There were no Korean subtitles during the screening of “63 Years On” at the Pusan International Film Festival on Oct. 4, which was strange since the 60-minute documentary about the Japanese Imperial Army’s sex-slave policy during World War II is a Korean production.

Afterward, director Kim Dong Won apologized. He made one English version and one in Korean, and for some reason the wrong one was shown. The purpose of the English version was “to communicate (this issue) to other countries,” he said through an interpreter, by having it aired on North America and European TV.

There is still controversy over the sex slaves in Japan, where they are euphemistically called “comfort women,” with the government maintaining that there is no consensus about the number or whether they were forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers, or the military’s role in setting up and running the “comfort stations.” Outside of Japan, few people seem to know about it.

“It was hard to follow because there were no subtitles,” said one woman during the question-and-answer session. “But still I was moved by it. You said it was made for foreign countries, but I think even in (South) Korea there is not much awareness of the issue.”

Some Japanese media have covered the same victims as those interviewed in the film. They emerged in the 1990s after decades of silence to bear witness to the brutality they suffered: Wei Shao Lan, the Chinese woman extensively interviewed by Kinyobi Magazine; Jan Ruff O’Herne, the Dutch-Australian woman who believed that since she was white she would have a better chance than her Asian sisters of gaining the world’s attention; and Kim Hak Sun, the Korean woman who came forward first.

The stories are harrowing and graphic, but Japanese rightwing elements have claimed that such testimony does not prove the practice was widespread or that it was systemic. Kim produces material evidence, including documents linking the military to the frontline brothels. He also interviews Japanese scholars who have researched the matter and describe the rationale behind the policy, which was to curb the incidence of rape and venereal disease in conquered territories.

Some people at the screening felt that Kim was ignoring his own people in order to appeal to the world. One man went on and on for five minutes, refusing to give up the microphone to festival volunteers who tried to wrest it from him. He claimed that 95 percent of the comfort women were Korean and that the only reason the world ignored them was that “Korea is a small and powerless country.” He added that Germany is still paying for the Holocaust because “the Jews are very powerful.”

Kim said the 95 percent figure was invented by Japanese deniers to frame the controversy as one that is only between Japan and Korea. Kim sees it as a global issue, since many of the estimated 200-300,000 comfort women were also from China, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and the Philippines. The United States ignored the matter at the Tokyo war crimes trials (1946-48) in order to enlist Japan in its anticommunist drive, which was easy to do because the victims were all Asian women. Kim believes the only way to make Japan properly apologize for its deeds is through pressure from other countries. Resolution 121, passed last year by the U.S. Congress and which demands that Japan officially acknowledge its responsibility and apologize formally, is a start.

“Initially I wasn’t interested in this issue,” Kim said. “But then a Japanese group took out an ad in The Washington Post saying that these women were never kidnapped, that they were there to make money and some of them made more money than the highest-ranking officers. I thought that for them to say this was violating these women again, so I took on the project with a feeling of anger.”

That anger has since been tempered by an urgent need to give the remaining former sex slaves some peace of mind before they die, he added. “And by properly owning up to what they did, Japan will not only liberate the victims but also itself.”

“63 Years On” has been picked up by a local distributor who plans to release it theatrically in Japan next spring.

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