Why the ‘comfort women’ statues should stay — and continue to disturb


On holiday in Hanoi, I found myself trying to explain “comfort women” to my 13-year-old son. The historic settlement on Dec. 28 between Japan and South Korea had lit up everyone’s phones, and he wanted to keep up with this breaking news.

Hearing the phrase “comfort women,” he may have thought of his mom or of his two sisters, who were both home from college for a few weeks. But the image on our phones featured two dark-haired, dark-suited men shaking hands, a South Korean flag to the left, a Japanese flag to the right. Not many women or much comfort in the photo.

“So what’s ‘comfort women’?” he asks.

“Well, during World War II, the Japanese occupied many …”

I thought I could jump straight into the savageries of war. So many difficult concepts had been explained in recent days — North, South, ‘Nam, Cong, Nixon, Johnson, McCain, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh. We had visited the War Remnants Museum, talked with an ex-soldier at a noodle shop where the Tet Offensive had been planned, and stepped into damp cells at Hoa Lo Prison. We had even talked of Joan Baez while enjoying high tea at the Metropole. We had told him about the U.S. bombing of Hanoi in 1972 and about protest music like Baez’s album “Where Are You Now, My Son?”

Pho noodles and offensives. Scones and bombs. Comfort and conflict. He wants to makes sense of these contrasts. I try to continue.

“Well, during World War II, the Japanese army occupied many countries and the soldiers were away from home for a long time, and to keep them, well, comfortable, their leaders created places that were like houses of prostitution,” I say. “But many of the prostitutes were not there by choice. Maybe all of them. We don’t know for sure, really; it was a long time ago. Some say the women were forced into their role of comforting the soldiers. That makes it sexual slavery.”

“How many women were there?”

“A lot. Thousands. Maybe 30,000. Maybe 400,000. Like the whole population of Minneapolis. Unfathomable, right? But nobody knows for sure. We do know it went on for many years. Maybe 10 years or maybe 15.”

“Was it just the Japanese?”

Global sex trafficking conversations were not new to my son. He had read the young adult novel “Sold” by Patricia McCormick, a well-researched story of sex trafficking in Nepal and India. He had read about a disciplinary practice in which the female brothel owner spoons cayenne pepper into girls’ vaginas when they don’t cooperate. We had talked of pain — physical and emotional. We had talked of confinement, rage, resentment. We had talked of false promises and false hopes and false understandings.

So I try to proceed, try to explain why the Korean comfort women are not pleased with the handshake image with the flags, not pleased with the ¥1 billion they might receive, not pleased with the vast cavity of their nonrole in the dark-suited dance of diplomacy — not pleased at all.

I explain how a similar official handshake had been front-page news the year I turned 3 years old. And another front-page handshake when his oldest sister was born. I explain that everyone wants hearts to stop aching — the Japanese, the Koreans. But how can anyone cauterize cayenne wounds. What might soothe that pain? Words? Money? Deep bows? Or art?

I show him the statues of the “comfort girls.” I explain that there is little joy in the settlement because Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, would like the comfort girl statues removed from Korean soil, to become melted memories. Mr. Abe thinks maybe this spicy issue will then stop interfering with other issues.

I show him the aging grandmothers, the comfort grandmothers — so fleshy of face, so adorable in their scarves and winter hats. He sees bronze girls and living grandmothers, but where are the women, the comfort women? We wonder what might have soothed the women as they waited for hearts to stop aching. Maybe it was the conversations they had with their sons.

“Is Mr. Abe’s heart aching?” he asks.

“I hope so,” I answer. And I tell him about when my heart first ached for the comfort women.

It was three years ago, when I sat in a very stiff folding chair in Komaba Agora Theater near the University of Tokyo, where great thinkers gather in Japan. I watched a dance performer move and move and move until I wanted her to stop moving because my heart was aching. Mirei Yamagata, a contemporary butoh artist, had choreographed a dance piece she named “Shreds and Traces.”

