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

by Karen Noll

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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