The Comfort Woman statue seems to glisten with tears when justice is denied by the Japanese Government and its long-time accomplice, the South Korean Government.
Every statue carries a meaning. While the Statue of Liberty promises freedom and consoles millions of U.S. immigrants, the Comfort Woman statues in South Korea commemorate victims who were forced into military sexual slavery during WWII. Since 2011, 37 Comfort Woman statues, also called the Statues of Peace, were installed in front of Japanese embassies in different parts of South Korea. However, the recent removal of a Statue in Busan sparked a public outcry, leaving many to wonder: what could now wipe away the tears of these comfort women?
Used as a euphemism, the term ‘comfort woman’ refers to teenage girls and women who were taken as wartime sex slaves by the imperial Japanese army. Around 100,000 to 200,000 women were coerced, abducted and cajoled into slavery. During WWII, these women were scattered across ‘comfort stations’ in Shanghai, Jilin and the rest of the occupied territories. The history of Korea, sadly, made this an almost uniquely Korean tragedy. In 1910, Japan had already defeated China and Russia, and colonised Korea. Hence, over 80 per cent of comfort women who were recruited systematically, were Korean. The rest were mainly Chinese, with some being Filipino, Dutch and Javanese.
For a long time, the voices of comfort women were silenced. In a Confucian society, the experience of being a comfort woman brought shame on the victims’ families. Meanwhile, the government and society gave them few opportunities to speak up. Seeing this, the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan came up with the idea of installing a Comfort Woman statue. In solidarity, South Koreans sculpted the statues and installed them in front of various Japanese embassies. The Comfort Woman statue is a bronze statue of a pre-teen girl sitting erect on a chair. Hollowly, her eyes stare straight at the Japanese embassy with her mouth shut. Sometimes, well-wishers put knitted neck-warmers on these statues.
Surprisingly, the statue caught worldwide attention after the 37th Statue of Peace was installed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Busan, the second largest city in South Korea. Shocking to the public however, the Busan provincial Government forcefully removed the statue, in what is believed to be an attempt to please the Japanese Government.
Despite this removal, the Japanese Government strongly protested against it, enforcing a series of retaliatory measures. In early January, it called back two Japanese Ambassadors, Yasumasa Nagamine and Yasuhiro Morimoto. In addition, currency swap deals were called off and high-level economic talks were suspended.
In response, the South Korean Government has expressed ‘deep regrets’ and stressed that it was the public, and not the government who removed the statue. The statement naturally provoked backlash from indignant South Koreans. An unidentified Buddhist monk, even set himself on fire in Seoul as a call for justice. Specifically, he protested against the 2015 bilateral agreement signed between the two governments, which demanded the removal of these statues. It seems that self-immolation is the only thing he felt was right to express his anguish and sorrow at what these women have gone through.
In True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women, Hwang Kumju recalled her painful past. Born into an aristocratic family, Hwang left to work for another family after the death of her father. In 1941, news came that the Japanese military factories would hire Korean girls for big money. Each household had to send a girl away. Still indebted, she ‘volunteered to go’. As she reflected upon this, ‘that action ruined my life’ she said. When the war ended, Hwang was the only one out of eight girls in her station who was able to leave. Hwang’s past left a permanent mark on her. For 13 years, she suffered from a venereal infection. She even had to have her womb removed.
As time passes, these victims will take their stories to the grave. These statues matter because they remind us of a past we should never forget. In this controversy, the South Korean Government was not just removing an object that happened to be on the street. The removal was an attempt to wipe out the painful memory of what a generation of Korean women had gone through.
Nothing short of a heartfelt apology could arguably wipe away the tears of the comfort women. Receiving little redress, Hwang ended her testimony with this small wish: ‘I would like to live the rest of my days without being ignored by others … and eventually to die without being the burden on others’. She will never become a burden on others.
The quest for justice for the comfort women, regardless of their nationalities, will continue to weigh heavily upon South Koreans and those who have a conscience. History, too, will do justice to every one of them, the victims of WWII.
Howard, Keith. True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women: Testimonies. London: Cassell, 1995.