In South Korea she had met the comfort women who live in the House of Sharing. She listened to their stories. She read more stories, then translated stories into movement. “The body memorizes everything.” she said. “This piece was made to untie the knots in people’s memories as a form of release.”

I was skeptical about a dance depicting the pain of comfort women. I worried that I would feel awkward and uncomfortable because the effort would fall short of the agony in the stories. At first my skepticism got in the way. But as Mirei danced, the discomfort of not trusting her became the ache of watching her. And as she kept moving and moving and moving, the pain continued to disturb me. And then I understood what she was doing and felt ashamed that I had doubted her dance. And the incomprehensible size of this pain took my breath away, leaving a nauseating void.

Art can help us give ourselves over to the unfathomable. It can disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.

Mr. Abe, give yourself over to the unfathomable. Go with Akie to see Mirei dance “Shreds and Traces.” You will feel discomfort. Your stiff chair will not coddle you. You will think about the bronze statues of the blank-faced Korean girls sitting stiffly in straight-backed chairs. You will know why the statues must stay. What can it hurt?

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  • Liars N. Fools

    Nicely put. The ears and eyes of Abe Shinzo are closed and his heart is not in this direction — unless Americans nudge him.

  • Ahojanen

    True to say, these statues are getting obsolete diminishing political clout. Besides, the statue looks ugly, big turned-off :)

    If they still feel upset with the one on the street, why not shut down the embassy for good and recall all staff members. Bilateral ties with the ROK are no longer a priority for Japan.

  • Kevin

    A very balanced perspective that she is giving her son – there is both good and bad in the world; we can’t just hide and deny the bad and focus solely on the good of our past – honesty and maturity can not survive in a world like that.
    Japan, take a deep breathe and open your hearts to the horrors that were committed on the Korean comfort women and you may be surprised by the kindness and acceptance in return from your brothers and sisters across the sea.

  • Kevin

    A very balanced perspective that she is giving her son – there is both good and bad in the world; we can’t just hide and deny the bad and focus solely on the good of our past – honesty and maturity can not survive in a world like that.
    Japan, take a deep breathe and open your hearts to the horrors that were committed on the Korean comfort women and you may be surprised by the kindness and acceptance in return from your brothers and sisters across the sea.

  • Jonathan Fields

    Pretty good job of being neutral when discussing the issue with your child. But it doesn’t matter what perspective you take. As we’ve learned from the comments section in recent weeks, most people will take any discussion by foreigners as an attack on Japan and Japanese values. Regardless of tenor.

  • jam awns

    The offensive statues of the comfort woman have been and will be the symbol of S.Korean betray, perjury and calumny.
    Comfort women dedicated to raise soldiers’ morale and spirits, and to prevent rape crimes in countries. Comfort woman earned monthly income as much as soldier’s annual income. Dedication of comfort woman was priceless as same as dedication of soldier was precious. Duty of comfort women was horrible such as extraordinary repeating prostitution, while duty of soldier was cruel such as murder.

  • jam awns

    [Points of Comfort Women issue regarding Korea.]

    1. Perjury was the testimony by Seiji Yosida in 1980’s. He was the ONLY person who confessed his crime about comfort women issue. Asahi Simbun had published articles 16 times by citing the Yoshida’s testimony as the true story over the world, and finally and officially admitted that his perjury was fabrication in August 2014.

    2. Groups of 200,000 young female workers organized on Japan worked at factories. On Dec 10 1991 and on Jan 11 1992, Asahi Shimbun deliberately distorted them as Comfort Women or highly paid prostitute for propaganda purpose. Asahi had already admitted it fabrication due to Takashi Uemura reporter’s confusion and immature review.

    3. Never appeared has even a person nor even CW’s family, who had witnessed the forced recruitment from annexation period to this day, though Korea has appealed thousands of comfort woman victims.

    4. Never found has been any evidence of JPN’s coerced prostitution in JPN gov., JPN military, Korean gov., Korean local gov., Korean police and the U.S. gov.

