through the now defunct foundation.

But the director of the House of Sharing, Ahn Shin-kwon, says former comfort women were not consulted in the lead-up to the agreement, which they believe avoided explicit responsibility and was meant to silence the issue as much as settle it.

“Despite the war crimes, human rights abuses and women used as tools of war the agreement did not include education for the current generation and future generations, rather they tried to hide the victims’ problems forever,” says Kwon.

Ahn says the issue can be settled if a more human approach is taken that fully acknowledges historical wrongs and seeks genuine reconciliation.

Across the hall from Yi Ok-seon, another former comfort women Kim Soon-ok sleeps with the help of a respirator.

Time is running out for these women who continue to ask for one core thing, an apology from Japan that is linked to a full acknowledgment of what the women were subjected to.


By Jack Barton, CGTN

BTS fans donate $10,000 of goods to Korean ‘comfort women’

Fans of South Korean boy band BTS have donated nearly $10,000 worth of winter goods to Korean “comfort women.” File Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI


Dec. 17 (UPI) — Fans of South Korean pop sensation BTS have donated nearly $10,000 worth of winter goods to an advocacy group that raises awareness of the plight of Korean “comfort women” forced to serve in Japanese brothels during World War II.

BTS’ official fan club, ARMY, made the $9,720 donation over the weekend, the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan said Monday.

“On [Sunday], the fan club of idol group BTS, known as ARMY, provided support in the form of winter goods for the surviving victims of Japanese military sexual slavery,” the council said in statement.

The fund drive began on Nov. 9 and ended Nov. 30. ARMY solicited donations from members in South Korea, Japan, Europe and Latin America, and collected nearly $10,000 for elderly women who say they were repeatedly beaten and raped in wartime camps in Asia.

In their official statement, ARMY said fans agreed they wanted the “grandmothers” to stay warm during an increasingly cold winter.

The winter fund drive is not the first time BTS fans have forwarded contributions to comfort women. The group also donated $8,000 to the Korean Council in October, according to South Korean news service Tongil News.

The issue of Korean comfort women has driven a wedge between Seoul and Tokyo, where the conservative administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has refused to cancel a fund for the victims. Some survivors have said the money was privately sourced and therefore could not be accepted as compensation.

In November, a Japanese television station canceled a BTS appearance over a controversial t-shirt.

BTS member Jimin wore a top depicting the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan, which some in Japan saw as celebrating the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Fans of BTS have since donated to victims of the atomic bombs, according to the Korea Herald.


By Elizabeth Shim, UPI


‘Abused Korean girl’ statue removed after Japan protest

SAN PEDRO CITY—The statue of a young woman seated with her fists clenched on her lap has been removed following a protest from the Japanese Embassy in Manila, which considered it a memorial to comfort women, the sex slaves forced to serve Japanese invading forces in World War II.

The statue drew controversy that prompted Malacañang to issue a statement in its defense, amid condemnation of the Japanese government by a group of former comfort women and their supporters for demanding that Filipinos forget Japan’s war crimes.

“The statue subject of this current issue was commissioned using private funds and was built inside private property,” presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a statement late on Monday night.

“This, therefore, forms part of freedom of expression and the government cannot simply delimit or restrain the exercise of such right without a tenable purpose—the aforesaid right being protected by our Constitution,” he added.

Quiet ceremony

The 1-meter-tall bronze statue was unveiled during a small, quiet ceremony on Dec. 28 at the entrance of Mary Mother of Mercy, a shelter for the elderly and abandoned at Barangay San Antonio in San Pedro, Laguna.

A nun, who requested anonymity for lack of authority to speak to the media, told the Inquirer the shelter had been run for more than two decades by the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier but was owned by a female Filipino philanthropist from this city. She declined to identify her.

A small group of Koreans and some Filipinos attended the unveiling ceremonies. Among those present was the mayor of Gwacheon City, according to a copy of an invitation to the program, the nun said.

“Then [foreign] media started coming in, asking all these questions. There were also some people from the Malacañang media and the Japanese Embassy,” the nun said.

The statue was of a young, short-haired woman sitting on a chair with her fists resting on her lap. There was a bird perched on her left shoulder and an empty bronze chair to her right.


“According to some of the Filipinos [present during the unveiling], it was that of a 19-year-old Korean girl abused during the war. The empty chair, was just for people who wanted to have their photos taken [with the statue],” she said.

“It was mysterious. We were also wondering what it was all about,” the nun said.

On Dec. 30, a group of workers came back and removed the entire sculpture, leaving only an empty concrete platform.

Earlier that day, the Japanese Embassy issued a statement expressing disappointment over the statue, according to the Daily Manila Shimbun.

“We believe that the establishment of a comfort woman statue in other countries, including this case, is extremely disappointing, not compatible with the Japanese government,” the Manila Shimbun quoted the embassy statement as saying.

Women empowerment

The Manila Shimbun cited the inscription beside the statue, which said it was “a monument of peace and women empowerment.”

A similar statue, which various groups had interpreted as a recollection of the wartime comfort women, was set up in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul a few years ago, according to the newspaper.

“It didn’t look like [a statue of a] comfort woman to me. It was different from that one they built on Roxas [Boulevard] with the blindfolds,” the nun said.