    5. Never existed has any comfort woman’s testimony saying ‘JPN moved me forcibly’, while existed testimony ‘Business agents kidnapped me’ and ‘My father sold me.’

  • jam awns

    JPN owes the responsibility for the consequence which made women must had lived on hardship. JPN have apologized her mis-achievement of the supervisory responsibility. Importantly, Japan was not the crime party.

    JPN had strong relation with the military brothels in the way showing moral examples of humanitarian manner, such as medical check, appropriate management and construction, but never with coerced recruitment.

    On Jan 7 2016, a Seattle-area investigation has resulted in the shutdown of two sex-trafficking websites, the shuttering of 12 brothels and the arrest of about a dozen people. In Seattle, U.S., prostituted women from South Korea were forced to work often for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to pay off debts.

    Do you think that the U.S. should apologize and compensate for those women?
    Please imagine,
    What do you think if creditors require you $1 billion repayment for your $1,000 loan without any document?
    How do you think if someone sues you as robber without any evidence and witness?
    Japan of course never deny crimes happened such as Semarang case. JPN was not perfect. Still today, rape and kidnap happen in Japan.
    What JPN denies is officially organized forced recruitment by JPN government and Military as well as the number 200,000 Korea appeals.

    JPN comfort women system was quite different from western slavery business that western hunted Africans as animals and brought them to new land as slaves and sex slaves.
    Imperial Japan did not systematically implement forced recruitment and management.
    Imperial Japan outsourced the leisure house called comfort house and Korean merchants recruited women by advertisement in newspaper.
    The word ‘sex slaves’ was invented to undermine JPN by a JPN communist lawyer, Etsuro Tozuka.

  • Toolonggone

    Quite gut-wrenching. I would say watching performance can be more effective in making dissenters outrageously disturbed and uncomfortable than an emotionless bronze statute right in front of the embassy or a photo showing high-ranked politicians from both isles shaking hands.

  • Gokki

    I guess i´m being stubborn but i do agree with the fact of removing the statues, Why would japan keep on carryying the scars of the past while other countries that were initiators or had a cunning participation during that period are nowadays treated with the utmost respects and forgiveness?…. also.. isn´t it feeding the so called “nationalism” that Korea in general fights so hard to maintain while also stubbornly disregard social advance( women equality, human traffic, misoginia in general, homophobia, extreme bullying) it makes no sense that the one of the most interesting countries also has a superiority complex as a whole….. but i don´t agree with hypocricy on which Shinzo Abe and his beureu reached out to “settle ” this matter as if it were mere business…… after all those women had to suffer through and through those dark periods, it is a cultural and emotional scar the seeps deep into the family and history of those involved, why is the japanese governmnet ( NOT ITS PEOPLE) so reluclant to bow their heads to a fact that must be compensated not in the shape of a coin, but the action …

  • take Uchida

    As you hear this issue,you would think what is the number of “200,000”.It is Asahi Shimbun,which is the newspaper company in Japan,that said this number at first in1991.To be exact, he linked Comfort Women with “(Joshi)TeiShintai”.
    Yes,from that time,this issue of Comfort Women has started.And he had said this number for more than 20 years.But he made long-overdue corrections over ‘comfort women’ in August 2014.He admitted in Japanese Edition.But he hasn’t have the article for correction in English edition!;
    Please think follows.
    ●In the WWⅡ, there were TeiShintai,who worked in factories etc.They were 200,000 women,which consisted of Japanese in the Japanese islands.In the Korean Peninsula,Japan had such organization,which consisted of 2-4 thousand Korean women.They went to the factories in the Japanese islands.
    ●Apart from TeiShintai,there were Comfort Women,10-20 thousand people,which consisted of Japanese,Korean etc.Mostly Japanese.
    ●US Army researched and concluded that “Comfort Women were well paid prostitutes”.
    To many people in Japan,it was clear that Comfort Women were prostitutes,because most of Comfort Women were Japanese.And the old people,containing Korean, have known that.