Lila Pilipina, a group of former comfort women and advocates, on Tuesday assailed the Japanese government. “Today, it demands that we totally forget its war crimes and demands as well that we remain silent as it reestablishes itself militarily as a junior partner of US expansionism in the Asia-Pacific region,” the group said. —WITH A REPORT FROM DARRYL JOHN ESGUERRA


By Maricar Cinco, Inquirer

South Korea’s surviving ‘comfort women’ spend final years seeking atonement from Japan


Lee Yong-soo, one of less than 30 known surviving South Korean victims of Japan’s wartime brothels, displays a photograph in Daegu. (Photo: Reuters)


DAEGU, South Korea: When 17-year-old Lee Yong-soo returned home to South Korea in 1945 after being forced to serve in a brothel for Japanese troops, her family, having given her up for dead, thought she was a ghost.

“When I returned, I had a deep wound,” Lee told Reuters, holding a black and white photo of herself in a traditional Korean dress, taken in her first year back home.

She still remembers the blue and purple fabric of that dress, but other memories from those years are more traumatic.

“I thought I was going to die,” Lee said of the abuse and torture she endured in a brothel at an airfield in Taiwan used by Japanese kamikaze pilots in the final years of World War II.

Now 90 years old, Lee says she feels like a sincere apology from Japanese authorities for the wartime exploitation of so-called “comfort women” is no nearer now than when she returned home more than 70 years ago.

Japan says the claims have been settled by past agreements and apologies, and that the continued controversy threatens relations between the two countries.

Some historians estimate 30,000 to 200,000 Korean women were forced into prostitution during Japan’s occupation from 1910 to 1945, in some cases under the pretext of employment or to pay off a relative’s debt.

The term “comfort women” is a wartime euphemism translated from Japanese for the women, many from Korea, who were forced into prostitution and sexually abused at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

A 1996 UN human rights report concluded that the women had been “military sexual slaves”. Japan contests that finding, and a 2015 compensation agreement between Japan and South Korea did not address the issue of whether coercion of the women was a policy of imperial Japan.

Now with only 25 registered South Korean survivors still alive, there is a sense of urgency behind efforts by the women to receive a formal apology as well as legal compensation from Japan while their voices can still be heard.

Just days before Reuters interviewed Lee at her one-room apartment in the southern city of Daegu, a fellow victim had died, one of eight so far in 2018.

Another survivor, Kim Bok-dong, said she wanted to share her story, but suffering from cancer and expected to live only a few more months, she was unable to find time to speak.


Under the 1965 treaty, Japan reached a deal with South Korea to provide an US$800 million aid-and-loan package in exchange for Seoul considering all wartime compensation issues settled.

A South Korean panel late last year concluded the 2015 deal between South Korea and Japan had failed to meet the needs of former “comfort women”.

Acting on that conclusion, the South Korean government this week shut down a fund created under the 2015 deal and vowed to pursue a more “victim-oriented” approach, a move Japan said threatened the two countries’ relations.

A sense of shame and secrecy meant most tales of abuse and coercion at the brothels for Japanese troops were never discussed publicly, until Kim Hak-sun, one of the South Korean victims, came forward in 1991.

She and two other former comfort women joined a class action lawsuit against Japan, which prompted the Japanese government to acknowledge its role for the first time in 1993. The case was eventually dismissed by Japan’s highest courts in 2004.

Lee was one of the survivors emboldened by Kim’s move, and has since worked to raise awareness, including meeting the Pope and travelling to North Korea to meet other victims.

“Since 1992, I had been asking Japan to make sincere apology, that is what I want,” Lee said. “I have been doing this for 27 years, it doesn’t matter whether it was raining or snowing, or the weather was cold or hot.”


From 1995 to 2007, Japan created a fund from donations to make payments to women throughout Asia, budgeted money for their welfare support and sent letters of apology from successive premiers.

While a number of survivors have accepted compensation over the years, many South Koreans see the issue as unresolved because of what they consider a lack of sincerity from the Japanese government.

Despite apologies from Japan, for example, the first comfort women fund was criticised in South Korea for not being direct compensation from the state, and the 2015 deal was faulted for failing to include a clear statement of the Japanese government’s legal responsibility.

Japan says South Korea had waived all claims in the 1965 pact, and that under the 2015 deal, Japan agreed to provide the funds to help the women heal “psychological wounds”.

Critics of South Korea have also accused it of ignoring the complicity of some Koreans in the sex trade at the time.

Shutting the Japan-funded foundation is one of the most significant steps President Moon Jae-in’s administration has taken as it revisits the comfort women controversy.

In the past year, South Korea has also opened a new research centre aimed at consolidating academic study of comfort women, named the first Comfort Women Day and unveiled a new memorial in Cheonan, a city south of Seoul.

“We cannot ignore the truth just because it hurts,” Moon said this week. “For the sake of sustainable and solid Korea-Japan relations, we must face up to the truth.”

Lee said she thinks Moon is “trying his best,” and in a statement released from her hospital bed this week, Kim said the move to close the foundation restored her trust in the South Korean president.

Moon’s efforts, however, have faced pushback from Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Earlier this year, Japan formally complained after South Korea’s foreign minister raised the issue in a speech at the United Nations.

Japanese officials have expressed frustration at what they see as the South Korean government’s changing positions and efforts to revisit settled agreements.

For survivors like Lee, Japan’s protests ring hollow.

Lee said she was 16 when she was forcibly taken to Taiwan by a Japanese man in a “sort of military uniform”. When she first balked at entering the brothel, she said she was beaten and tortured with electric shocks. She was released in 1945, after about two years as a captive.

“The survivors of the heinous crimes the Japanese committed are dying day by day, and I bet Abe is dancing for joy,” Lee said, becoming animated as she described her frustration. “They should apologise, tell the truth, and pay the legal compensation.”


Source: Reuters